New Interior Dept. scientific integrity policy: first agency response to White House guidelines

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The U.S. Department of the Interior issued a new policy February 1 on “Integrity of Scientific and Scholarly Activities,” making it the first agency to formalize a policy as called for by the White House scientific integrity guidelines issued in December 2010. The DOI policy should be treated as a work-in-progress, requiring further clarification and implementation, but it can be seen as a key step forward. Now, EPA, NOAA, USDA, the FDA, and other agencies must issue formal written policies to protect the freedom of federal scientists to communicate, prevent political manipulation of their work, and ensure that whistleblowers’ rights are protected and concerns addressed.

The Washington Post reported on February 2:

Interior Department issues new policy protecting government scientists

The Interior Department set new rules Tuesday that will protect scientific information and the people who create it from political interference, earning wide praise from outside groups that have long alleged that top political officials regularly manipulate or misinterpret data.

The new scientific-integrity policy applies to the department’s 67,000 employees as well as its contractors, grant recipients and volunteers when they analyze or share scientific information with reporters and the public or use the department’s information to make policy or regulatory decisions, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. …

Full text of the Interior Department scientific integrity policy

DOI news release

We haven’t studied the rather lengthy full text in detail yet. One of our main concerns is with agency media policy, i.e., the freedom of communication between federal scientists, on the one hand, and reporters and the public, on the other.  Another, with which we have had more than enough direct experience, will be how agency policy seeks to ensure that political appointees, agency spokespersons, and public affairs operatives are prevented from censoring or misrepresenting scientific findings and assessments to suit agency positions or administration political objectives.  And good scientific integrity policy must spell out strong protections for whistleblowers who call attention to the abuse of power — one of the essential and, I would say, underutilized modes of public service.

We note that two statements by public interest representatives whom we consider to be very credible on these issues compliment DOI on issuing its new policy while offering a critical perspective that raises a number of key issues that will call for further action by the agency and oversight by independent watchdogs going forward.

Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program, made this statement:

Interior Department’s New Scientific Integrity Policy Must Trigger Significant Changes To Be Effective

“It’s impressive that the Interior Department, which has allowed serious lapses in scientific integrity in recent years, is the first out of the gate with a scientific integrity plan. The new policy clearly reaffirms the president’s principles, and signals the department’s intent to establish strong scientific integrity standards not just for scientists but for political appointees, career employees and contractors as well.

“But no matter how well intentioned the new Interior policy may be, it is sorely lacking in detail and public accountability. While it’s a good starting place, I encourage other agencies and departments to be more specific in their own scientific integrity plans.

“We can only hope that the new policy will trigger several significant and necessary changes that enable the public to hold the department more accountable for its decisions. This is essential, because many loopholes still remain. Scientists at Interior still lack sufficient guidance to feel comfortable sharing their research and scientific analysis with the public and the press. The policy does not protect them from retribution when they report political interference in science. Conflicts of interest within the department, which have been rife, may still go unreported. And the public can still remain in the dark when it comes to what science the department considers when making policy decisions.

“This new policy will help the department address some of its biggest problems, but by itself, it is insufficient. For example, it’s troubling that the new process for evaluating allegations of wrongdoing lacks transparency. Likewise, the department is not required to publicly disclose or confirm cases of misconduct, making accountability nearly impossible.

“We will be monitoring progress to see to what extent the department eliminates these loopholes. While I applaud their lofty goals, I would still give the department a grade of incomplete. The department’s scientists deserve—and need—more.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility issued a news release that included this:

… Taken together, the rules confer new legal protections on both scientific information and the specialists who create it. …

Adopted as a new chapter in the Interior Departmental Manual, the rules take immediate effect.  They are the first concrete action to implement a March 2009 presidential directive that all agencies adopt rules to prevent political manipulation and suppression of scientific findings. That government-wide effort is more than 18 months behind schedule and it is not clear if other agencies will follow Interior’s lead.

The most salient feature of the rules is a prohibition against altering scientific conclusions for non-scientific reasons by public relations staff, political appointees and non-scientist managers.

The rules also lay out a process for investigating misconduct allegations against scientists and non-scientist managers. “This is the first official attempt to punish managers who skew science to advance agency agendas,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the previous pattern was to reward managers who bend science to win approvals. “As amply evidenced by official public statements following the BP Gulf spill, political manipulation of scientific information still is common practice. These rules will begin to change agency culture once they are successfully applied to a political appointee.”

Interior’s new rules still leave a number of gray areas that will have to be filled in, including –

  • Ambiguity about scientists’ prerogative to publish findings or submit papers to peer reviewed journals (a right secured in only one Interior agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service);
  • Promised whistleblower protections for scientists are not spelled out; and
  • Circumstances under which scientists are forbidden from speaking with the media are unstated. …

 “This is very much a work in progress but appears to be a good faith effort to grapple with a basket of knotty issues which heretofore have been kept out of sight,” Ruch added. … “Historically, the Department of Interior has been infamous for thorough-going political distortion of science. If Interior can adopt science integrity rules, then surely other agencies such as EPA, NOAA and the Forest Service, have no excuse not to follow suit.”

In his discussion on The Intersection blog, Chris Mooney raised an additional scientific integrity issue that remains to be dealt with at DOI.

See our recent four-part series “On the White House Scientific Integrity Guidelines,” starting with Part 1 here.

Also:

“Will EPA sit out scientific integrity rulemaking?” asks Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

NOAA on the BP oil blowout: Is this any way to communicate science?

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One Response to New Interior Dept. scientific integrity policy: first agency response to White House guidelines

  1. ChrisD says:

    Ralph Morgenweck, DOI’s brand new Science Integrity Officer (he’s the first such at any agency), discussed these issues on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show yesterday, February 9. Audio is available here.

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