A Year Later, What’s Happening with the Scientific Integrity Memo?

by Ben Somberg

March 12, 2010

This item, by Liz Borkowski, is cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

Exactly one year ago, President Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity that gave the Office of Science and Technology Policy 120 days to “develop recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch” based on six principles that Obama specified. OSTP solicited public input to inform its drafting of the recommendations.

It’s now been 365 days, and OSTP hasn’t released its recommendations. Why the delay? Since President Obama issued the scientific integrity memo during his first hundred days in office, this is evidently an important issue for him.

Although advocates for scientific integrity have welcomed many of Obama’s decisions and appointments, threats to the integrity of government science haven’t disappeared. As I noted last week, my colleagues and I have just released a report on scientists in government, and we found that many policies and practices need to be strengthened in order to ensure that federal-agency scientists can do their best work. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been tracking the Obama administration’s progress on several aspects of scientific integrity, and they find that while the administration has made progress, it still has a long way to go.

The core of our Scientists in Government research was in-depth interviews with scientists who worked or had previously worked for a federal agency focused on health or the environment. Some scientists spoke of pressure to slant findings, and others stated that their agencies had suppressed or delayed release of scientific work that could have cast an unfavorable light on a particular company or industry. Many felt that agency morale was suffering as priorities shift, bureaucratic processes multiply, resources dwindle, and some agencies seem to be neglecting their missions.

Scientists repeatedly stated that good managers are crucial for buffering scientists from inappropriate attempts to influence scientific work. It is also important for agencies to have strong mechanisms for collecting and using feedback, as well as the policies and enforcement necessary to protect employees who blow the whistle on abuses of integrity or other problems occurring at agencies.

Although we completed most of our research before President Obama took office, we did conduct a follow-up survey during July and August 2009 to see if the new administration was affecting scientists’ views of the situations at their agencies. Some survey respondents expressed optimism, but the majority didn’t report much change – and several even commented that the problems at their agencies were too deeply entrenched to improve quickly.

In a news release marking the one-year anniversary of the scientific integrity memorandum, Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Scientific Integrity Program, notes that the current system “still discourages scientists from communicating about their research results … still keeps the public in the dark about the scientific basis for policy decisions, and it still rewards staffers who keep quiet about political interference in science.” UCS has provided a handy, color-coded list of steps the Obama administration can take to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking, including improvements to transparency, the regulatory process, and protections for government scientists and whistleblowers.

Our Scientists in Government project and UCS are among those who submitted comments to OSTP last May about scientific integrity and who have continued to issue recommendations for strengthening government science. We know that OSTP has plenty of good information on which to base their recommendations for guaranteeing scientific integrity in the executive branch. What are they waiting for?

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