A scientific integrity plan recently proposed by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is “fundamentally flawed,” according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In comments filed on Nov. 6 and subsequently summarized in a statement, the advocacy group says that the draft policy “lacks meaningful protections for scientists and research.”
Specifically, PEER states that the proposed NIH policy doesn’t contain explicit procedures for how scientific integrity concerns will be investigated and adjudicated or clear rules to prevent the suppression of research, “such as timelines for publication clearance, criteria for disapproval, or appeal of denials or undue delays.”
The NIH does say that it will develop procedures in the future, says Jeff Ruch, director of PEER’s Pacific Regional Office. But “whether they develop those procedures with any kind of public comment is totally unclear,” he says.
The NIH published the draft policy in September, roughly 9 months after the White House released a set of scientific integrity guidelines for federal agencies to use when revising their existing policies. The guidelines were created as part of a wider Biden administration initiative to rebuild public trust in the government by protecting federal science agencies from political interference.
Scientific integrity policies can also help combat plagiarism, data manipulation, or outright fraud, says Stuart Buck, executive director of the Good Science Project, a nonprofit that aims to improve the funding and practice of science. “It’s part of an overall plan to try to make sure that the federal government—NIH, in this case—is doing a good job of maintaining quality in the research dollars that it hands out and the research dollars that it spends internally,” Buck says.
As such, efforts to strengthen scientific integrity policies have generally been met with praise. However, in the case of in the NIH proposal and a recent policy proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services, that praise has been tempered.
In addition to a lack of specific rules and procedures in the proposed plan, PEER says that vague language in the policy could be used by a future administration to ensure “scientists have to ask before they publish something or discuss something,” Ruch says.
The comment submission period for the NIH draft policy closed Nov. 9. The NIH will review comments from PEER and other groups and post them on the NIH Office of Science Policy website. “The agency will then review and consider the issues raised and determine if any changes are needed,” says Ryan Bayha, a spokesperson for the NIH Office of Science Policy. The NIH plans to publish the final policy in early 2024.