Like most young boys, I hated going to the barber. The one part of the experience that I did look forward to, though, was the chance to read the shopworn old issues of Popular Science and Field and Stream plentiful in my neighborhood barbershop. While this early stimulus in science and nature no doubt had some small influence on my subsequent education and career, my experience has convinced me that often the most important kind of environmental science is unpopular science.
I was reminded of this when I read the article headlined "Controversy sidelines proposed study of Bay menhaden" in the January-February Bay Journal. That article related that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission rejected its Recreational Fish ing Advisory Board's recommendation to support a modeling study of the food chain connections related to menhaden in the Bay, reportedly after considering objections from the commercial menhaden industry. Industry representatives feared that information from the proposed study would be misused and doubted that there was enough information about the interactions to develop a model with sufficient precision to be of use to managers. Also, a National Marine Fisheries Service peer review of the proposal for the monitoring study stated: "because there is a very high potential for this study to be misused, a high degree of caution must be used in presentation of the findings."
My point is not to defend the merits of the research, even though the researchers who proposed the study were formerly associated with my Center, I have not evaluated their proposal. Rather, I want to argue that fear about how the results of a s cientific investigation will be used is not a good reason for withholding support if that investigation addresses issues truly relevant to managing the environment and its resources and it is judged to be scientifically rigorous. Moreover, I submit that any of the key advances in our understanding of the Chesapeake Bay resulted from scientific research which was, at the time, unpopular, in that it threatened conventional scientific wisdom or management assumptions.
Not long ago, three of my colleagues, Tom Malone, Walt Boynton, Court Stevenson, teamed up with journalist Tom Horton to review in depth the history of the relationship of research by the science community and the formulation, implementation and evaluation of nutrient control strategies for the Chesapeake by the management community. They cited newspaper accounts to show that in the late 1960s, when scientists were first uncovering evidence that nutrient pollution posed a widespread threat to the Bay, state officials labeled such reports "irresponsible." Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the concepts of scientists on the importance of nitrogen in overenriching the Bay, the role of excess nutrients in the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, the importance of ground water in nutrient losses from agricultural fields, and the feasibility of biological nitrogen removal in waste treatment were successively met with skepticism and resistance from the management community. Much of the "unpopular" early research on these topics had to be "bootlegged" on support from relatively unrelated programs. Yet, these concepts are now the tenets of our Bay restoration strategy!
Another colleague, Vic Kennedy, chronicled the long history of ignored scientific understanding which was "unpopular" to political or economic interests in the management of the Maryland oyster fishery.
Scientifically based recommendations fro m generations of scientists "from W. K. Brooks before the turn of the century and R.V. Truitt during the first half of this century to many others still alive " on such issues as minimum harvest size, return of cultch, seasonal closures, and leasing of barren grounds for oyster culture were not only ignored but unwelcome. The result was the near-elimination of this once-defining resource of the Chesapeake.
I am not suggesting that all ideas of scientists are correct, nor that all research proposals from even smart scientists should always be supported. Rather, I want to make it clear that the scientific method requires that scientists attempt to d isprove hypotheses, including those underpinning widely held beliefs. This means that the operating assumptions of all of us, including resource extractors, regulators, environmentalists and yes, even scientists, are subject to challenge. Resistance to such challenges and frustration with the challengers, are human responses, but we all ought to allow more leeway to reasoned challenges of what we believe.
In fact, I worry that one price of our success in the Chesapeake Bay Program may be growing resistance by our now more mature agencies, management com-mittees and scientific advisory and review panels to new scientific ideas and approaches. Let us never forget the history of heresies and the unpopular science which got us here!
In a recent seminar on the federal role in ecosystem management, Ann Swanson, Mike Haire and Paul Swartz listed as among the most important lessons learned from the Chesapeake experience were (1) beginning with a solid, scientific foundation for decisionmaking which combined theory, detailed knowledge, modeling and monitoring and (2) testing theories and management approaches on small scales before transferring them more broadly. Returning to the menhaden controversy, based on the Bay Journal ar ticle it seems to me that there are three potentially conflicting interests here: the menhaden industry does not want its harvests reduced; recreational fishing interests are concerned that prey populations of sport fish may be reduced by the menhaden ha rvest; and still others wonder whether delaying the harvest to allow the menhaden to feed longer in the Bay could remove excess nitrogen from the overenriched Bay. Isn't this just the kind of complex problem that requires innovative (and maybe even unpopular) scientific approaches, not just one study, which combine theory, detailed knowledge, modeling and monitoring for optimal management of this ecosystem and its resources?
1 Malone, T. C., W. Boynton, T. Horton and C. Stevenson. 1993. Nutrient loadings to surface waters: Chesapeake Bay case study. Pages 8-38 in: M.F. Uman (ed.). Keeping Pace with Science and Engineering. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
2 V.S. Kennedy and L. L. Breisch. 1983. Sixteen decades of political management of the oyster fishery in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. Journal of Environmental Management 16:153-171.
3 Pesiri Swanson, A., M.S. Haire, and P.O. Swartz. 1994. Chesapeake Bay: Managing an Ecosystem. Issues and Actions, Chesapeake Bay Commission, Annapolis.