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Manning: Social Science Suffers in Our National Parks

The problems experienced by the National Park Service are accompanied by related issues in the academy. Researchers are unable to plan and conduct studies in efficient and effective ways. The arbitrary and authoritarian way in which the OMB approval process is administered squelches innovation and application of research to contentious and pressing issues. These problems affect the ability of graduate students to meet their research requirements in a timely way.

Comments on these problems have been submitted to the OMB multiple times by the park service, university scientists, and scientific and professional organizations. Yet the problems have grown worse.

Several reasonable solutions have been suggested to the OMB. For example, the PRA allows for delegation of approval authority to the National Park Service, which has a Social Science Program Office that is qualified and willing to accept this responsibility.

It’s unlikely that Congress intended the PRA to limit the application of social science in the national parks. These surveys result in a relatively small number of “burden hours” on the public. Moreover, the typically high response rates to these voluntary surveys (often exceeding 80 percent) suggest that most park visitors and other stakeholders are eager to have their voices considered in park management.

A substantial body of scientific and professional literature has evolved from these studies, enhancing our understanding of human-nature relationships and many other topics. And this program of research is educating the next generation of park managers and scientists.

Yet the OMB has continued to make social science research in the national parks more difficult. If these types of restrictions were placed on natural science in national parks, there would be a widespread and well-deserved outcry from the scientific community.

But social science can be just as important as natural science to park management. National park managers need to know more about park visitors, other stakeholders and the society at large to develop informed management plans, and social science can contribute in important and meaningful ways. The scientific and professional communities and the general public should not stand for the current unreasonable bureaucratic intrusion on social science in the national parks.

Robert E. Manning is professor of natural resources and director of the Park Studies Laboratory in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.

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