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INTERACTIVE TIMELINE

The Slow but Deliberate March Toward Scientific Integrity

In his first 100 days as president, Barack Obama set forth an inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place” and issued a presidential memorandum instructing the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. John Holdren, to oversee the process. With the numerous high-profile abuses of science under the Bush administration, scientists and the public were calling for the next administration to implement new policies. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, called for guidelines that would “ensure that federal scientists have the freedom to publicly communicate their findings; publish their work; disclose misrepresentation, censorship or other abuses; and have their technical work evaluated by peers—all without fear of retribution.”

The Obama administration saw the opportunity early in its tenure to meet these needs and reform the management of federal science agencies to protect science. The March 2009 presidential memorandum asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop guidelines to establish badly needed reforms, including protections for whistleblowers who witness abuses of science in agencies, guidelines for hiring based on scientific merit, and procedures to keep political appointees from interfering with agency scientists.

Thus began the long and ongoing process to implement a comprehensive and cohesive scientific integrity policy throughout the executive branch. (see the interactive timeline below for details) A story of broken deadlines, ensuing lawsuits, and overblown “scandals,” the process became controversial, at times even appearing to be at a halt. More than three years after President Obama issued the order, the vast majority of agencies that focus on science and technology have put in place strong new guidelines, some of which have had measureable impacts, but there remain a handful of agencies that have yet to finalize their policies and make them public.

The executive branch has 15 departments containing dozens of agencies, as well as dozens more independent agencies. Paring down which departments and agencies had science and technology as core parts of their mission and figuring out how to have uniformity across the departments while also allowing policies to adequately fit the needs of each different department or agency was a continually evolving process. The different internal organizations of the agencies—how they relate to outside research organizations, unions, and other stakeholders—made a one-size-fits-all policy impossible to imagine, much less implement.

Dr. Holdren, in an update on the White House’s science policy blog, noted: “Decisions had to be made about how to apply the new policies—whether, for example, they would cover contractors, grantees, and other categories of scientists and engineers not employed full time by the Federal government.” The daunting task at hand was to develop specific guidelines to which all agencies would be beholden but that were sufficiently flexible so each of the more than 20 federal agencies—from the Department of Agriculture to the Intelligence Community—could craft individual scientific integrity policies compliant with those requirements, yet customized to meet the unique organizational needs of each.

Drafting the initial guidelines

The ultimate goal President Obama declared was that “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.” First, the president set a deadline for Dr. Holdren to “recommend a plan to achieve that goal throughout the executive branch.” Science Progress reported in October 2011 on the slow speed of the process, which was under pressure from presidential orders, inaugural promises, and the previous administration’s fudging of science. More than a year into the process, Dr. Holdren admitted that the process to create guidelines “has been more laborious and time-consuming than expected at the outset,” but he defended the process as being an “unprecedentedly open, Web-based process [that has] accept[ed] detailed input from stakeholders inside and outside government.”

Some groups however, seem to disagree. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility was the first to begin making requests for more information, eventually suing the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the release of documents showing the progress on scientific integrity guidelines. The office encouraged and accepted input in the initial phase of creating the guidelines. The public comment window for office guidelines was from April 23, 2009, to May 13, 2009, but the guidelines were not released until December 17, 2010, more than 18 months after the comment date ended.

When the guidelines were finally released, agencies got to work on crafting individual policies. The guidelines were received with mixed fanfare from the science policy community but were overall touted as having what it takes to make real progress in cleaning up integrity issues. The guidelines set out a number of core assurances that all agencies must incorporate into their policies, including:

1. Political officials shall not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings.
2. Selection of candidates for scientific positions shall be based primarily on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.
3. Data and research used to support policy decisions will undergo peer review by qualified experts as appropriate.
4. Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their work.
5. Whistleblower protections will be enforced.

Each agency went about incorporating these guidelines differently, and some were more open and expeditious than others. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, meticulously poured over more than 25,000 public comments to one of its draft policies, while the Department of Defense has yet to release a publicly available set of policies as of this writing. The Union of Concerned Scientists has persistently called for the interim drafts of all agencies to be made public. National Public Radio went so far as to request the policy from the Intelligence Community through a Freedom of Information Act request. The public’s clamoring for a transparent process is understandable, given the violations that went unpunished under the Bush administration and Obama’s inaugural promise to restore scientific integrity.

