On the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines – Part 2: Can Federal Scientists Speak Freely With Journalists?

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One of the five sections of OSTP Director John Holdren's December 17, 2010, scientific integrity guidelines for federal agencies covers Public Communications.  Media policy is what most concerns journalists, and is one area in which the Bush administration engaged in a pattern of political interference with climate science communication.  This second of a four-part series by environmental journalist Joseph A. Davis provides a critical examination of how the Public Communications section of the new guidelines does not nail down essential requirements for reforming federal agency practices.

The following is the second in a series of posts on the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines memorandum issued December 17, 2010.

Also see:

Part 1: OMB's Secret 'Openness' Policy 

Part 3: OMB as a Force for Secrecy

Part 4: Sources, Documents, Further Information

Scientific "Openness" Run as Black Op

from OMB's Secret White House Lair; Integrity Suffers

By Joseph A. Davis

 Part 2:  Can Scientists Speak Freely With Journalists?

SOME BACKGROUND

The Bush administration drew some journalists' ire because it tried to suppress, distort, and alter government scientists' findings -- for example, editing climate change science to support the don't-regulate policy it had adopted at the behest of coal and oil industry contributors. President Obama campaigned and took office vowing to change such practices.

Obama decreed a return to "scientific integrity" in a March 2009 memo to all agencies. That memo gave his science adviser, John P. Holdren, 120 days to consult with all agencies and come up with new "recommendations for presidential action" that would achieve transparency and integrity.

On December 17, 2010 -- some 21 months after the President’s memo and 17 months past the deadline -- John P. Holdren, who as chief science adviser heads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), finally issued another memo to the agencies on science integrity.  That memo was supposed to be the fulfillment of President Obama's statement of principles on science integrity.

Some groups welcomed it cautiously as a step forward. With vague and general language, it left largely to the agencies the job of implementing the President's principles. It recommended, rather than ordered, the agencies to follow the 2009 decrees. It contained no "recommendations for presidential action." Nor did the president himself publicly endorse it or implement it with an executive order of his own.  And it left intact the secret, politicized process by which the OMB illegally subverts and ignores science findings and orders agencies to set whatever regulations the White House wants. It also left intact OMB's current de facto authority to clear or edit any science testimony agencies present to Congress.

JOURNALISTS BLOCKED BY MINDERS AND PERMISSIONS

During both the Bush and Obama presidencies, many journalists had been frustrated by agency public affairs offices (also called public information, press, or media affairs offices) when they tried to interview scientists about science crucial to public and environmental health or important subjects like climate. Typically, scientists would tell reporters who called them that they were not allowed to talk without Press Office permission.

Upon applying to the Press Office, very few reporters were told: "Oh, sure! Go ahead and call that scientist up and talk to him or her about whatever you want." Instead, they might wait a week or two for a callback or interview determination on a breaking story -- if they were lucky enough to get any response.  By which time -- long after their story was filed -- the interview would be useless. They might be told they could only talk to agency personnel "on background." This, too, could make an interview useless, since some publications as a matter of editorial policy do not use interviews unless they are "on the record."

Or they might be told the agency did not think the scientist they requested was the right person to talk to about the subject they were interested in -- even when the journalist wanted to talk about research conducted by the scientist requested. Instead, they might be sent to another scientist whose views were more pliant to administration policies. Or -- this actually happened -- reporters with science questions were set up for interviews with a political appointee who knew almost nothing about the subject and had to keep whispering questions during the interview to the scientist the journalist actually sought. The bottom line: quite often a journalist is simply not allowed to talk to the scientist they specifically need to talk to.

Or the journalists very likely might be told that they would only be permitted to talk to the scientist if somebody from the Press Office sits in on the interview. If the interview is on the phone, the press officer would have to be in on it as a conference call. Sometimes, the press officer might merely observe and audit the interview -- but on other occasions, press officers have been known to jump into the interview to officer policy interpretations of a scientist's statements.

Some agency press officers -- such as ones at the Environmental Protection Agency -- denied that any policy existed requiring press office permission for scientists to speak with journalists. In EPA's case, this was technically correct, as no written or formal policy requiring minders or permissions existed on paper. Yet scientists continually told journalists that the policy was ironclad and that their jobs were at risk if they granted an interview.

The December 17, 2010, science integrity guidelines potentially authorize and legitimize these practices -- if only by not explicitly forbidding them.

