Article sparks scholastic spat
OSU's reputation - After some forestry profs try to squelch research, the academic community debates ethics
Sunday, January 22, 2006
MICHAEL MILSTEIN
The Oregonian
Scholars at Oregon State University and elsewhere said they fear the attempt by a group of College of Forestry professors to have a graduate student's research withheld from a top scientific journal may mar the school's reputation.

"They've got faculty members over there concerned that their academic freedom is disappearing," said Daniel Edge, head of the university's Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It is damaging."

The research, centering on Southwest Oregon's Biscuit fire zone, concluded that logging forests blackened by wildfires slows recovery. A small group of professors in OSU's College of Forestry, including some who had argued that logging and replanting speed recovery, attempted to persuade the journal Science not to publish the research unless it answered their criticisms.

That attempt failed. The study was released in Friday's issue of Science, where all research is reviewed by independent scientists before it is published.

But the effort to halt the release, an extremely rare move in academic circles, has ignited concerns about whether OSU researchers whose work runs against conventions face pressure to keep quiet. The furor has been especially intense in the College of Forestry, in small part funded by logging taxes and among the top forestry schools in the country.

OSU Provost Sabah Randhawa said the professors "perhaps went a little too far" in trying to hold back the research.

But, "scientific inquiry is really based on openness and the ability to disagree with one another," Randhawa said. "As far as the process of researchers agreeing or disagreeing, I feel pretty good about that at OSU."

The research published in Science by OSU graduate student Daniel Donato examined forests burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire, focus of a nationwide debate over whether to log charred lands or leave them alone. Donato and five other scientists found that logging destroyed seedlings growing back on their own and littered the ground with tinder.

That undermined the arguments behind a Bush administration plan to log and replant thousands of acres that added up to one of the largest federal timber sales in recent memory.

The logging strategy was based in part on a report co-authored by OSU Professor John Sessions and Professor Emeritus Michael Newton, who argued logging and replanting would restore forests faster than they would recover on their own.

That report has faced its own criticism for not undergoing as thorough of a review process as studies published in Science, for instance.

Sessions and Newton were among nine OSU professors and U.S. Forest Service researchers who asked Science not to publish Donato's paper. They said it looked at too short a time period to draw conclusions about forest recovery and said it offered "no new science."

The group was concerned about upholding the integrity of forest research, Sessions said.

Hal Salwasser, the dean of the College of Forestry, testified to Congress on behalf of a bill that would accelerate logging of burned slopes. He sent a memo to faculty questioning Donato's conclusions, but said he did not support the attempt to have the paper withheld.

Salwasser, Sessions and others became too invested in arguing on behalf of salvage logging to realize that their handling of the situation was wrong, Edge said.

"The dean and a few folks over there have taken a very pro-industry approach, and I think really disadvantaged a majority of the college," he said. "Five years from now, nobody will remember the Biscuit fire, but they'll remember some ridiculous behavior that happened in the College of Forestry. The university and the College of Forestry are going to be viewed in a bad light, I think."

Richard Waring, an OSU professor emeritus of forest sciences, said graduate students may be intimidated by the reaction Donato has faced within the College of Forestry. That may make it more difficult to attract top students to the school, he said.

"I'm saddened, to say the least," he said.

Thomas Hinckley, a professor in the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington, said he would now worry about recommending that students consider attending OSU's College of Forestry.

"Instead of using the scientific process, Sessions and others became the worst form of academic bullies," Hinckley said. "The fact that neither the dean nor the provost have condemned their actions speaks strongly about the climate at OSU."

But Randhawa said he hopes others do not make broad generalizations about OSU based on a single episode.

"If there are perceptions, we certainly need to make sure we address them," he said. "I think and I hope the best ones to address that are the scientists."

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com