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A Vote For Scientific Integrity

Government: Federal agencies put forward plans to protect science from interference

by Andrea Widener
April 10, 2012

Policies aimed at protecting science from political interference have been finalized by 17 federal agencies three years after President Barack Obama called for reforms “to restore science to its rightful place.”

Scientific integrity policies from four more agencies—the Departments of Defense, Health & Human Services, Homeland Security, and Labor—are still in the works and should be completed by the end of the month, according to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP).

“This process has been time-consuming, but, I would argue, exceedingly important,” OSTP Director John P. Holdren wrote on the office’s blog late last week. “Through it all, the prime importance of scientific integrity—the need to ensure that Americans can trust the results of federally supported science—has been elevated and made explicit in numerous ways.”

The resulting policies vary widely from agency to agency. Some are dozens of pages long and create new mechanisms to encourage and enforce scientific integrity at the agency. Others policies, like those from USDA and the Department of Energy, are in the form of a memo from an agency official confirming the scientific integrity principles.

Only a few of the new policies were released for public comment—including those from the Department of the Interior, NASA, NOAA, EPA, and NSF, as well as the Education Department, whose comment period is still open. Others were just posted quietly on agency websites.

The policies “are a mixed bag,” says Francesca Grifo, who heads the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group. But, she adds, the plans have started an important discussion inside agencies about the importance of quality scientific advice.

“Good science doesn’t happen when people are keeping their heads down,” Grifo says. “You need a raucous, rowdy discussion.”

The President originally called for a heightened respect for science and research in his inaugural address and issued a memo to all federal agencies on March 9, 2009, outlining his suggested reforms.

“The days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over,” he said in an April 2009 speech to the National Academy of Sciences. He called on Holdren to “ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information.”

The work by federal agencies to create their own policies didn’t begin until more than a year later, in December 2010, when Holdren put out a four-page memo outlining what was required.

Holdren asked that each agency create a policy that addresses four elements. The first aims to improve the use of scientific information in government policy-making. The second requires clear policies for when and how government scientists can speak to the media. The third governs how advisory committee members are recruited and how their advice is received. And the final element suggests that government scientists be allowed to participate in the larger scientific community by, for example, publishing papers or serving on journal editorial boards.

Agencies submitted their draft plans to OSTP in August 2011 for review. Final policies were to be completed by the end of March.


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