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Cut Off and Quickly Restored

February 9, 2006

Days after a federal agency suspended funding for a controversial study on post-fire logging, angering Oregon State University and members of Congress, its officials reversed themselves Wednesday.

Events moved fast in recent days in a controversy that began a couple weeks ago. A group of nine scientists, six of whom are faculty members in Oregon State’s College of Forestry, had written a letter to the journal Science last month to try to delay publication of a study they felt was flawed.

The one-page article had already been published by Science Express, where Science publishes articles that are deemed timely and important before they appear in the magazine. The study contradicted prior findings by some of the upset faculty members -- who said the study’s conclusions far overreached its data -- that logging a burned region speeds recovery. Science did not stop the print publication of the article, which had been peer reviewed.

But last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management cut off funds for the project because, according to a February 1 letter from its Oregon office, the study violated stipulations of the grant contract by attempting to influence Congress, and by not consulting one of the parties named in the grant before publishing. 

The original abstract of the study, whose lead author is a graduate student at Oregon State's College of Forestry, mentioned a bill in Congress that it said “would expedite post-fire logging projects, citing reforestation and fuel reduction among its goals. To help inform the dialogue...”

The letter from the Bureau of Land Management said that the abstract violated the ban on using the grant money “to influence in any manner a member of Congress … or an official of any government regarding legislation.”

Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science, said that the authors had asked that the part of the abstract in question be removed before publication, and that it appeared only because of “a rather complicated mix up between the authors and editors.” The phrases did not appear in the print version. “We meant to take it out but in fact didn’t,” Kennedy said. “BLM can’t blame the authors.”

Kennedy said that he has never dealt with a case where funding was suspended because of something published in the prestigious journal. He said that “it’s clear that they’re trying to punish the authors of a paper whose conclusion they don’t like.” The government has cited studies that say post-fire logging helps restore forests to justify opening large swaths of land for logging and reseeding in recent years.

One such study was done by John Sessions, Oregon State university distinguished professor of forest planning and engineering and one of the authors of the letter that sought to delay publication. Neither Sessions nor the other faculty members who commented in previous articles about the controversy could comment about the latest developments Wednesday, as the matter is now being handled by university administrators.

The second claim the Bureau of Land Management’s letter made was that the agency’s project inspector was not consulted before the Science article was published.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), wrote in a letter to the Interior Department's inspector general that he was "concerned that in this case funding may have been frozen to punish researchers for reporting findings that are unpopular with the administration.” He continued, “After all, there’s no such thing as a democracy that silences academic research.”

Wednesday, Oregon State sent a letter to the bureau responding to its charges and asking that the funds be reinstated.

The letter pointed out that Science had publicly taken responsibility for the mention of the legislation in the abstract, and that two of the paper’s authors had shared their findings with the project inspector. The letter says the authors had the “sense … that the project inspector was supportive of publication submittals…. If the Bureau intended a more formal consultation process, we apologize for the misunderstanding.”

In the letter Oregon State also apologized for not including a disclaimer, required by the project orders, that said that nothing in the article represented the opinions or policies of the U.S. government. “The University acknowledges and apologizes for its oversight in failing to include the disclaimer,” the letter to the federal agency reads.

Late Wednesday, after standing by the decision to cut off funds for the grant, agency officials restored the money.

 

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