HOLDREN MEMO ON "PUBLIC COMMUNICATIONS"

Holdren's December 17, 2010, memo covered much more than public communications policy -- which only one of its five sections was devoted to. The other sections may have a lot to commend them. But press policy is what most concerns journalists, and the part of the memo this journalist finds most disappointing. It is short enough to quote in its entirety:

"II. Public Communications

Agencies should develop public communications policies that promote and maximize, to the extent practicable, openness and transparency with the media and the American people while assuring full compliance with limits on disclosure of classified information. Such policies would ensure that:

1. In response to media interview requests about the scientific and technological dimensions of their work, agencies will offer articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons who can, in an objective and nonpartisan fashion, describe and explain these dimensions to the media and the American people.

2. 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 circumstances may public affairs officers ask or direct Federal scientists to alter their scientific findings.

3. Mechanisms are in place to resolve disputes that arise from decisions to proceed or not to proceed with proposed interviews or other public information-related activities."

A few points stand out in the above statement.

First: it will be the agencies who are developing their own press policies, not the White House, and they will be doing it without the White House formally approving the policies. While the White House says agencies "should" develop policies, it falls just short of explicitly requiring them to do so. Many agencies -- EPA, for example -- have until now found it convenient NOT to have an official written press policy. That makes it a lot easier for them to deny their actual policies of political interference. The new guidelines do not actually state that the policies must be written down.

Second: openness is sought only as long as it is "practical" -- a term which is not defined and leaves much wiggle-room. The guidelines do not state who determines what openness is "practical." Does the Obama administration support openness when it might be impractical or inconvenient?

Third: the policy does not say that journalists should be allowed to talk to the particular scientists they request -- or the scientists' whose published research the journalists may actually be writing about. Instead, the agencies are to make available "articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons" -- which can be translated as press office flacks or politically appointed upper managers. It does not state who is to determine whether the spokesperson is “articulate and knowledgeable."

Fourth: the policy seems to say that scientists are only permitted to talk to the media "with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office." That makes not one, but two Mother-May-I's. What is "appropriate"?  What does "coordination" mean? Could it be construed as meaning "clearance," i.e., pre-approval? Under this clause, it would be fine for agencies to prohibit scientists from talking to journalists without Press Office permission. There is nothing in the policy that actually forbids as inappropriate a press officer's attaching electrodes to scientists during interviews to remind them when they stray from the party line.

Fifth: the policy says rather clearly (or can be read to say) that scientists are only allowed to talk to the media about science. And not just any science. They are restricted to talking about research they have conducted as part of their official job -- about "about scientific and technological matters based on their official work." Agencies can put discussion of any other subject off limits, under President Obama's policy.

That may mean that scientists may not be allowed to talk about the implications of their research findings in the context of a larger field of scientific inquiry. They may have found that abrupt climate change occurred in some past geological era, but they could be prohibited from discussing whether it could occur at some future time. Nor, it seems, are scientists allowed to talk to the press generally about their field of study. A microbiologist might be studying a particular strain of bacteria -- but he/she would not be allowed to talk about progress in microbiology or needed microbiological research. Nor could scientists comment to the press about the work of their peers. Often the first thing a journalist does when one scientist publishes is to ask for comment from another scientist who works in the same field. One could say that agencies almost seem encouraged to prohibit this under the White House memo.

Finally, the policy makes it possible for agencies to forbid scientists to discuss at all the policy implications of their work. If a scientist finds that a particular pesticide is likely to cause excess cancer deaths, the policy allows agencies to forbid that scientist from discussing whether or how the pesticide should be regulated.

Sixth: while the policy clearly states that press flacks can not order scientists to "alter" or revise their published or unpublished research findings, that has rarely been a problem (other than perhaps former NASA PIO George Deutsch's orders to revise the Big Bang Theory). By setting up the most egregious past abuses as a straw man, the memo leaves ordinary abuses untouched. While public-information-office-ordered "alteration" of a scientist's findings is frowned on, what about the much more common problems of  obscuring, downplaying, spinning, distorting, counterbalancing, discrediting, muddling, misstating, or misinterpreting those findings?  Nothing in the memo would necessarily prevent a Press Office from doing these things.

Seventh: the memo urges agencies to adopt policies that "ensure" that "mechanisms are in place to resolve disputes that arise from decisions to proceed or not to proceed with proposed interviews." That is a laudable goal, particularly since no such mechanism appears to exist at any agency today.  Since the decisions on whether to grant interviews will be made by the political appointees running each agency, it is hard to imagine who would review and resolve disputed decisions. Perhaps this would be done by political appointees at a still higher level. It seems unlikely that any appeal could be resolved quickly enough to help a journalist on short deadline. This laudable dispute-resolution goal may be unrealistic and impractical.

To be continued in:

Part 3: OMB as a Force for Secrecy

Part 4: Sources, Documents, Further Information

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One Response to On the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines – Part 2: Can Federal Scientists Speak Freely With Journalists?

  1. Pingback: A Look at White House Views on Scientific Integrity - NYTimes.com

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