An environmental group has filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act for details about how agencies decided who would get millions of dollars of pfiesteria-related research grants.

But the group’s action has raised a stir among many in scientific community who believe the broad request threatens the traditional scientific peer-review process, which is usually kept behind a cloak of secrecy.

Others see it as an attempt to impede the work of laboratories that have questioned previous pfiesteria research.

The Waterkeeper Alliance filed the request in early August demanding that federal agencies administering the grants and researchers who received the money make public all of the records related to the pfiesteria research.

The request covers $12 million of the $16 million spent on pfiesteria research by the federal government since it was implicated in Pocomoke River fish kills in Maryland in 1997.

The Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella group representing locally based Riverkeeper organizations around the country, contends that many researchers who got the grants did not have the expertise to work with pfiesteria.

Its request came days after several research teams from different universities, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published studies that raised questions about pfiesteria’s toxicity, and whether it actually had the complex 24-stage life cycle that had been described. (See “Pfiesteria may or may not be toxic, but the dispute over the issue is,” October 2002 Bay Journal.)

Rick Dove, southeastern representative of the Waterkeeper Alliance, charged that the grants had “more to do with politics than science.”

He contends that the grants went to skeptical researchers who did not have the skill to work with toxic pfiesteria strains because the government wanted to quell concerns over pfiesteria to protect polluters. “The public needs to understand that the scientific process is not pure,” Dove said.

Instead of helping to answer pfiesteria questions, he said, the new research results, conducted with nontoxic strains of pfiesteria, only inflamed controversy. “We have believed all along that this was the result we would get in the end.”

The environmental group believes more of the money should have gone to JoAnn Burkholder, and colleagues of the North Carolina State University biologist who co-discovered pfiesteria in 1991, because they were better able to work with toxic strains of the algae.

But even some of of Burkholder’s scientific collaborators are disturbed by the broad request, seeing it as counter-productive and making needed cooperation within the scientific community all the more difficult.
Donald Boesch, acting vice-chancellor of the University of Maryland System and president of its Center for Environmental Science, labeled the Freedom of Information Act request a “foolish, foolish witch hunt.”

“Science is about doing things that we haven’t done before,” he said. “We always write proposals that say we will do things that we haven’t done before.” Boesch said the request would only fuel ongoing controversies surrounding pfiesteria research.

The request affects dozens of researchers at multiple universities and laboratories who contend they will have to mine through years of e-mails and notes to find all the requested information.

“People are going to shut labs down for six months do to that,” said Wolfgang Vogelbein, a fish pathologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who was the lead author of a recent paper showing that pfiesteria can kill fish without producing a toxin. “That is incredibly counterproductive because it will shut pfiesteria science down.”

Vogelbein said his work was funded because other scientists wanted to learn more about laboratory observations at VIMS that suggested nontoxic strains of pfiesteria could kill fish through direct physical attack at rates similar to those of toxic forms of the algae.

“We presented this as something that could potentially be very important and needed to be followed up upon,” Vogelbein said. “Our peers agreed, and so did the funding agency.” The results were presented in the journal Nature in August.

One of the most serious concerns among scientists is the Waterkeeper Alliance’s request for peer reviews of grant proposals submitted to federal agencies, and the names of reviewers. Before making grant decisions, agencies typically submit research proposals to other scientists for critical reviews. But the reviews are traditionally kept anonymous to encourage candid comments and allow “review without retribution.”

The anonymous feedback is usually given to grant applicants to encourage revisions.

“Part of the ability of scientists to be candid about the good and the bad is having a certain amount of anonymity,” said Joanne Carney, a senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It could make it much more difficult to get highly qualified peers to participate if they feel that their anonymity will be compromised later on.”

Gary Matlock, acting director of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, said his agency was working to comply with the request, but said it was reluctant to provide peer reviews, or the names of reviewers.

“When we solicit reviewers, we do so with the understanding that their reviews will be confidential,” he said. NOAA may consider supplying reviews with the names of reviewers removed, he added.

Dove said the Waterkeeper Alliance would go to court if necessary to get the requested information, including names of reviewers. “We need the physical evidence,” he said. “We want to purify the scientific peer review grant process.”

Carney said the peer review process would “unravel” if researchers feel they will have their perspectives subjected to such requests. But, she added, “it is a double-edged sword. The peer process is not perfect. I don’t know that there is a perfect process. But it tries to be as fair as possible.”