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Impartiality essential to assessing Pebble

Never underestimate the controversy that will attach itself to any enterprise related to the Pebble prospect. The latest debate revolves around the Legislature's reappropriation of $750,000 from last year's budget to fund a third-party interdisciplinary study of the potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Mining interests are said to be aggressively lobbying Gov. Sean Parnell to veto the study, while other groups urgently call on Pebble foes to flood the governor with letters of support.

As two legislators who have been advocating for such a study for some time, we would like to suggest that in this most recent controversy a crucial feature of the undertaking has not been fully appreciated -- its impartiality. The concept we have endorsed -- in our sponsorship of a resolution in the Legislature and as discussed in a joint hearing of the House Fisheries and Senate Resources Committees in March -- puts the study in the hands of the National Research Council of the National Academies, which was created under President Lincoln for exactly this sort of purpose.

For more than 140 years governments have turned to the National Academies to enlist the nation's foremost scientists, engineers and other experts to address pressing public policy issues. Well known for objectivity and integrity, the academies have often been employed in order for complex issues to be analyzed free from the impassioned perspectives of divided stakeholders. Since 1990, the National Research Council has conducted 16 studies in Alaska, including a major review of cumulative environmental impacts of oil and gas activities on the North Slope.

Every step of the National Academies process includes checks and balances to ensure that impartiality is maintained. When defining and initiating a study, the statement of task developed by the sponsors and the Academies staff determines not only the scope of the research, it also establishes the balance of perspectives needed on the committee of experts to be assembled.

While study sponsors may nominate experts for a committee, only the chair of the National Research Council has the authority to select nominees for membership. Before final approval of a committee's participants there is a 20-day period for public comment. Also, a meeting of the appointees is held to address balance and disclose conflicts of interest. Any matters raised during this meeting and during the public comment period are investigated and resolved to the satisfaction of the National Research Council chair.

Committee meetings to gather information are open to the public, and the public has access to any written materials submitted to the committee by individuals who are not directly associated with the National Academies. When it comes to deliberations, the doors are closed, so that the committee can reach conclusions and recommendations without outside influence.

Before any study report is final it goes through peer review by independent experts, who, like the committee members, are selected to represent a wide variety of perspectives. Their review comments address not only the science and arguments included in the report but also the report's objectivity and fairness. In turn, the committee's responses to review comments are also examined, with independent monitors verifying that the committee adequately addresses them according to established criteria.

Clearly, impartiality is institutionalized at the National Academies. That has always been key to our decision to encourage this study.

Scrutinizing consequential matters is among the Legislature's most important responsibilities to Alaskans. The Legislature has budgeted these funds in order to obtain unbiased and authoritative information on possible development of a massive mineral deposit at the headwaters for the largest sockeye salmon fishery on earth.

It is not accurate to characterize funding impartial research essential to the Legislature's work as a stance on one side or the other of the Pebble debate. We hope Gov. Parnell bears this in mind.

Bryce Edgmon is state representative for District 37, which includes Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Chain. Alan Austerman is state representative for District 36, which includes Kodiak Island as well as communities in the Lake Illiamna region.