The director of a state science office facing severe budget cuts after riling Republicans with research on topics such as climate change has confirmed that he is retiring, with some predicting additional departures.
Jack Sullivan, 62, said Wednesday he has been told not to talk about budget cuts that will eliminate more than half of the senior scientist positions from the state Department of Natural Resources Science Services Bureau. But he said this budget had been the most challenging of his 36-year career and the impending cuts played a role in his decision to leave now.
Critics of the budget working its way through the GOP-controlled Legislature predicted Sullivan’s departure signals the beginning of an exodus of DNR scientists mirroring the loss of some top talent at UW-Madison, which is also facing significant reductions and uncertainty about tenure rights.
“These are very skilled individuals and very marketable, and they are going to go to other states and we are going to lose a great deal of skill, knowledge and talent,” said George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. “Budget cuts have consequences, and these will damage natural resources in Wisconsin.”
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said the state would suffer without top scientists to guide policy.
“It’s symbolic of this politicization that we see under Gov. (Scott) Walker, that scientists can’t even make conclusions that aren’t opinion and are based on fact without consequences,” said Taylor, a member of the Democratic minority on the Legislature’s budget committee.
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That panel has approved Walker’s proposed cuts to the bureau, which helps guide DNR fish, wildlife and water quality programs.
In explaining the cuts to lawmakers, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that the Walker administration “indicates the science services positions no longer serve the core mission of the agency and should be deleted. ... Some have argued that the Department should not focus on controversial science projects, such as regarding the study of climate change or mining impacts, and that DNR science services staff have not always utilized appropriate scientific methods (including for some wildlife management projects).”
Republican budget committee member Sen. Tom Tiffany has complained that climate change is “theoretical,” even though multiple studies in peer-reviewed journals show 97 percent of active climate scientists agree it is real and likely the result of human activity. Tiffany and others have blamed DNR scientists who estimate deer populations because constituents are unhappy with the amount of game they are able to bag.
Sullivan said he has taken pride in identifying emerging environmental issues, including ways to adapt to climate change, but the bureau has spent less time researching ways to protect fish, game and other natural resources from climate change recently because it has been a lower priority for Walker’s administration. The fiscal bureau said science services spent 3 percent of its time on climate impact in fiscal year 2013-14.
Solid research can take years to develop, so changes in political administration can cut off bureau projects prematurely, Sullivan said. Until 1995, the DNR secretary was appointed by the semi-independent Natural Resources Board instead of by the governor.
Sullivan said he is retiring Sept. 2. He has a master’s degree in water resources engineering from UW-Madison and was a faculty member in the university engineering department until he joined the DNR in 1983. He took the reins of the science services bureau in 2000.
Phone and email messages to Walker and other Republican leaders produced no comments. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno characterized Sullivan’s career as “long and successful.” Sereno and Sullivan declined to say if others were retiring from the bureau.