July 9, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

Back in March of 2009, President Obama delighted advocates of scientific integrity when he signed a memorandum that stated:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

The memo gave the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy 120 days to “develop recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch,” based on six principles that Obama specified.

OSTP wasted no time in publishing a Federal Register notice soliciting public input. My colleagues and I submitted comments, and eagerly awaited OSTP’s plan for guaranteeing scientific integrity. We weren’t surprised when the July 2009 deadline passed, but then we started to worry. At this point, OSTP has missed the deadline by an entire year.

When asked about scientific integrity recommendations in a weekly email Q&A, OSTP Director John Holdren replied:

Pursuant to that request, my staff and I have been engaged since the date of the Memorandum in development of such recommendations, which as specified in the Memorandum has included consultations with “the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and offices and agencies within the Executive Office of the President”. Indeed, OSTP began the process by creating an interagency panel with representatives from all of the major science offices and agencies. That group launched an unprecedentedly open, Web-based process to accept detailed input from stakeholders inside and outside government. Based on that input and internal discussions, the group developed draft recommendations for consideration by OSTP and OMB. And over the intervening months representatives from those two offices have been honing a final set of recommendations.

I am the first to admit that the process has been more laborious and time-consuming than expected at the outset. Determining how to elaborate on the principles set forth in the Memorandum in enough detail to be of real assistance in their implementation, while at the same time retaining sufficient generality to be applicable across Executive departments and agencies with a wide variety of missions and structures, has been particularly challenging. And other demands on the participants over this time period have also been much greater than expected. But I am pleased to report here that the process, though slower than many (including myself) had hoped, has resulted in what I believe is a high-quality product that I anticipate finalizing and forwarding to the President in the next few weeks.

In addition to the strong scientific integrity principles that, as noted above, have been in effect since the President’s memorandum of March 9, 2009, there has been other important activity on transparency and integrity ongoing in parallel with the process of developing the supplementary recommendations that the memorandum requested. In particular, OSTP and OMB have spearheaded an array of Open Government initiatives that have, together, made a record-breaking amount of government data available to the public and, more generally, have unveiled many previously hidden workings of the Federal government. Indeed, I believe no Administration has pushed as hard as this one to restore integrity in general–and scientific integrity in particular–to the Federal enterprise. I am confident that with the completion of OSTP’s recommendations on scientific integrity these already high standards will be strengthened and assured well into the future.

The original deadline didn’t give OSTP much time, and I’d rather see them do a high-quality job than rush to produce a mediocre product. Still, a year is a long time. And although Holdren states that the principles have been in effect across the executive branch since the memo was issued, organizations like the Center for Progressive Reform have been reporting worrisome actions by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs with regards to transparency and EPA rules. Releasing the OSTP recommendations would be a good way to demonstrate the administration’s commitment to scientific integrity and give us a yardstick by which to measure their actions.

2 thoughts on “OSTP a Year Late Delivering Scientific Integrity Plan

  1. Surely you jest. A scientific integrity plan from an administration which commissioned a NAE report on deep sea drilling, then attached a recommendation directly opposite to that recommended by the authors, and claimed they’d recommended it?

    The current administration cares nothing for science, and ‘integrity’ is alien to it.

  2. Yeah, there have definitely been some big disappointments. There have also been some positive steps, like appointing some agency leaders who are respected in the scientific community and making steps towards greater transparency. Union of Concerned Scientists has a good compilation of specific actions the administration has taken or failed to take on scientific integrity.

    Obama seems to care about scientific integrity, but if he doesn’t care enough to make it a priority, then some agencies will keep doing what’s easiest for them. And if the administration puts out a plan for ensuring scientific integrity, then they’ll be making specific commitments we can hold them to.

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