Legal deadline today for White House to issue federal science communication principles

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President Bush on 9 August 2007 signed into law the America Competes Act, including a provision that requires the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to "develop and issue an overarching set of principles to ensure the communication and open exchange of data and results" from Federal scientists and to "prevent the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of such research findings." The principles are due "no later than than 90 days" after the law was enacted, i.e. no later than today, 7 November 2007. Will the White House comply with the law by meeting today’s deadline?

This posting was developed by the Climate Science Watch research team.

The language of Section 1009 ( "Release of Scientific Research Results" ) of the America Competes Act (H.R. 2272) originally surfaced in legislation introduced on 15 May 2006, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S.2802). That legislation, which never became law, included a provision (Section 104) on “Release of scientific research results.”  The Senate report on the legislation (Senate Report 109-285) said:

Section 104 would require the Director of OSTP, in consultation with the Director of OMB, to develop and issue a set of principles for the communication of scientific information by government scientists, policy makers, and managers to the public within 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act.

Subsection (b) would require the Director of OSTP to ensure that all civilian Federal agencies that conduct scientific research develop specific policies and procedures regarding the release of scientific information consistent with the principles established by OSTP pursuant to subsection (a) within 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act. Subsection (b) also would require that these agency-specific policies be uniformly applied across the agency, widely communicated, and readily accessible to all employees and the public. Finally, subsection (b) would require these agency-specific policies to address specifically what is and what is not permitted or recommended.

Section 104 is based upon recommendations from the National Science Board’s review of the policies of Federal science agencies concerning the suppression and distortion of research findings and their impact on the quality and credibility of all future government-sponsored scientific research results. The review was performed in response to complaints from government scientists regarding allegations of suppression and distortion of climate change research findings by government officials. The Nation must trust the quality and credibility of science in order to rely on its results to inform public policy. [emphasis added]


President Bush signs the America Competes Act on August 9 2007. Director John Marburger of the Office of Science and Technology Policy is at the far left. White House photo by Chris Greenberg.

The Section 104 language again appeared in S.3936 (National Competitiveness Investment Act – American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006), introduced on 26 September 2006.  Finally, it was folded into the America Competes Act (as section 1009) which was introduced on May 10 2007 and was signed into law on 9 August 2007 (see the box at the end of this posting for the full text of Section 1009). Under the law, OSTP Director John Marburger, must within 90 days (by 7 November 2007) develop the set of principles and within 180 days (by 6 March 2008) must ensure that agency policy and procedures are consistent with those principles.

The National Science Board (NSB) review mentioned in the Senate report had been requested in an 8 February 2006 letter from Senator McCain (Republican, Arizona). According to a 9 June 2006 article by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, "Mr. McCain sought the review … after Civil Service workers and
scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other agencies complained publicly that political appointees had interfered with efforts to discuss global warming and other controversial issues."

The NSB reported its results in a 10 May 2006 letter to Senator McCain (Attachment 4 in Major Actions and Approvals, May 9 -10, 2006 NSB Meeting [PDF]) signed by Warren M. Washington, Chairman of the NSB. "Your February 8, 2006 letter requested that the National Science Board (the Board) examine existing policies of Federal science agencies concerning the suppression and distortion of research findings and the impact these actions could have on the quality and credibility of future Government-sponsored scientific research results," wrote Washington. The letter concluded:

"The Board believes that there exists a need for all Federal agencies that conduct science to establish policies and procedures to encourage open exchange of data and results of research conducted by agency scientists, while also preventing the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of research findings. An overarching set of principles for the communication of scientific information by Government scientists, policy makers, and managers should be developed and issued by the Administration to serve as the umbrella under which each agency would develop its specific policies and procedures. Delay in taking these actions may contribute to a potential loss of confidence by the American public and broader research community regarding the quality and credibility of Government sponsored scientific research results."

It was not the first time the NSB had addressed issues relating to the communication of scientific information. In its 1988 Report of the NSB Committee on Openness of Scientific Communications [PDF], the NSB began with this "Fundamental Proposition:"

Our fundamental proposition is that open scientific communication is:

  • An indispensable tool for creating verifiable, shared bodies of scientific knowledge;
  • A determinant of the rate of scientific and technological progress, which is dependent upon information and data developed by others;
  • A necessary condition for efficient and proper use of public and private research funds;
  • A primary force in enhancing cultural, social and economic well-being; and
  • An ideal consistent with and supportive of the values of an open democratic society.

