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SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY

Administration Fumbling Toward Scientific Integrity

SOURCE: flickr/gregclarkephotography

This article is reposted from the OMB Watch website.

The Obama administration’s efforts to protect scientific integrity moved forward recently with the submission of five finalized agency policies and 14 draft policies, but progress has been slow and haphazard. The administration recognizes that sound, uncensored science is critically important to protecting public health and the environment. The administration also understands that agencies should foster a culture of scientific integrity that includes effective policies and oversight to protect science from political manipulation and research misconduct. However, it has yet to undo the damage wrought by the previous administration.

Background

The Bush administration was widely criticized for abuses of scientific integrity, including political manipulation of scientific findings and suppression of the free flow of scientific information. These policies undermined the effectiveness of the public structures that protect our health, economy, and environment by delaying decision making and weakening public trust that government policies were based on the best available scientific and technical information.

As a candidate and in his inaugural address, President Obama pledged to restore scientific integrity. Shortly after taking office, he issued a memo on scientific integrity, which stated that “political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.”

The memo directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, to develop guidelines to protect scientific integrity within 120 days. However, those guidelines were not released until December 2010, more than a year past the deadline. Despite the delay, OMB Watch, a non-profit focused on accountability and transparency in government,  praised the guidelines as a step forward and called for agencies to aggressively implement them.

In May, OSTP asked each agency to submit a draft scientific integrity policy within 90 days. In the interest of transparency and accountability, OMB Watch called for agencies to publish their proposed policies for public comment before finalizing them. However, OSTP did not formally instruct agencies to solicit public feedback.

Agency Policies

On August 11, OSTP posted information about the progress (or lack of progress) each agency had made in meeting the most recent deadline. Several agencies have adopted final scientific integrity policies, while others have released draft policies for public comment. Advocates have criticized both the content of some of the policies and the closed process that produced them.

Of the five agencies with final policies, only the Department of the Interior undertook visible public consultation. The Department of Commerce and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have published their final policies but do not appear to have solicited public comment at any point in the process. The Justice Department and the intelligence community do not appear to have publicly published their final policies nor solicited public comment on those policies.

Fourteen other agencies have submitted draft policies to OSTP, and several have published drafts for public comment, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation. Of the remaining agencies, some are reportedly considering public consultation before finalizing their policies, while others do not plan to solicit public comment.

The Department of the Interior example demonstrates the value of consulting with the public before finalizing a scientific integrity policy. The department’s draft policy was criticized by OMB Watch and other groups for failing to address political interference with science and lacking protections for scientists who blow the whistle on misconduct. After receiving public comment, however, Interior made revisions, and the final policy was significantly improved.

What’s in the Policies?

The OSTP guidelines directed agency policies to address four areas: foundations of scientific integrity, including appropriate whistleblower protections; communications policies; federal advisory committees; and professional development of scientists, including opportunities to present research and serve in professional organizations.

While the available plans make some progress on those topics, the issue of scientists communicating with the media has been especially contentious. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) called EPA’s proposed policy “pathetically weak” for failing to ensure that public affairs staff don’t become gatekeepers restricting communication between scientists and the media.

The available policies are also thin on details of how political manipulation of science will be prevented. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists said NOAA’s policy “has raised the bar for scientific integrity policies,” but also said it was “critical for the agency to establish specific practices to protect the integrity of agency scientific findings to prevent manipulation.”

Next Steps

OSTP has not set a hard deadline for final policies, but the Aug. 11 blog post states that the office “will be working with [agencies] this fall as they finalize their policies.”

We at OMB Watch invite readers to submit their comments on the proposed plans to:

Recommendations

OMB Watch continues to call for stronger commitments to public participation and more public accountability by all federal agencies. OSTP should direct agencies to publish draft policies for public comment at least one month before finalizing them and to finalize their policies before the end of the year.

Agencies should ensure their policies establish clear expectations that science will be free from political manipulation, with procedures to insulate science from inappropriate influence and to redress the problem if it does occur. The first component should be a policy that makes clear that non-science officials do not have the authority to alter findings or explanations without approval of the scientific personnel that produced the information. The second component should be a mechanism through which scientific and research personnel can submit concerns about possible political manipulation and receive an independent review. Complaints could be reviewed by an agency’s inspector general’s office or a scientific review board.

Agency policies should also protect the free flow of information, in particular safeguarding scientists’ freedom to communicate with the media without public affairs staff acting as censors or gatekeepers. While public affairs officials often coordinate and disseminate information to the media and the public, factual scientific findings should not proceed through the same message machine that oversees speeches and press releases. Otherwise, the risk is too great that a public affairs review will mutate into a political review and that findings will be delayed or changed to suit the goals of an administration.

Protecting scientific integrity also requires a culture change within federal agencies. To achieve this, leadership from the top of the agency; adequate training and communication of new policies and practices to personnel; and effective enforcement and oversight mechanisms, including appropriate involvement of agency inspectors general, will be crucial.

Finally, OSTP should take needed actions to regain its leadership position on scientific integrity, including communicating more openly with stakeholders and the public.

Gavin Baker is a federal information policy analyst at OMB Watch, and occasional Science Progress contributor writing on issues of scientific integrity and public accountability.

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