December 17, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Less than two months after taking office, President Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity, which 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. The deadline passed in July 2009, and we kept wondering where the recommendations were. Today, OSTP Director John Holdren finally released a four-page memorandum that provides agencies with guidance for implementing the administration’s scientific integrity policies.

In his story about the scientific integrity guidelines, which aired this morning in anticipation of their release, NPR’s Scott Horsley included a prediction from University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr.

Pielke added that given the wide range of agencies covered by the guidelines, many of the details will probably have to be filled in later. He said he expects that when the guidelines are finally released, many people will be asking, “We waited a year and a half for this?”

I expect that’s exactly the reaction people are having right now. What the OSTP has done is to add a bit more flesh to the principles President Obama set forth in March 2009 and turn it over to the agencies to develop their own policies. Holdren asks that “all agencies report to me within 120 days the actions they have taken to develop and implement policies in the areas above.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been a leading force in the push for scientific integrity, and their Scientific Integrity Program Director, Francesca Grifo, commented on the guidelines:

This is a rough but promising blueprint for honesty and accountability in the use of science in government decisions. 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.

At the same time, I’m worried that the directive leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the agencies. We will be watching them every step of the way.

What’s in the Guidelines
The guidelines contain a few things that, on the one hand, seem like the kind of basic stuff you shouldn’t even have to say – but then they also sound like they could be a direct answer to actions by members of the Bush administration:

Ensure a culture of scientific integrity. … political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings. …

Strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of Government research. Of particular importance are: a) ensuring that selection of candidates for scientific positions in the executive branch is based primarily on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity, b) ensuring that data and research used to support policy decisions undergo independent peer review by qualified experts, where feasible and appropriate, and consistent with law, c) setting clear standards governing conflicts of interest, and, d) adopting appropriate whistleblower protections.

Holdren does address one issue that has been a point of disagreement:

Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work, with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office. In no circumstance may public affairs officers ask or direct Federal scientists to alter scientific findings.

While the “appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office” bit certainly leaves room for a range of interpretations, it’s helpful to have it stated outright that scientists may speak to the media about scientific matters.

I was also very glad to see this section included:

IV. Professional Development of Government Scientists and Engineers
Agencies should establish policies that promote and facilitate, as permitted by law, the professional development of Government scientists and engineers. Such policies should, consistent with Federal ethics rules, job responsibilities, and existing agency policies regarding political appointees:

1. Encourage publication of research findings in peer-reviewed, professional, or scholarly journals.
2. Encourage presentation of research findings at professional meetings.
3. Allow Government scientists and engineers to become editors or editorial board members of professional or scholarly journals.
4. Allow full participation in professional or scholarly societies, committees, task forces and other specialized bodies of professional societies, including removing barriers for serving as officers or on governing boards of such societies.
5. Allow Government scientists and engineers to receive honors and awards for their research and discoveries with the goal of minimizing, to the extent practicable, disparities in the potential for private-sector and public-sector scientists and engineers to accrue the professional benefits of such honors or awards.

Last year, my colleagues and I released the results of our Scientists in Government research, in which we studied the policies and practices that affect federal scientists’ work. From in-depth interviews with current and former government scientists, we learned that in addition to the big things (like a complete shift in priorities from one administration to the next), there are lots of seemingly small frustrations that can add up to logjams and overall demoralization. We heard repeatedly that the processes for getting a manuscript or conference presentation approved could be so tedious and time-consuming (without adding much, if any, value) that some scientists just gave up on trying to publish or present. (I should note that these criticisms were not universal – some of the interviewees reported no problems in these areas – and there was, overall, a lot of variability between agencies.)

So, it’s good to see OSTP acknowledging the importance of federal scientists participating in the broader scientific community. Whether this results in agencies improving their policies or practices remains to be seen.

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