Exemplary ethical and professional standards and behavior by researchers, research directors, and sponsors are a necessary condition for maintaining openness, for an open system must transmit valid or verifiable information. Conversely, an open system provides incentives for proper ethical behavior and high professional standards.

In its 10 May 2006 letter to Senator McCain, the NSB said that "the Board requested that the Inspector General (IG) of the National Science Foundation (NSF) poll her counterparts at these agencies for additional relevant information." The NSB chairman Washington reported to McCain that the survey "of the agencies’ IGs indicated that no reports were issued to indicate scientific information was suppressed or distorted at the agencies involved with the Board’s review."

The fact that the IGs had not issued any such reports should not have been a surprise to the NSB, since the IGs themselves have been extensively politicized under the Bush Administration and have been the subjects of Congressional investigations and calls for resignations. The Politicization of Inspectors General [PDF], a report prepared for Henry Waxman by the House Committee on Government Reform Minority Staff, reported more than a year before the NSB review that "IG appointments have become increasingly politicized during the Administration of President Bush." Subsequently, in June 2007, the committee issued a fact sheet, Inspectors General:
Questions of Independence and Accountability
[PDF], finding that:

"… politicization is only one element that threatens the independence of Inspectors General. Interference by agency management, the absence of input or control by IGs into their office budgets, and campaigns by management to remove IGs who are aggressive in their investigations all jeopardize the independence of the Inspector General. At the same time, a lack of consistent and credible mechanisms for investigating and resolving allegations of misconduct by IGs may threaten accountability and credibility."

Though the IGs had not issued any reports of suppression or distortion, NSB Chairman Washington evidently found compelling evidence elsewhere. Less than a month after NSB’s letter to Senator McCain, the Rocky Mountain News reported on an interview with Washington. In Researcher Alleges Climate Cover-up, the publication reported:

The American public is not hearing the full story on global warming because Bush administration officials are muzzling government scientists, a top climate researcher said Wednesday.

Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, said that Bush appointees are suppressing information about climate change, restricting journalists’ access to federal scientists and rewriting agency news releases to stress global warming uncertainties.

“The news media is not getting the full story, especially from government scientists,” Washington told about 160 people attending the first day of “Climate Change and the Future of the American West,” a three-day conference sponsored by the University of Colorado’s Natural Resources Law Center.

….

Washington said in an interview that the climate cover-up is occurring at several federal agencies, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Forest Service.

…..

Washington insisted that government officials are “trying to confuse the public” about climate change and the scientific consensus that global warming is a real problem.

In any event, the NSB’s recommendation remained: "An overarching set of principles for the communication of scientific information by Government scientists, policy makers, and managers should be developed and issued by the Administration to serve as the umbrella under which each agency would develop its specific policies and procedures." That recommendation subsequently was codified in the America Competes Act and the White House must issue those principles today, November 7 2007 — or it will be in violation of the law.

America Competes Act
Title 1–Office of Science and Technology Policy; Government-Wide Science
Sec. 1009. Release of Scientific Research Results

(a) Principles- Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the heads of all Federal civilian agencies that conduct scientific research, shall develop and issue an overarching set of principles to ensure the communication and open exchange of data and results to other agencies, policymakers, and the public of research conducted by a scientist employed by a Federal civilian agency and to prevent the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of such research findings. The principles shall encourage the open exchange of data and results of research undertaken by a scientist employed by such an agency and shall be consistent with existing Federal laws, including chapter 18 of title 35, United States Code (commonly known as the `Bayh-Dole Act’). The principles shall also take into consideration the policies of peer-reviewed scientific journals in which Federal scientists may currently publish results.

(b) Implementation- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy shall ensure that all civilian Federal agencies that conduct scientific research develop specific policies and procedures regarding the public release of data and results of research conducted by a scientist employed by such an agency consistent with the principles established under subsection (a). Such policies and procedures shall–

  1. specifically address what is and what is not permitted or recommended under such policies and procedures;
  2. be specifically designed for each such agency;
  3. be applied uniformly throughout each such agency; and
  4. be widely communicated and readily accessible to all employees of each such agency and the public.
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