Help From My Friends, Part 1: Distorting the Peer Review Process

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on May 15, 2015 - 8:10am

In our “Help From My Friends” series, we'll explore the breakdown of the peer review process in the science being used by federal agencies for endangered species listing decisions, specifically as it relates to the Greater Sage-Grouse.

In this case, “peer review,” normally a rigorous, scientific process, is spin for asking somebody in a close circle of friends to approve your work. It seemingly doesn’t involve critical review from unbiased sources meant to ensure the quality and accuracy of the work. The examples that follow in this series are tidbits from our Greater Sage-Grouse Data Quality Act (DQA) challenges.


As a brief background, we filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get data that should have been made public but the federal government was withholding. Once we finally received that information—after considerable footdragging by the agencies—a coalition of 19 counties and many other stakeholder groups analyzed it and determined the peer review process lacked scientific rigor and integrity. The coalition of filed DQA challenges questioning the selective use of faulty information that ignores a large body of scientific literature on the sage grouse.

Flawed Analysis

We start the series by spotlighting the U.S. Geological Survey’s Monograph used by the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) as it makes a listing decision on the grouse. The Monograph is a highly influential document that serves as the “bible” of science, as far as the Interior Department is concerned, on Greater Sage-Grouse.

A particularly influential study, Garton et al. (2009, 2011) was cited over 68 times in FWS’s 2010 warranted-but-precluded decision.  

The Garton study is often used by the agencies instead of actual population data to support the narrative that oil and natural gas has a large impact on the grouse.  Yet, we know from our FOIA requests and lawsuits, the peer review process was distorted.

Specifically, the agencies ignored a reviewer whose critique would have rendered the Monograph report invalid. That reviewer had this to say about the USGS report, “[I]t is an ambitious, but flawed analysis. Model assumptions are not always made clear and when they are, they open doubt about the results and the authors.” 

In this case, although the reviewer was part of the circle of friends allowed to peer review the report, even he couldn’t countenance the shoddy science. We wonder if they still invite him to parties?

More to Come

Additional details will come as we continue this series. In the meantime, more information is available on our DQA challenge webpage