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Independent Panel Finds WSU Field Burning Study Credible

PULLMAN, Wash. — Although it found some problems with Washington State University’s controversial grass seed field-burning study, an independent panel of six scientists says the study is credible.

It reviewed the Grass Seed Field Burning Report of January 1997, issued by the WSU Agricultural Economics Department for the state Department of Ecology. The report estimated that benefits from reduced grass field burning would be greater than the costs. It was roundly criticized by the grass-seed industry, which questioned its validity. In response, James Barron, then chair of the agricultural economics department, appointed a panel of outside experts to review the report. Barron has since retired.

The panel of reviewers from six major research universities included an agronomist, two scientists trained in statistics and social sciences pertinent to survey methodology, and three economists.

Members of the panel were:

  • Richard Bishop, professor of agricultural economics, University of Wisconsin.
  • Otto Doering, professor of agricultural economics, Purdue University.
  • Lloyd Elliott, retired USDA Agriculture Research Service agronomist at Oregon State University.
  • Daniel Hill, professor of economics, University of Michigan.
  • Jon Krosnick, associate professor of social psychology, Ohio State University.
  • Tim Wallace, extension specialist for resources and public policy, University of California, Berkeley.

The panel’s report was delivered to WSU last Friday.

“The panel is unanimous in their belief that the research was well done, balanced between environmental and seed industry interests, and that the final report was fairly presented,” the review panel has reported.

Reviewers said WSU agricultural economists were “up front” in stating the limitations of their study, and that the study offers “one credible basis for natural resource policy evaluation that is relevant and pertinent.”

The panel said the method WSU scientists used in their survey can be misused by the way interview questions are phrased for both costs and benefits, but said WSU researchers took “sufficient, rigorous precautions to prevent its abuse.” They said survey data collection procedures used in the WSU study conform to generally accepted standards of good research.

Reviewers itemized seven concerns about the study’s use of contingent valuation, suggesting more use of focus groups could have been made in pretesting the survey used to collect data. They also said some techniques may have introduced a non-conservative bias in the survey and that WSU may have lacked adequate funding to address some of the reviewers’ concerns.

Nonetheless, reviewers said WSU’s analysis of data conformed to generally accepted economic principles and that results reported from the study accurately reflect the data available and research methods used.

Reviewers said “none of these concerns outweighed the validity of the appropriateness of analytical tools chosen and methods used. The report is a credible one; it was fairly and clearly presented.”

Dean James Zuiches, WSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics, said all panelists have national and international credentials. Each submitted independent reviews to Wallace, the panel coordinator, who edited them into a final report. He further acknowledged that cost/benefit studies such as this one are likely to raise strongly held and contrary positions.

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