“Scientific integrity” requires communication free from government and corporate pressure

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Photo: NOAA

Despite White House guidelines calling for scientific integrity and freedom of scientific communication in federal agencies, the current state of affairs suggests that this ideal has yet to be fully realized.  For example, NOAA  policy continues to inhibit freedom of communication by scientists who receive grant money from the agency. Meanwhile, BP upholds an illusion that it is accurately assessing the damage inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico in last year’s catastrophic oil spill, while independent studies find their methods lacking in both transparency and accuracy.

[If you have witnessed the suppression of scientific research related to last April’s Gulf oil spill, contact the Gulf Coast Know Your Rights Campaign to make an anonymous report or obtain confidential counseling.]

Post by Katherine O’Konski and Jamal Knight

The December 2010 White House scientific integrity memorandum describes “the minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules appropriate for their particular missions and cultures.”  The goal is to prohibit political interference in the work of government employed scientists.  In response, EPA, NASA, the Interior Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have produced and made available to the public either draft policies or progress reports.  Yet despite these efforts, interference remains a common occurrence.

Take NOAA for example. Their draft policy on scientific integrity acknowledges the key role of science in informing policy, and “creates the conditions for first-rate science…guarding against attempt to undermine, discredit, or change it.”  The policy promises to encourage scientists to publish their data, and provide whistleblower protection.  CSW certainly approves of these efforts, but finds several weaknesses in the draft policy that may prevent it from effectively protecting agency scientists, particularly with regard to agency media communication policy and whistleblower protections. 

In addition, NOAA has undermined the sincerity of its own policy with a publication that addresses scientists supported by the National Sea Grant College Program.  This is NOAA’s primary university-based program dealing with coastal resource use and conservation.  Their publication essentially places a “gag rule” on grant-funded scientists, labeling advocacy as “seductive” and asking scientists to “avoid it at all costs.”

A June 29 article in Greenwire (subscription required) reports:

PEER [Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility] asked the agency in December 2009 to alter the guidance after a marine scientist in Alaska allegedly lost his funding after speaking out against oil and gas development in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The group asked the agency for a rulemaking to change the publication to allow grant recipients to take positions on matters of public debate.

In a letter sent to the group this month, NOAA acting Assistant Administrator Craig McLean rejected their petition stating that since the booklet is “not a binding legal requirement,” NOAA does not have grounds to go through a rulemaking process to amend it. The brief letter does not clarify the policy or explain the agency’s stance on whether grant recipients should be allowed to speak out.

“Rather than taking this opportunity to clarify its support for academic freedom, NOAA has chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a legalism,” PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said in a statement.

Ruch said the policy does not seem to line up with the agency’s own emerging scientific integrity policy. “It makes no sense that NOAA agency scientists would be free to speak out but academic scientists who receive NOAA Sea Grants are not.”

The implications of this lack of protection and support for freedom of communication by scientists stretch beyond the unjust loss of employment and reduced funding for those who dare to speak their minds.  Nowhere better can these implications be seen than in the lack of transparency involved in the damage assessment and clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

At the June 28 Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife hearing entitled “Status of the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment [NRDA]” it was made clear that the assessment process, intended to determine the amount of restoration necessary to compensate the public for harm done to collective natural resources, is not performing as well as it should.  This is caused, in part, by the fact that much of the funding comes from BP.

While BP must and should be paying for these efforts, a clear conflict of interest clouds the damage assessment. There are allegations that BP continues to suppress and interfere with scientific assessment of the damages by threatening the timely collection of data, delaying work plan approval, and eliminating assessment activities that are potentially damaging by withholding funding. [See CSW’s earlier post for more detail.]

The testimony of Dr. Erik Rifkin, Executive Director of the National Aquarium Conservation Center serves as an excellent example of the need for independent research, freely communicated, to adequately protect and restore the Gulf.  Dr. Rifkin’s research within the National Aquarium is undertaken with the understanding that “the current NRDA protocol for determining whether concentrations of PAHs [organic pollutants found in petroleum] are potentially problematic has…an unacceptable level of uncertainty.”

The NRDA is currently utilizing the standard grab sampling method to measure organic pollutants.  However, Dr. Rifkin’s team has established that this method cannot detect pollutants in the low (but still very dangerous) concentrations that are present.  Instead, Dr. Rifkin’s team has deployed a series of contaminant samplers known as semi-permeable membrane devices (SPMDs).  These devices act as virtual fish, providing “unparalleled, time integrated data on levels of petroleum contaminants in the water column and sediment pore water.”

These devices “will provide a far more accurate assessment of the nature and extent of chronic damages.”  He stressed, “the ramification of our findings should not be underestimated.”

Indeed, the data provided by his testimony (on pages 12 and 13) show startling differences between the grab-sample and the SPMD findings.

If government agencies are not willing to set a precedent by ensuring that federally funded scientists are free to communicate their views freely without being subjected to political pressure, CSW wonders how the government can expect corporations like BP to do so. Yet the need to create this precedent for integrity in the production and dissemination of scientific information is pressing. There are serious consequences associated with a process of assessing the natural resource damages of the Gulf region that lacks proper transparency and accountability. Institutional safeguards are necessary to ensure that the public is not ultimately left with responsibility for these damages to the region.

If you have witnessed the suppression of scientific research related to last April’s Gulf oil spill, contact CSW and the Gulf Coast Know Your Rights Campaign to make an anonymous report or obtain confidential counseling.

Earlier posts:

The Government Accountability Project’s “Know Your Rights Campaign” raises public awareness of Gulf worker whistleblower rights

BP control of Gulf cleanup money interfering with scientific integrity of damage assessment, Senate Environment committee told at hearing

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

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

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