New Obama Science Integrity Guidance: Timid, Torn, and Tardy

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

New Obama Science Integrity Guidance: Timid, Torn, and Tardy

Memo Sends Evasive Mixed Messages and Raises More Questions than It Answers

WASHINGTON - A long overdue White House guidance memorandum on how to implement
scientific integrity principles is vague and contradictory while setting
no timetable for implementing the rules, according to Public Employees
for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The 4-page memo leaves many
issues unsettled and could be interpreted to impose new restrictions on
scientific candor.

Issued last Friday by the White House Office
of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), this guidance memo was due back
in July 2009 under the deadline in a presidential directive on
scientific integrity and transparency. Despite its lengthy gestation,
the memo sidesteps several critical topics, including -

  • Whether
    alterations of scientific and technical papers and the reasons for
    those changes will be part of a public record or whether these rewrites
    will remain secret;
  • Whether non-scientist senior managers may
    alter scientific documents for non-technical reasons. The memo only
    forbids alterations by "political officials" and "public affairs
    officers." Thus, for example, alterations of Arctic offshore drilling
    reviews by non-scientist managers as documented in an April 2010
    Government Accountability Office report may not be prohibited; and
  • The
    memo once mentions adoption of "appropriate whistleblower protections"
    but does not say what is "appropriate" or even what specialists will be
    allowed to blow the whistle. It concludes by stipulating that nothing
    in the memo create any "substantive or procedural" right against a
    federal agency or officer, suggesting any new protections may only be
    rhetorical.

"This guidance was almost two years in the
making but it reads like it was finalized at the last minute," stated
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has sued OSTP for
violating the Freedom of Information Act by its failure to release
materials about how this memo was formulated or why it is so late.
"These policies suffer from being negotiated in secret. The public
should learn the rationale for all of the equivocations and ellipses in
this obviously tortured document."

The memo lays out several
dicta such as scientists should be encouraged to publish and serve on
the boards of scientific societies. Yet none of the provisions in the
OSTP memo is self-executing; all require follow-up action by agencies to
be meaningful. However -

  • The OSTP memo contains no
    deadlines for agency rule promulgation and only requests that agencies
    report what if any progress they have made by mid-April 2011;
  • The
    guidance creates no mechanism for approval or review of agency rules to
    ensure that they comply with the intent of the presidential directive;
    and
  • In a curiously self-congratulatory blog posting, OSTP
    Director John Holdren writes that although these policies are new, they
    have been "exemplified...since Day One of this Administration," implying
    that no federal practices need to be significantly improved.

"If
it took this long to produce this very short guidance memo, how long
will it take agencies to do the hard work of reducing these hazy
principles to concrete, enforceable rules and procedures?" asked Ruch.
"At this rate, integrating scientific integrity and transparency values
into actual practice will still be a work in progress at the end of this
term, assuming that they are ever implemented."

At the same
time, the guidance appears to impose new restrictions on scientific
presentations and testimony. For example, the OSTP memo states that -

  • Scientists are free to speak "to the media and the public"
    subject to "appropriate coordination" with the agency and its public
    affairs staff. The memo directs agencies to develop "mechanisms ...to
    resolve disputes" about whether "to proceed or not proceed with proposed
    interview." This sounds like a new federal policy that all scientific
    presentations must be screened by agency PR staff who are empowered to
    block scientists from speaking or publishing;
  • Clearance from
    public affairs for scientists is triggered when the speech is "based on
    their official work," implying that agency approval is required even
    when scientists are speaking on their own time as private citizens if
    the subject is work-related. Thus, NASA scientist James Hansen would be
    subject to public affairs clearance, as he was for a time under Bush,
    for his numerous private appearances to advocate for action on climate
    change. If so, this would be a sweeping new restriction on scientific
    speech with troubling First Amendment ramifications; and
  • The
    Office of Management & Budget will develop "standards that are to be
    applied during the review of ...draft executive branch testimony on
    scientific issues prepared for presentation to the Congress" but what
    these standards are designed to accomplish is left unstated. Adding to
    the mystery, Director Holdren declares that OMB is exempt from
    compliance with scientific integrity and transparency principles in
    carrying out its "budgetary, administrative or legislative" functions.

"No agency needs openness and data quality controls more than OMB,"
Ruch concluded. "Because the OSTP-OMB dialogue on developing this
guidance has been behind closed doors, it is hard to tell whether these
backhanded constraints are intentional or inadvertent."

###

Read the OSTP guidance memo

Examine the PEER lawsuit against OSTP

Look at the GAO report on manipulation of Arctic offshore drilling reviews

View the OSTP blog posting

###

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

Share This Article

More in: