Proposed Interior Dept scientific integrity policy fails to address political abuse of science

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The U.S. Department of the Interior’s “Proposed Scientific Integrity Policy” addresses only issues of scientific misconduct by government scientists, while ignoring the problem of political interference in and misuse of science, which has been by far the greater problem at Interior. In his March 9, 2009, scientific integrity memorandum to heads of executive agencies, President Obama’s framing of his policy directive included this: “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.” The White House should send Interior Secretary Salazar back to the drawing board and tell him to do the rest of the job—developing, without delay, a policy to protect the integrity of how scientific research is used by government officials, and to protect research and communication by government scientists from political interference.The Department of the Interior has wide-ranging responsibilities and includes the following agencies:

Bureau of Indian Affairs
Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service, renamed summer 2010)
Bureau of Reclamation
National Park Service
Office of Insular Affairs
Office of Surface Mining
United States Fish and Wildlife Service
United States Geological Survey

The “Proposed Scientific Integrity Policy of the Department of the Interior” was published in the Federal Register on August 31, for public review and comment through September 20.

The Department says the proposed policy is aimed at “ensuring accuracy and integrity in all scientific activities conducted in the Department.” Essentially, the proposed policy applies to department “employees and contractors who engage in scientific activities.” The policy would establish a code of scientific conduct, ethical standards for department “employees who conduct or supervise scientific activities for the Department, or who compile and translate scientific information into formats used by the Departmental management.” It would establish a process for dealing with alleged violations of the scientific conduct code, such as conflict of interest or scientific misconduct. Scientific misconduct is defined as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.”

Unfortunately, the draft is far from comprehensive and only addresses research misconduct, while failing to address other principles laid out in President Obama’s March 9, 2009, memorandum to heads of executive departments and agencies on scientific integrity. The President’s memorandum said, in part:

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.

By this memorandum, I assign to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes.  The Director shall confer, as appropriate, 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, and recommend a plan to achieve that goal throughout the executive branch.

The Department of the Interior was plagued by scandals during the Bush administration, most revolving around corrupt political appointees and agency bureaucrats overturning scientific conclusions and suppressing agency scientists as they sought to protect endangered species and natural resources from exploitation by private interests including developers, loggers, and oil and gas development. During the Bush Administration the Interior Department Inspector General issued a number of reports finding that top Interior officials systematically violated laws and regulations in order to avoid or eliminate environmental protections.

Unfortunately, as noted by our friends in the Scientific Integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the proposed policy would have done little to prevent the manipulation of science that was so common at the DOI in the last administration, or the political interference at the former Minerals Management Service. Many of these abuses were committed by individuals in high-level positions. The proposed DOI policy focuses on scientists and not their supervisors.

We agree with the UCS that a comprehensive scientific integrity policy must:

o protect whistleblowers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse;
o outline clear guidelines for scientist communications with the media;
o make visitor logs publicly available in a timely fashion;
o create stronger conflict-of-interest guidelines; and
o disclose more information about the scientific basis for policy decisions and who was involved in making those decisions.

This would apply, not only the the Interior Department, but to other federal agencies as well.

Some good UCS online briefing papers that bear directly on DOI:

The Minerals Management Service: Bad Science in the Name of Private Interests

MMS circumvented science and suppressed the opinions of scientists concerned about the environmental impacts of drilling.

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon project exploded, killing 11 people and touching off the largest oil spill in US history. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency responsible for overseeing offshore drilling, came under ethical scrutiny for its involvement in multiple scandals involving employees’ cozy relationships with oil company employees, including the acceptance of financial favors, drug use, and rampant conflict of interest. What is more troubling still, however, is the MMS’ extensive history of suppressing science and underestimating environmental impacts in order to ensure the speedy approval of oil industry projects.

The abuses of science include the following areas:
Dodging Environmental Impact Statements
Direct Manipulation of MMS Science
Ignoring Endangered Species

Scientific Integrity at the Department of the Interior (see post on UCS website for links to additional references)

One of the great strengths of the Endangered Species Act is its foundation in robust scientific principles and its reliance on the best available science. But mounting evidence shows that political interference is undermining the implementation and enforcement of protections for imperiled species.

In May 2008 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, UCS Senior Scientist Francesca Grifo described how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has distorted science and changed the way it uses scientific information to stack the deck against endangered and threatened species. Dr. Grifo’s testimony recommended several reforms needed to restore scientific integrity to the federal policy making process.

The hearing came one year after the resignation of former Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, whose political meddling was revealed by UCS and several conservation groups and subsequently documented in a scathing Interior Department Inspector General report. At a May 2007 House Natural Resources Committee hearing, Dr. Grifo warned that the pervasive problem of political interference at federal agencies was not solved by MacDonald’s departure. In fact, a 2005 UCS survey of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists found that 128 scientists had been asked for non-scientific reasons to refrain from making scientific findings that are protective of species.

The hearing also came just three weeks after Rep. Waxman (D-CA) and UCS released evidence that White House officials were delaying a rule intended to reduce fatal collisions between ships and the critically endangered right whale. The Office of the Vice President and the White House Council of Economic Advisers spearheaded an attempt to discredit the federal science behind the rule.

As of May 2008, more than 80 endangered species decisions were under some type of review because of inappropriate interference. The UCS A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science provides details for many affected species, including the white-tailed prairie dog, Florida panther, bull trout, and trumpeter swan.

Advancing Solutions

…There will always be pressure on elected officials from special interests to weaken environmental laws. For that reason UCS urges systemic reforms. Specifically:

Meaningful ethics guidelines must be implemented at all agencies, addressing the protection of imperiled species.

The decision-making process must be made more transparent to expose the misuse of scientific information. When announcing a decision, the [Fish and Wildlife Service] should publicly explain the scientific rationale for each listing decision and recovery plan, complete with a justification of how scientific and economic data were reconciled; the names of those involved in the decision; and whether there was any dissenting scientific analysis.

Scientists should be allowed basic freedoms to carry out their work and keep up with advances in their field.  This should include the right to publish in peer-reviewed journals regardless of whether research results support administration policy, the right to speak freely through clear media and communications policies, and the encouragement to actively participate in all aspects of scientific societies.

Whistleblower rights must be guaranteed to scientists, to encourage them to expose fraud, waste, and abuse in endangered species decisions without fear of reprisal.

Earlier CSW post:

September 17: Lawsuit seeks answers to why Obama Administration officials lowballed BP oil blowout estimates

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