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New White House Policy Aims to Ensure Integrity of Government Science

OSTP Seal SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons The Seal of the Executive Office of the President Office of Science and Technology Policy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on December 17 released its long-delayed guidance to agencies on implementing President Obama’s March 2009 memo on scientific integrity. The 2009 presidential memo and the OSTP guidance aim to ensure that scientific activities undertaken by the federal government are trustworthy and transparent, especially where scientific information is used to inform policy decisions. Most directly, the guidance reiterates the 2009 memo’s mandate that government officials must “not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings.”

To demonstrate the break from his predecessor, President Obama moved early to emphasize scientific integrity. In his inaugural address, the president pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.” The March 2009 memo quickly followed, in which he established that “science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my administration on a wide range of issues,” and that “the public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.”

The 2009 memo laid out six principles for scientific integrity, including merit-based hiring for scientific positions; quality control and transparency for science used in policy decisions; and adequate procedures to address lapses in integrity, such as protections for employees who blow the whistle on scientific misconduct.  The new guidance expands upon the president’s memo in several important ways. It adds that agencies should develop policies governing conflicts of interest, make more scientific information available online, and ensure scientific information is accurately presented to the public.

The guidance also lays out standards for the integrity and transparency of federal advisory committees that provide scientific advice. In addition, it affirms federal scientists’ rights to participate in professional and scholarly activities.  These reforms are valuable steps to improve the trustworthiness and openness of the government’s scientific activities. At the same time, they fall short of the specificity some had expected, leaving many decisions to be made by the agencies.

Case in point: One issue of major concern has been agency policies that limit scientists’ ability to speak freely with journalists and the public, which the new guidance deals with by establishing that public communications policies should maximize openness and setting out some ground rules.  The guidance provides that federal scientists may communicate with the media and the public as long as there is “appropriate coordination” with supervisors and the agency’s public affairs office.  Each agency is to establish a mechanism to resolve disputes that limit public communications. But the guidance doesn’t define “appropriate coordination” or suggest how disputes should be resolved.

Agencies are directed to report to OSTP by April 16, 2011, on their steps taken to implement the guidance. Unfortunately, the guidance is not clear on how the reports will be made available to the public or how the public can participate in the development of policies to implement the guidance. Agencies should take a cue from the Open Government Directive, which required agencies to post their open government plans online and solicit public feedback.

Others also find fault with some aspects of the new guidance while also praising its direction and scope. The Union of Concerned Scientists praised the guidance but noted that “a lot of work remains to be done.” Francesca Grifo from the UCS added, “If the details are fully articulated by federal agencies and departments, the directive will help keep politics in its place and allow government scientists to do their jobs.” And OMB Watch’s Gary Bass echoed those sentiments, saying, “Articulating a vision for scientific integrity is essential, but the devil will be in the details, some of which are lacking in this memo.”  The harshest criticism came from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which called the guidance “vague” and criticized the unclear process for implementation.

It has been a long, winding road to get this guidance published.  In April 2009, OSTP asked for public comments on developing recommendations for implementing the principles in the president’s March memo. Such comments were supposed to help OSTP develop its recommendations within 120 days, as required by the president’s March memo. Then the 120-day deadline arrived without the release of any recommendations or guidance.

The administration was silent until, nearly a year later, a post on the OSTP blog acknowledged the delay but promised that guidance was forthcoming “in the next few weeks.” By October, though, the guidance was still missing—and frustration among advocates had grown so high that PEER even sued the administration for information about the delay.

Even without the guidance, at least one agency reformed its scientific integrity policies in the wake of the 2009 memo. The Interior Department, after a public comment period, issued a new policy in September 2010, which was praised by a number of organizations. Most agencies, however, have not made significant policy changes in the absence of guidance. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was waiting for the guidance.

With guidance now issued, the White House will need to stay engaged in overseeing agencies’ progress in implementation. That oversight is likely to be a key factor in determining whether the new scientific integrity policies are a success. The need for strong scientific integrity protections is clear.

While the Obama administration has struck a different tone from the previous administration, it has made its own blunders. The administration has faced particular criticism of its handling of science in the BP oil spill, including allegations of White House interference with NOAA estimates, the botched communication of its study on where the spilled oil went, and the misrepresentation of its offshore drilling moratorium as peer-reviewed. This new guidance is another step toward ensuring more resilient policies are in place before the next crisis occurs.

Gavin Baker is a federal information policy analyst at OMB Watch. Thanks to Gary Bass, Sean Moulton, Brian Gumm, and Matthew Madia of OMB Watch.

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