Is there Really a Study on Goats and Urine? More on Senator Coburn's Wastebook

December 23, 2013 | 11:52 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Last week, I pushed back on Senator Tom Coburn’s attacks on federally-funded science grants, explaining that if his staff had taken the opportunity to speak with the researchers in question that he might have a better understanding of the importance of the research he was making fun of. The researchers were eager to talk to me, and I quoted a couple of them in a blog post. In the time since, others have spoken out to explain how the senator’s “Wastebook” was off the mark.

A mountain goat stares into the camera in Glacier National Park

Studying mountain goat and human behavior can help prevent human-wildlife conflict—making a better national park experience for everyone. Photo: Tatiana Gettelman via Flickr

Senator Coburn’s report portrays one $150,000 study as an exploration into “what outdoor enthusiasts have always known: that goats like urine.” In an email to UCS, lead researcher Joel Berger has a different take on what his study is hoping to accomplish:

Senator Coburn raises a realistic issue when commenting on our study of mountain goats in Glacier National Park. As the lead researcher on this project I would however characterize the issue of urine and mountain goats far differently. 

The real issue is not whether goats are attracted to human pee — as portrayed by Senator Coburn — but what role the US National Park Service (NPS) should play in protecting parks which of course includes a strong element to ensure visitor safety. Should NPS, as the reigning government body, ignore people and ignore wildlife or is part of their mandate to consider recreation, and people and natural resources in perpetuity?

For instance, a person was killed by a habituated mountain goat in a different U.S. national park. This extremely unfortunate event occurred when the hiker was gored in the leg. No visitor expects to die by an attack from an animal, especially in a national park. The NPS realizes the critical need to assure visitor safety — whether American or not. It is also incumbent on NPS to protect wildlife.

None of this can be accomplished without understanding both the behavior of people and the behavior of animals. If urine or salt are reasons why animals redistribute themselves and may become aggressive, we need to know this. If other factors are involved such as age or gender or reduced food availability, we need to know this also. The insights gained by study is one of the critical ways in which knowledge is put to good use to benefit Americans.

Frankly, our study is not about goats per se nor their urine; it is about developing a rigorous scientific understanding of how and why animals become habituated, the likely consequences, and finding solutions to protect animals from people and people from animals. I do hope that the good senator and his staff will read more deeply on some of these issues and purport a more accurate assessment of the studies that scientists do and why. As my daughter would say, we’re all in this together.

 The third paragraph of Dr. Berger’s response is the most critical to me: we can’t make the national park system safer for both visitors and wildlife without better understanding how people and wildlife behave. For some people, and some animals, we are talking about a matter of life or death.

So how do we inoculate our society from these kinds of misrepresentations of research? One way is to publicly challenge such assertions and set the record straight. Another is to challenge irresponsible journalists and news outlets who take “Wastebook” at face value and fail to investigate the claims it makes.

A third way is for scientists to be even more deliberate in sharing their research, and that of their peers, with the public. In a comment on my original post, Jahi Chappell had this to say:

If we have expanded and deeper relationships with other citizens, these attacks won’t work…perhaps we should be thinking not just about federal research dollars–very important to be sure!–but about the relative emphasis and importance we place on being engaged and accessible educators (in the classroom and beyond), the degree to which we listen to other citizens at least as much as talk to (or at) them, and increasing accessibility to quality education at all levels. None of these are easy, many of these are outside of our primary wheelhouse as scientists, but to me, this is where the ultimate solutions to science/society disconnects lay: in scientists connecting to the rest of society as fellow citizens as well as scientists.

Engagement creates resiliency. People with a deeper understanding of basic and applied research will be less likely to buy into attacks on science. And politicians will be less likely to go down that road to demonstrate their commitment to so-called fiscal responsibility.