Putting the new policies to the test

The need for strong scientific integrity enforcement policies and codes of conduct was underscored by the Department of the Interior’s botched response to a false controversy about polar bears in 2011. Under pressure from climate science denial groups, the department suspended a staff climate scientist named Dr. Charles Monnett, though there was no real evidence of misconduct. In response, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint using the Department of the Interior’s “newly minted” scientific integrity policy on Dr. Monnett’s behalf. As the first agency to implement a scientific integrity policy under the Obama administration, it would be a good test run.

Suspecting Dr. Monnett’s suspension had been for political rather than scientific reasons, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility requested that the agency either specify specific allegations of scientific misconduct or reinstate Dr. Monnett. After determining there was no evidence of scientific misconduct, the Department of the Interior reversed Dr. Monnett’s suspension. Though the entire process needlessly cast suspicion upon climate science and embarrassment upon Dr. Monnett—thanks to the department’s aggressive implementation of the Office of Science and Technology Policy scientific integrity guidelines—science ultimately trumped politics. The case demonstrated the real necessity to develop and institutionalize these scientific integrity policies in a way that lasts now and into the future.

The “FDA Nine” case is another example of the need for such policies. As President Obama was taking office, the “FDA Nine” sent a whistleblowing letter to John Podesta, then co-chair of Obama’s transition team, that made it clear that there was “corruption within the FDA device review process, managerial misconduct, dangers to public health, welfare and safety, and retaliation against whistleblowers.”

All but two of the “FDA Nine” have been fired, presumably in retaliation for their whistleblowing. Six of the fired nine have since filed a lawsuit, claiming their private email was hacked so that allegedly corrupt Food and Drug Administration officials could spy on them and subsequently fire them in retaliation for whistleblowing. The Food and Drug Administration released its scientific integrity policy a week after the lawsuit was filed. While this case has yet to be decided, it makes all the more clear the need for permanent, consistent, and institutionalized scientific integrity policies.

The slow but real progress of scientific integrity policies

Coordinating the interests of agencies with diverse functions and management structures, the scientific community, the labor unions that represent federal science workers, and outside interest groups to produce a unified set of policies in every federal agency is a daunting task. But notwithstanding some criticism leveled at the process, the Office of Science and Technology Policy did offer a chance for the public to give input on what the guidelines should include and further encouraged the agencies to invite public comments on their draft policies. The Department of the Interior quickly released a draft policy for the public to comment on and soon after, the National Science Foundation, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technology all followed.

Under the hot lights of subsiding scandals without resolution, concerned citizens were drawn to the idea that science could be used as a guide for smart policy and not as a political cudgel. And though the process has been messy, the task was immense. It has been made no easier by a political environment in which the very idea of scientific integrity itself has been co-opted by those who wish to promote an ideological agenda or make money through the exploitation of science. For instance, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA)—who chairs the subcommittee on investigation for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology—used the slow pace of the initial process to send politically fueled letters to the Office of Science and Technology Policy asking for progress updates while awkwardly attempting to link the Obama administration to “climate gate.” In one of the letters, Rep. Broun “commend[ed] the President for taking proactive steps to ensure scientific integrity and transparency in the government,” but then went on to inappropriately link Obama administration policies with the hacked emails stolen from climate scientists in the United Kingdom.

Ultimately, though progress has been slow, history will judge the scientific integrity policies, not by the speed with which they were developed but by their quality and the lasting impact that they make. As of this writing, nearly every agency has publicly released finalized scientific integrity policies using the guidelines developed at the White House.

As President Obama declared more than three years ago, “It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda—and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

With the important role science plays in so many public policy decisions, keeping the scientific process above the fray is important. Considering the seeming ease with which science or scientists can be enveloped in conspiracy and the relative difficulty in undoing disinformation or damage wrought by kneejerk reactions, stakes for strong scientific integrity policies have never been higher.

Jason Thomas is an Intern with Science Progress and will be attending the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in the fall. Image courtesy Michael Stebbins/SEforA.org.

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