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Outsourcing Science to Keep Results Untainted

State governments are using nonprofit organizations to conduct research that will guide future policy without being tainted by it.

Earlier this year, the state of California released a 263-page report about the process of turning offshore oil rigs into reefs for the benefit of marine life.

For the California Ocean Science Trust, which spent nearly two years preparing the document, the June afternoon was a victory for scientists everywhere. Whether the environmentalists in attendance appreciated it or not, the publication of "Evaluating Alternatives for Decommissioning California's Offshore Oil and Gas Platforms" represented a leap forward for the Golden State, which is turning to the nonprofit sector to produce research rather than requiring government agencies do the work.

Not that the messengers of uncomfortable findings are any more shielded from criticism. "It is a nightmare," said one critic of the California Ocean Science Trust report, charging the document was incomplete and misstated the law and the issues. "At this point, it seems like it was a big waste of money."

The report was unveiled in Santa Barbara, Calif., which sits just a few miles from 20 of the state's 27 offshore platforms and has been the epicenter of the decades-long rigs-to-reefs battle between environmentalists and everyone else.

Although agencies have traditionally handled such a task, it's become increasingly apparent, especially in these cash-strapped times, that their analyses can be tainted by economic realities or political concerns. And since those agencies are charged with implementing the policies that emerge from the research, it's an incestuous setup from the get-go, and at worst a fox-watching-the-hen-house arrangement.

What these nonprofits do, then, is handle the research very much like an academic institution, which includes assembling boards of experts to peer-review the work.

"That's the cornerstone of ensuring that the scientific process is in place," said Skyli McAfee, the director of the OST,  which was created especially to act as the state's nonprofit research group for marine resources. "That's not the approach that agencies take. They're often driven by really constrained budgets. The questions they're asking are not necessarily the questions that need to be asked."

The rigs-to-reefs report was the state of California's first official foray into this new world, although the idea was developed nearly a decade ago with the California Ocean Resource Stewardship Act of 2000 and was further encouraged by the Pew Commission's Report on the Oceans of 2003. "Everyone wanted an accurate assessment of what the best options were," said McAfee of her charge with rigs-to-reefs. "What we brought was a bona fide process."

To do so, McAfee's team assembled all of the peer-reviewed science available, synthesized it into a comprehensive report, and bounced it off their own expert panel. They then developed an interactive digital program for policymakers reading the report to weigh their values against the information, with the different economic outcomes predicted depending on their selections. (Try out the interactive program by following the PLATFORM Model guidelines here.)

And OST's method had impact: Just a few months after it was issued, the state approved a rigs-to-reefs bill, citing the report in the final legislation.

Perhaps more importantly, the nonprofit approach also allows a broad range of funding, often from the stakeholders whose livelihoods depend on the outcome of the research. That was very much the case for the rigs-to-reefs report: The work was funded by Chevron (oil companies stand to save a half-billion dollars if platforms can remain), the Sportfishing Conservancy and United Anglers (recreational fishermen see the underwater rigs as fish meccas), and the California Ocean Protection Council and the Ocean Conservancy (both of which have focus on protecting marine resources).

While taking their money makes for easy controversy, McAfee explained that, once the checks are written, the stakeholders are kept entirely away. "We are known for having a pretty tight process that builds a firewall between us and any outside influence," she said. "Of course, we're obviously not doing this in a panic room or an iron mountain somewhere. What we do is be very, very transparent about the process and very clear in our correspondence with everybody."

Nonetheless, stakeholders — especially the environmentalists in Santa Barbara who have fought against any rigs-to-reefs idea for years — felt overlooked, and argued that the public should have been more involved in the process. But McAfee said that locking them out was exactly the point. "We were just trying to spell it out so that everybody gets to see exactly what the facts are and then, it's perfectly appropriate for stakeholders to hash it out in the policy arena," she said. "Our sole business is to provide as bulletproof a process as possible, to do the very best we can to eliminate bias is very valuable to the state."

The California approach caught notice up the coast in Oregon, where Robert Bailey, manager of that state's Coastal Management Program, recently commissioned a global survey of similar programs.

"It's become really clear that Oregon doesn't have the resources to do the kinds of research monitoring and information development that's needed to do a good job on marine ocean planning and management," explained Bailey, whose process started after the state got flack for entertaining funding for marine reserve research from the Packard Foundation, which fishermen believed would have biased the state's agenda against them. "It took an ungodly amount of effort to get people's heart rates under control," he said laughing. He added that this mistrust of funding — at a time when private donations are on the rise while government money is dwindling — puts agencies like his in the undesirable middle. "We would have saved a lot of time and energy if such a mechanism had been in place." So his mission became discovering "ways Oregon could build a structure to enable us to receive funding from a variety of sources but use the funding to fund research in an open and transparent way."

He hired the Berkeley, Calif.-based firm T.C. Hoffman & Associates to conduct the survey, and they found that, in marine issues alone, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment are all examples of government agencies relying on nonprofit research along the East Coast.

Indeed, this arrangement is essentially what the National Academies have been doing since the 1800s, and it's also prevalent in other fields, such as health research, where the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Cancer Society are longtime research leaders. And then there's SRI International (formerly the Stanford Research Institute), which has been doing this sort of work for 60-plus years for such diverse agencies as the Air Force, Department of Education, National Science Foundation, and the states of Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

What's new, however, is for states to be actively creating and fostering their own nonprofits to handle this work.

T.C. Hoffman's principal, Tegan Hoffman, believes it's a positive shift. "I think 'outsourcing' science can have great value," she explained, so long as the research is kept separate from the politics and funding. As part of her research for Oregon, Hoffman interviewed a number of resource managers around the world. "They talked about having scarce financial resources and human capacity to finish all of the tasks that they wanted to complete for science-based decision-making," she explained. "This is a real issue, especially as state governments continue to cut programs."

The traditional way of having agencies handle the research — with an eye on outcome more than on data — is problematic, Hoffman said.

"Policymakers make decisions, design policy and negotiate and solve problems by taking into account the interests of many stakeholders. Science should not be 'handled' by them, but rather should be informing them so they can assess trade-offs, emerging issues and the costs and benefits of their policies."

Hoffman's research was welcomed with open arms in Oregon. Bailey believes that the state Legislature will create the Oregon Ocean Science Trust in early 2011. "We hope to establish a very clear firewall between objectives, the funders and the results of the science," he said. "Trust is really the operative word in many ways."

Another significant player in this shift is Amber Mace, the former executive director of the California Ocean Science Trust and current executive director the California Ocean Protection Council. She tipped Oregon to the idea and has been a strong proponent of the process in California.

Nonetheless, Mace wants to be clear that she and her colleagues are not discounting the work of government employees. "We have some excellent agency scientists with the state and federal systems and they do a fantastic job, but in any kind of scientific process, you have multiple experts from outside that bring balance and credibility to the integrity to the work the government is doing," she said.

"This ensures that we have the most accurate information to inform decision-making so the decisions are balanced in terms of all the factors that weight into the decision. We want to really be using the best available science to have the greatest understanding with the least amount of uncertainty."

But Mace also understands that science is not the 'be all and end all' when it comes to policy. "While in graduate school training to be a scientist, I thought that science alone was where decisions should come from," she explained. "But my thinking has since evolved to understand that science informs decision-making as do many other factors. It is critical that science is included, and that the science is sound, but it doesn't make the decision."

At least now, however, policymakers in California and likely Oregon will be sure that the science they have — at least when it comes to marine resources — is objective and clean, so those decisions will be based on reality rather than politics.