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Saving Scientific Integrity

Francesca Grifo Talks About Past Abuses and the Obama Administration’s Directive

US Envirionmental Protection Agency sign with squirrel SOURCE: flickr.com/librarianinblack The eight years of the Bush administration were a bad time for scientific integrity in government research. Grifo, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says we must focus on protecting government researchers, making science-based policymaking more transparent, and monitoring potential abuses.
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The Wonk Lab Podcast

In this episode, we talk with with Francesca Grifo, Senior Scientist and Director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists:

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The eight years of the Bush administration were a bad time for scientific integrity in government research. The abuses of science for political purposes created no shortage of material for Science Progress contributors. Readers know many of the incidents well: redacting the testimony of Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding on the health impacts of climate change; interfering with the work of Environmental Protection Agency scientists; suppressing information about global warming—to name a few.

To right past wrongs and prevent assaults on the future work of government scientists, President Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity in March. The document tasked the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy with coordinating a set of recommendations “to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.” OSTP opened up the process to the public by requesting comment on the six principles outlined in the memorandum on its new blog, which the President highlighted in his recent speech at the National Academy of Sciences. The public comment period closes this Wednesday, May 13.

Over the past few years, the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists has focused closely on the impacts of the Bush administration’s manipulations on environmental regulation, public health, and the morale of federal scientists.

Science Progress spoke with Francesca Grifo, the senior scientist and program director, about the forward-looking comments her group submitted to the administration—which focus on protecting government scientists, making science-based policymaking more transparent, and monitoring potential abuses—as well as the need to look backwards and repair past abuses. This interview has been editing and condensed. For the full conversation, see the audio available in the sidebar.

Andrew Plemmons Pratt, Science Progress: Was it the Bush administration’s abuses that led to these priorities that you focus on, or were there existing problems in the system that went unaddressed from previous administrations?

Francesca Grifo: I think there are both. Obviously, we are responding very much to the last eight years, but I think we are also equally certain that there are some agencies that have always been troublesome, that have been places where, for example, corporate influence has been a way of life. Obviously, those are much deeper, harder, more difficult problems to address.

When we look at the specific items that we put into these comments, we’re mostly referring to the last eight years. In our publication, “Federal Science and the Public Good,” we tried to characterize the abuses of science and then make the connections between those specific abuses and what we need to do about it.

It’s not a simple thing to say, “Oh, let’s just outlaw abuses of science.” It’s actually a fairly nuanced, complex thing to look at. So we really focused on protecting scientists and making the government more transparent.

That being said, we also have another set of processes going on, and in fact very soon, we’ll hear back on them—the administration’s decisions on regulatory reform. That’s another big piece of it, but it’s not in these comments because the president has a separate process for that.

SP: What are some of the problems over the years that necessitate a focus on whistleblower protections for government scientists?

Grifo: What we realized is that, obviously, we can’t have our eyes and ears everywhere. In fact we rely heavily on those who are I the midst of these situations to be able to speak about them.

We have many examples of where there has been retaliation or job changes. We know of one whistleblower at the FDA, for example, who was moved to an empty office with just a desk and nothing else after he blew the whistle on an issue. We’ve had other problems at different agencies, but the FDA has had quite a few.

It’s really important that the public be able to hear from these folks—that they feel empowered to speak out. Now, we do have whistleblower protections, but unfortunately, most of those protections have been significantly eroded by the courts. So we need to come out and be clear about more specific protections and protections that really do address federal scientists and the particular needs of those federal scientists.

SP: And the second issue you’re talking about is transparency: making information and research available to the public and to third parties so they can review what goes into policy decisions. It seems like this would work in concert with whistleblower protections, so that ultimately, whistleblowers didn’t have to be the people sounding the alarm.

Grifo: We would love to put whistleblowers out of business. We would like to make it so that we no longer needed them. That’s really the key.

Many of these things that we talk about as examples in the Bush administration were things that happened because the doors were closed; because the meetings were closed; because drafts of documents, when they moved from an agency to the White House, to the Office of Management and Budget were not made public in between. So we left it open for scientific documents coming out of the agencies to be changed. And the public didn’t know, except that we at UCS got documents dropped on our doorstep, and phone calls, and it was all very cloak-and-dagger. But fortunately, there were a lot of courageous people who revealed what was going on.

SP: What sort of role is strengthening scientific integrity going to play in the development of climate and energy legislation?

Grifo: When this climate legislation becomes law, it’s going to be a law that’s around for many decades. And because of that, it’s going to be making periodic science-based decisions. Let’s think ahead to 2040, or another time in the future, and recall that conditions will change. The scientific knowledge will change. What we know about climate change and what we know about the success or failure to mitigate climate change and to stop climate change will all be a changing scenario.

And so we’re going to want to revisit these things. We’re going to want to ask questions about how we’re doing on emissions reductions. We may want to look at the size of the cap, and so on, as we get this new information.

The special interests that have been responsible for the problems in the past—they’re not going to go away. They’re going to continue to be engaged in this. So what we want to do is have this climate legislation be a smart law—a law that is bulletproof, that has specifics in place that will prevent the abuses of science in the future.

