CORVALLIS, Ore. - A system that's been successful in the field of medicine to compare research results and seek a scientific consensus is being considered for use with natural resource management in Oregon - as a possible way to get past "dueling studies" and prolonged court fights.
A report on the concept, called "systematic evidence review," is being prepared by the Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University and will be presented to the Oregon Board of Forestry at its Jan. 4 meeting in Salem. The board has not yet determined if or how information in the report may be used when science is considered in future policy issues.
The problem, officials say, is that natural resource management approaches have too often become paralyzed by conflicting studies, ecological complexity, legal disputes and different goals. There's no guarantee that systematic evidence review, an approach that has been highly successful in medicine, will translate effectively to natural resource issues. But it may be worth a try, some experts say.
"In medicine, this approach emerged about 20 years ago in the United Kingdom as one way to bring some consistency and optimal practice to medical treatments," said Jeff Behan, an OSU research assistant with the Institute for Natural Resources. "It may help sort through the problems with dueling science, in which interest groups point to different studies and it's very difficult to reach a consensus."
The Board of Forestry identified systematic evidence review as an issue of interest, based in part on the testimony of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, said Rosemary Mannix of the Oregon Department of Forestry. The Institute of Natural Resources was asked to develop some background material and ideas on how these principles could be adapted to the natural resources arena.
This system is essentially a "turbo-charged literature review" with a clear protocol that's outlined before the review begins, Behan said, so the process is transparent and everyone can see how a conclusion is arrived at, on what basis, and with what qualifications. It can consider both peer-reviewed and published studies as well as other evidence, but the quality of evidence may be ranked and weighted based on various criteria. At the end of the process, the goal is to identify a credible, scientific consensus, even if one or more studies are at odds.
But the problem, researchers say, is that the natural world is not as simple as the human body.
"In the case of medicine, you are usually considering the effect of a single treatment on a single problem in a single species," Behan said.
"And the overall goal is also pretty clear - the health of the patient. For instance, you might want to see if aspirin reduces the risk of heart attacks. But in the natural world with multiple species, many variables and conflicting goals, it's often not that simple."
The strength of this process, experts say, is that you can start with a clearly defined and focused question, outline a protocol that will be used for reviewing evidence, decide what studies are relevant or not, and at the end of the process have some assurance that the process was both fair and comprehensive.
There remain questions about the use of this on issues that have limited data and broad scope.
Medicine has tens of billions of dollars of research each year to do exhaustive studies, while natural resources gets a tiny fraction of that - and even in medicine the results are often inconclusive due to inadequate data. Laboratory controls and double-blind studies in medicine allow a measure of certainty that is often lacking in the natural environment.
In medicine, the results can often be extrapolated to other people with similar medical situations, but in the natural world, ecosystems can vary widely over short distances. And the narrow focus of medicine is the opposite of an ecological setting with multiple species and poorly understood interactions.
"It won't be difficult to criticize the use of systematic evidence review in natural resources if that's what people want to do, and it may not be appropriate for every question," Behan said. "But in cases where we can narrow down the scope of questions and do solid studies, it appears it could have a place. And just going through the process may also help us identify what's a question of science and what's a question of values or philosophy."
For instance, if the question is the value of placing wood in streams to help salmon recovery - a single action to aid a single species - then systematic evidence review might work fairly well, Behan said.
"We won't suggest that this approach will solve all of our natural resource disputes," Behan said. "But it could give us a place to start, and it might move the ball down the field a ways. I think we're going to have to do a couple of test cases with this, before we really know how well it works, and our report will suggest that it's time to do this."
The idea, officials say, has attracted considerable interest from land management officials and agency leaders, and could ultimately be applied much more broadly around the nation.
"Occasionally the Board of Forestry receives conflicting scientific information, particularly from public testimony," said Steve Hobbs, chair of the Oregon Board of Forestry and executive associate dean of the OSU College of Forestry. "For some questions, a systematic evidence review would increase confidence in the information presented and help identify the most credible information."