NOAA scientific integrity policy, Part 1: Scientists’ communication freedom still limited by Commerce Dept restrictions

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new scientific integrity policy issued in December contains important steps in the right direction, but Commerce Department restrictions on public communications by NOAA scientists, imposed under the Bush Administration, remain in place.

See also: NOAA scientific integrity policy, Part 2: Stronger whistleblower protections still needed

NOAA scientific integrity policy was announced in December.

The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement on the policy with which we are essentially in agrement:  NOAA Boosts Scientific Integrity with New Policy – White House Leadership Needed to Tackle Greater Issues.

Climate Science Watch submitted formal comments to NOAA in August 2011 on the public review draft policy document.

We have examined the final version of the policy released on December with an eye to determining how NOAA has dealt with issues we raised in our review. Dating back to our observation of and experience with a history of political interference with scientific communication under the Bush Administration (see Notes on Conrad Lautenbacher’s troubled legacy on science and politics at NOAA), we have been concerned with the problem of ensuring that  scientists at NOAA (and other agencies) are free to communicate with the media and the public without inappropriate restrictions by political appointees and public affairs gatekeepers. Thus, in our review comments on NOAA’s draft scientific integrity policy, we began with:

RECOMMENDATION #1: Remove barriers, both actual and perceived, to the dissemination and communication of scientific information to the media and the public.

In the NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy (NOAA Administrative Order 202-735D), issued December 7, 2011, the text most relevant to this recommendations is:

Section 2.04 -- This Order is in addition to and does not alter the requirements applicable to … other NOAA or Department of Commerce administrative orders, such as but not limited to:

a. Department policy for engaging in public communications, as specified in Departmental Administrative Order (DAO) 219-1, “Public Communications” …

Section 4.05 -- To be open and transparent about their work, and consistent with DAO 219-1 on Public Communications and their official duties, NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work, including scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings, and conclusions based on their official work. Additional guidance for employees is available in DAO 219-1…

Section 4.06 -- NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints, for example about policy or management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions, but in doing so they must make clear that they are presenting their individual opinions – not the views of the Department of Commerce or NOAA. …

The key sticking point here is Commerce Department Administrative Order 219-1 on Public Communications, issued in April 2007.  Because NOAA is an agency of the Department of Commerce, DAO 219-1 constrains NOAA policy. When DAO 219-1 was first announced, the Government Accountability Project and the Union of Concerned Scientists sent a letter of protest to then Secretary of Commerce Gutierrez (New Commerce Department Media Policy Fails to Protect Scientists from Political Interference, Groups Say).

In our review we raised concerns about the complex configuration of restrictions on scientists’ communications spelled out in DAO 219-1:

On March 29, 2007, the Bush Administration explicitly repealed former NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher’s “open science” policy when it issued an administrative order establishing a new public communications policy covering all Department of Commerce employees. The current order governing public communications, DAO 2 19-1, went into effect on April 30, [2007].  NOAA Administrator Lubchenco has made a commitment to ensuring transparency of NOAA operations, and NOAA’s draft Scientific Integrity Policy states that “NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work, including scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings and conclusions based on their official work” so long as such communication is consistent with DAO 219-1. …

DAO 219-1 provides only a limited carve-out for scientific research communications, termed “Fundamental Research Communications.” Thus, DAO 2 19-1 prevents NOAA staff from communicating some relevant information, even if prepared and delivered on their own time as private citizens, which has not been reviewed or approved by someone in a supervisory role or the Public Affairs Office. Specifically, DAO 219-1 provides that “based on the operating unit’s internal procedures any fundamental research communication must, before communication occurs, be submitted to and approved by the designated head of the operating unit.”

In addition, Section 12.01 of DAO 2 19-1 provides that an employee’s immediate supervisor “shall determine the nature of the communication.” As such, an employee’s supervisor may alter the designation of a public communication, subjecting it to a different clearance regime. …

Prior review and approval policies, as they pertain to communications not covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act, may impose restraints on employee speech that are not necessary for the efficient and effective operation of NOAA.

Climate Science Watch … recommends that NOAA work with the Department of Commerce to repeal aspects of DAO 219-1, and draft a new media communications policy as part of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, which covers all speech, even those communications outside the scope of the Whistleblower Protection Act. NOAA’ s Scientific Integrity Policy must ensure accurate, transparent, and accessible communications of scientific information to the public.

In addition, this Scientific Integrity Policy must ensure that there are no barriers for scientists when communicating with the press and the public. In order to achieve this, NOAA’s Media Communications Policy must express the fundamental rights of scientists and other agency personnel as they relate to the expression of personal views in media communications, provided that the individuals specify that they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative of, the agency, but rather in a private capacity. These rights and protections must be explicit in the policy if NOAA is to ensure that there are in fact “no barriers for scientists when communicating with the press and the public.”

