SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY:

Ethics office moves to let federal employees serve on nonprofit boards

The Office of Government Ethics has taken the first step toward allowing federal employees to serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations, potentially ending a 15-year ban that advocacy groups say was misguided.

In a proposed rule published in the Federal Register for which the comment period ends today, OGE aims to change a regulation that prohibits federal employees from serving in their official capacity on the board of a nonprofit without a waiver from their agency. Such waivers can be difficult to obtain, discouraging employees from accepting positions on everything from scientific panels to neighborhood boards.

Advocacy groups applauded the rule change today, calling it another step in ensuring transparency and collaboration in scientific research. More than 30 groups signed a letter to OGE's associate general counsel emphasizing their "strong support" of the rule change.

"These changes will benefit federal agencies that employ scientists by removing a serious impediment to the full participation by those scientists in their scientific and professional societies -- an activity that is integral to the life of a scientist," they wrote in the letter, which was signed by groups such as the Ornithological Council, the American Chemical Society and the Society for Conservation Biology.

"The removal of this deterrent to federal service will make it easier for agencies to attract the best and the brightest scientists to their scientific staffs."

The ban began in 1996, when the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel interpreted an ethics regulation as prohibiting an employee from serving in an official capacity as an officer, director or trustee of a nonprofit.

But in recent years, OGE has pushed for changes to the regulation. The effort escalated with President Obama's 2009 executive order requiring agencies to adopt procedures ensuring the integrity of scientific information. In its rule proposal, OGE noted that the conflicts between an employee's job and his financial duties to a nonprofit are "more theoretical than real."

"In short, the potential for a real conflict of interest is too remote or inconsequential to affect the integrity of an employee's services under these circumstances," an OGE official wrote in the Federal Register notice on the rule. "That is not to say, however, that agencies would be precluded from imposing meaningful controls and limits on employees serving in nonprofit organizations."

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said OGE's new rule will enable agencies to establish their own policies for employees who want to serve on nonprofit boards. But further issues remain, he said; the new freedom will bring up questions on the scope of peer review, for example.

"Professional collaboration with outsiders often deters political manipulation and improves the quality of the final product," he said. "Anything that increases the transparency of federal agencies, particularly on scientific and technical matters, is welcome."

The prohibition has caused at least two federal employees to step down from the Society for Conservation Biology's board of governors, said Policy Director John Fitzgerald. He said he is hopeful agencies will follow OGE's lead and get rid of what he sees as unnecessary red tape.

"We're halfway down the road or two-thirds down the road to establishing the operating rule that federal employees can serve on the board of professional and scientific associations without either considerable hassle or fear of being subject of overreaching criminal indictment," he said.

Click here for OGE's proposed rule.

Click here for PEER's comments.