SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY:

White House orders agencies to submit overdue policies

The White House is requiring federal agencies to submit drafts of their scientific integrity policies in August, more than two years after President Obama announced plans to protect scientists' work from political meddling.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced yesterday in a blog post that agencies have 90 days to submit drafts, news that was welcome to advocacy groups who have waited years for such progress.

Gavin Baker, a federal information policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch, said the news made him "optimistic" that final plans could be implemented by the end of the year.

"I think for a while now there's definitely been concern about whether this process was going to pay off. You know, it goes all the way back to the beginning of the Obama administration," he said. "I think that this is the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel."

The news comes one month after agencies submitted progress reports to OSTP on their policies. The relatively quick timeline has reignited the enthusiasm that followed Obama's 2009 memo instructing OSTP to provide guidelines for agencies to develop scientific integrity policies.

OSTP was 17 months late with the directive, prompting constant criticism from scientists and nonprofits that were eager for such protections to be institutionalized. Now Baker and others see an end to the struggle.

They are still concerned, however, about the transparency of the process. OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss said the office plans to make public the names of the agencies who submit drafts but not the drafts themselves.

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that it is "critical" for agencies to release their scientific integrity drafts for public comment.

OSTP, she said, also needs to lead the way in transparency.

"It's really important for OSTP to consider what can be made public 90 days from now," she said, "to have a plan to give the agencies the heads up and say, 'Hey this is what we're going to put up for people.'"

Some agencies have voluntarily made their progress public. The Department of Interior released its draft last year before incorporating public suggestions into its final policy. And U.S. EPA and NASA recently posted their draft policies online.

Grifo applauded that development. But so far, she said, agencies' policies haven't included provisions requiring future leaders to be transparent about scientific integrity violations.

Baker agreed, pointing out that while there are fewer concerns about "intentional political interference" under Obama, good scientific integrity policies should create safeguards for future political environments.

EPA's draft policy, for example, often refers to policies already in place. But those rules did not stop the agency from having problems during the George W. Bush administration, Grifo said.

"To simply say 'Oh, we already have all these policies' is not going to be enough," she said. "That's why you have to institutionalize transparency."

Still, Grifo and Baker emphasized that agencies seemed to finally be moving quickly to fulfill Obama's mandate.

"As much as I want to be frustrated with the agencies, we need to remember that this is new and this is hard and this is a process," Grifo said. "Even as we are concerned about the process, it's very exciting that they're trying."