NOAA’s formal response to this and other public comments (PDF) on communications policy included this:

Prior to releasing our draft policy, we consulted at great length with the Department regarding DAO 219-1 and the draft was informed by those discussions. Given the large number of comments regarding communications, we will inform the Department of public concerns and, if appropriate, open a new dialog. With respect to the rights of scientists, especially concerning their personal expression, we believe these are explicitly expressed in Sections 4.03 and 4.04 of the draft document. We have not made any additional changes. We will further reinforce these rights in the Research Council’s communications guidance. …

NOAA is guided by the U.S. Department of Commerce Public Communication Policy (DAO 219-1) and only the Department is able to make changes to this Administrative Order.  Given the over 16,000 comments we received specifically regarding the communications policy, NOAA will consult with its sister bureaus and representatives from the Department of Commerce General Counsel and policy offices to determine whether changes to the DAO are necessary. We have modified the NAO to explicitly state that scientists should have the right to review and correct any official document (such as a press release or report) that cites or references their scientific work, to ensure that accuracy has been maintained after the clearance and editing process.

Thus, NOAA has acknowledged our concerns and leaves open the possibility of further action to address them – apparently without NOAA itself being in a position to correct a problem at the level of Commerce Department-wide policy.  NOAA may have gone as far as the agency can go without further action by the Department of Commerce which would be needed to fix DOC Public Communications policy. The net result is that, under these circumstances NOAA’s scientific integrity policy does not fully protect the ability ot NOAA scientists to speak freely with the media and in their other public communications, without the threat of political interference.

The Union of Concerned Scientists acknowledged this point in their statement on the new NOAA policy, saying: “NOAA and the Department of Commerce need to refine and align their media policies to clear up confusion and fully remove barriers to the ability of scientists to communicate frankly with the public and the press.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility argued the case strongly in a July 12, 2010, petition to the Department of Commerce. The petition, which called attention to some practical implications of what can happen when integrity of public communications is not ensured, included this:

DAO 219-1 limits DOC scientists’ ability to fully express their scientific findings and take positions on matters of public debate involving those findings.  The explicit purpose of the “Public Communications” order is to “promote broad public understanding of the work of the Department.”  However, DAO 219-1 provides superior DOC officials with review and approval power.  The DOC order thus imposes a “policy review” barrier on scientists’ public communications of information related to their research, whether conducted privately or officially.  By imposing such an obstacle, DAO 219-1 restricts free speech rights, creates a chilling effect on scientific communications, and undermines both the principles of the “Public Communications” policy and President Obama’s goals for scientific integrity and transparency within Executive branch departments. …

The Secretary should eliminate the “policy review” provisions of DAO 219-1, so that DOC scientists are no longer inhibited in the same way governmental scientists were under the Bush Administration.  …

DAO 219-1 preserves barriers that impede vital scientific information from reaching the public.  NOAA’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill [see NOAA on the BP oil blowout: Is this any way to communicate science?] demonstrates the consequences of the current policy.  After the drilling rig explosion on April 20, 2010, resulted in a sea floor oil gusher, NOAA initially issued a 5,000 barrel-a-day flow rate estimate on April 28, 2010, a startlingly small estimate that minimized the troubling calculations of scientists within the agency.  One scientist funded by NOAA released a figure much higher than the government's initial estimate, and found himself being pressured to retract it by officials at the agency.  NOAA’s scientists’ initial worst-case scenario calculation pegged the estimated flow within the range of 64,000 to 110,000 barrels per day.  The most recent official government estimate is 35,000 to 65,000 barrels per day.  Presumably, NOAA scientists were stifled by their superiors from going public with their stark, but scientifically accurate, assessment.

Conclusion

The current order prohibiting DOC employees from engaging in public communications without prior review and approval is inconsistent with the First Amendment, the goals of the DOC, and the President’s objectives of transparency and integrity in the Federal scientific process.  It also creates a chilling effect on scientists who fear the threat of reprisal because of the conflicting directives the order provides. Without a repeal of the “policy review” provisions, scientists within the DOC will continue to work under a de facto gag order for fear of putting their careers in jeopardy.  The net effect of the constraints posed by the DOC order is that dialogue among scientists, both within and outside government, is stunted. …

Public interest watchdogs will need to track further developments in this area and be alert to any indications of political interference with the integrity of science-related communications at NOAA.

Part 2 of this post will deal with whistleblower protection issues.

Earlier posts:

Review comments on draft NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy

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

"Scientific integrity" requires communication free from government and corporate pressure

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

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4 Responses to NOAA scientific integrity policy, Part 1: Scientists’ communication freedom still limited by Commerce Dept restrictions

  1. Tony O'Brien says:

    When the Obama administration replaced the Bush administration I saw little change in tone of Climate Science Watch. To honest I thought this grossly unfair.

    Time has proved you right and me wrong.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Tony--

      I wouldn't say there is no difference. But I think we can agree that, regardless of who wins an election, those in the power elite need independent public interest watchdogs. And that whistleblowers are needed to report abuses of power, regardless of partisanship.

  2. Pingback: “Climate Change is NOT a hoax” (B. Obama) blog #3: Evidence-based policy and the need for scientists to talk to the public | Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability

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