Another example are the National Ambient Air Quality laws. Again, this is something that is examined periodically, as the science comes in periodically. And unfortunately, as we’ve watched ozone and particulate matter and these other standards get set, we’ve seen that that the process was open to manipulation. So we’re trying to learn from this past experience to say, “How can we scientific integrity-ize” or make the new laws something that will really be robust to this sort of interference?

Again, we come back to the same sorts of things: transparency, protecting whistleblowers, trying to set the law up so that we’re paying attention to conflicts of interest.

SP: This need for “smart laws” seems important, because we know enough to act, but we don’t know everything about these issues at this particular moment. We’re going to learn things and we’re going to have to make continual adjustments. This seems like another important reason for protecting scientific integrity now, as well as going forward.

Grifo: The devil is in the details. I think it’s very tempting to think only about these big-picture climate issues. That’s exciting and important—don’t get me wrong. But I think we need to ask: Are the scientific studies and other research transparent and publicly accessible? Are the scientists’ dissenting views part of the public record? Can these scientists discuss their work with the media? Do we have legislation that incorporates scientific advisers and advisory committees? And if we have those committees, let’s think about the selection process—how will we resolve potential conflicts of interest?

There are many, many details like that, and we’ve learned from past experience how to do the right thing in the future.

SP: I want to back up to a survey that UCS released last year on scientific interference at the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the most astounding numbers that came out of that was the fact that 60 percent of the respondents to the survey said they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference with scientific work during the last five years. What’s the mood at agencies like the EPA now?

Grifo: Obviously, we haven’t re-surveyed, so we don’t have numbers, but when we have talked to people, the mood has definitely been better. When we look at the memo to employees that Administrator Lisa Jackson sent out on January 23rd, there is some amazing language in there. For example: “Science must be the backbone for EPA programs.” She talks about respecting the workforce, and making sure that Americans don’t lose faith in their government. And the way to do that, of course, is transparency.

What was also important was she followed that up on April 23rd on transparency in EPA’s operations. In that memo she specifically lays out guiding principles, she talks about revealing appointment calendars, the Freedom of Information Act, rulemaking proceedings. Because much of EPA’s business is conducted through rulemaking, she says, “each EPA employee should ensure that all written comments regarding a proposed rule received from members of the public, including regulated entities and interested parties, are entered into the rulemaking docket.”

What that means is, there’s no behind-closed-doors meetings. If there’s a meeting with industry, that information gets put into the public rulemaking docket—and that’s huge.

Unfortunately, they’re not quite where we’d like to see them on communications policies and media policies. They’re still struggling with that and we look forward to working with them because, obviously media policy is very important. And they’re close; they’ve made progress, certainly, but that is one place where we’ll continue to work with them.

SP: What would you like to see in terms of media policies that would really set things aright in comparison to the last administration?

Grifo: One key piece is the role of the public affairs officials. In the past some have been very harsh gatekeepers, picking and choosing among scientists with different perspectives to decide who gets to have an interview and who doesn’t.

What we think the role of the public affairs office really is, is if a scientist gets a request for an interview, you don’t have a “minder” on the interview—a “minder” being someone from the office listening in. That’s just difficult and intimidating. What you have to have is a system where the scientist does the interview; they let public affairs know they’re doing it; they then report back to public affairs on how the interview went and what they discussed, so that public affairs is in the loop, but they’re not controlling the scientists’ information.

Now the other thing that’s important to be clear on is this: you don’t have every scientist in the agency making policy and confusing the public. We get that. That’s not a good thing for anybody: not for the agency, not for the public, not for the scientist. But rather, this applies when a scientist is discussing research results. This is not decisions based on those research results; this is not interpretations based on those research results for policy decisions; this is discussing research results. When we’re talking about more complex things like policy decisions, that’s different. But even in a policy decision, even taking those research results and applying them—a scientist can do that. They simply need to take off their federal agency hat and say, “I am now speaking as a private citizen. This is what I think.”

It’s also very important for scientists to be clear about, “Here’s what I know and here’s what I have the data to support; here’s what I think that means; and here’s where I’m being speculative. And I’m going to make sure everybody’s clear on which things go in those three baskets.” And that’s key to good communication.

SP: In the comments you submitted to the administration, you talk about ways of presenting non-official materials by scientific authors working in the government that don’t represent policy positions, but are still available for the public and interested parties to look at. Are there any precedents for that? It seems like a tricky way of communicating with the public.

Grifo: There are precedents. And that was part of our media scorecard work where we looked at a number of different agencies and compared not just their actual media policies, but the implementation of that media policy. And we found agencies that do it very well. We found agencies that do allow this sort of thing, and, you know, the sky doesn’t fall. The agency doesn’t fall apart. And that was part of why we did it. We really wanted people to be able to see that in fact this is doable. It doesn’t create this nebulous, difficult-to-deal-with situation.

SP: One of the first things that the Obama administration has done in the first 100 days is rescind the Bush Executive Order 13422, which gave the Office of Management and Budget a large amount of control over the scientific and regulatory work that was being done by these other agencies. How can the government go about reinstating the distance between the White House and these other agencies that are working independently?

Grifo: Again, it’s about clarity and it’s about transparency. With the regulatory reform, one of the big issues has been that the agencies do their bit, the science happens; scientific advice is incorporated; you end up with a draft for a rule; and it goes to the White House and gets changed.

So I think one of the most simple, straightforward things is that in that rulemaking process, the agencies need to have a draft that is made public. Very clearly, just out there for everybody to see before it goes to the White House for finalization.

Does the preliminary rule need to be made public? No necessarily. It would be great, but not necessarily. What needs to be made public, most importantly, is the scientific information that is going into that rulemaking process.

Furthermore, this does not have to be terribly burdensome. This is something agencies are pulling together anyway. And we’re not asking of early, pre-decision drafts. People say, “Oh you want us to document and reveal everything.” No. Not everything. But at a point where the scientific piece is done in the agency and is going to go on to inform the White House’s policy decision, there’s no reason we can see why that scientific piece can’t be made public, so that we call understand the scientific basis for that policy action.

So the White House has to be courageous and come out and say, “The science is telling me to do this, but I’m doing this. Because this is not a scientific decision; this is a policy decision.” And that’d okay. We may not like it. But that’s how the system works.

Sometimes decisions are made entirely on the science; sometimes they’re made on a variety of factors. And of course in many instances the law determines what that balance is. In other instances, the White House determines that. But the key here is for all of us to see the scientific basis. And what we saw in the past was, rather than be courageous and come out and talk about which parts were policy and which parts were science, we saw changes in the science to cover up an often unpopular policy decision. And that’s what really does nobody any good service.

SP: You mention in your comments the need to redesign online portals like science.gov and regulations.gov. How important is it that these sites get an overhaul?

Grifo: I think at some point when someone made these, they had the right idea, and they meant well. But I think they don’t function; they don’t work. And the bottom line there is to improve search and browsing functionality so that people can use them.

Rulemaking is not meant to be a process for just 20 people in the beltway. Really and truly, the best rules are the ones that benefit from the knowledge and input of many, many forms of expertise. And the only way to do that is to have a website where people can easily track and follow and know what’s going on in terms of seeing the text of these rules, the scientific basis of the rules, and with that full understanding, interact with the rulemaking process.

The sites don’t work the way they are; they’re difficult. Anybody who wasn’t determined would just say, “Forget this.” And that’s not what we want.

SP: The administration just released rules on lifecycle emissions for biofuels. What role does scientific integrity play in this set of regulations?

Grifo: It’s going to be the same as all these other issues. When we’re talking about biofuels and the way that they’re regulated, again: Are the scientific studies and other research transparent and publicly accessible? Do the federal scientists have the freedom to discuss their work with their colleagues and around the world? It comes down to dealing with conflicts of interest; creating accountability in the system; looking at transparency; being clear about the role of the Office of Management and Budget in formulating that policy.

The questions are the same. That’s what made this scientific integrity issue so interesting and so broad, and in some sense, so timeless. We’re talking about process. We’re talking about how the government uses scientific information to make the best rules.

So whether it’s biofuels or biodiversity, the process really needs to be one that is robust and that stands up to scrutiny. And that scrutiny is about the scientific information not being tampered with, but coming into the process clean and then staying clean through the process.

SP: Any concluding thoughts while the administration is still absorbing information from the public on this issue?

Grifo: As much as we want to go forward, and as much as this administration wants to look forward, I think there’s a certain amount of going backwards that we have to do to make sure that we undo the problematic decisions in the past.

What comes to mind immediately in that respect are many endangered species decisions that were made with lousy science. The Endangered Species Act specifically says “best available science,” and in multiple species’ instances, that was not the case.

So that’s just one example of where those decisions still stand, and each of those decisions have consequences and you get this rippling effect outward of the consequences of one lousy decision that was based on manipulated science.

Much as we all want to look forward, unfortunately, some of us have to continue to look backwards to clean up a number of messes that are still out there.

Another big issue that the administration is still grappling with is that of conflict of interest.

When we look at all of these committees and the way that scientific advice comes into the administration, we have to make sure that scientists whose science we trust aren’t getting money from the regulated entity.

Now it’s hard to think how this would apply when you’re talking about somewhat esoteric or basic research. But if we’re talking about places like the Food and Drug Administration—where scientists are making recommendations on these advisory committees on which drugs to approve and which drugs not to approve—we ought to have zero tolerance. I don’t think those scientists can make the best decisions if they’re taking money from a drug company whose products we’re talking about, or from a related product maker. It’s just not going to happen.

So we have to be creative and devise other ways of still getting their expertise, but not allowing them to be in the decision-making position.

SP: Are there significant differences between implementing scientific integrity rules in biomedical science versus environmental science?

Grifo: Not really. Where we see the difference is when we’re talking about an agency that is a research agency versus an agency that is a regulatory agency. That’s where I would say there are two classes of agencies.

Because obviously the pressure is much greater from special interests and others on the agencies that are making the rules—and that’s FDA, that’s EPA. Whereas the pure research agencies, such as National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—while they’re certainly not perfect and totally clean, the level of this problem is so much less—significantly lower than it is at the regulatory agencies.

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