FEDERAL AGENCIES:

Scientific integrity drafts are in, but many are closely guarded

Nineteen federal agencies submitted drafts of their scientific integrity policies to the White House last week, but many remain guarded on the details of how they will protect research from political interference.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy announced yesterday that all agencies had complied with an Aug. 5 deadline to submit draft policies. Five had finalized their policies; 14 submitted drafts that were in various stages.

"OSTP appreciates the hard work agencies and departments have devoted to the important task of codifying their commitments to scientific integrity, and will be working with them this fall as they finalize their policies," OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss wrote in a blog post. "The steps taken by these departments and agencies are a big step forward to ensuring scientific integrity across the Federal government."

The drafts mark one of the final steps in complying with President Obama's 2009 memo, which directed agencies to develop policies to ensure that research is transparent and free from political meddling. But while advocacy groups applaud the effort, they have criticized the process, in which agencies have been slow to make their drafts public and OSTP has released few details.

"I have really mixed feelings about the administration's haphazard process to fix scientific integrity," said Gavin Baker, a federal information policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch. "The president laid out the right vision at the outset, but the process to implement it has been unnecessarily opaque."

Weiss said in an email that agencies were following their own processes for making policies public.

"The most important thing is that all across the Executive Branch we are seeing the development and implementation of policies that are setting a new floor for assuring scientific integrity -- a floor that future Administrations won't be able to roll back without drawing significant public attention and embarrassment," he said.

Of the 19 agencies that turned their drafts or final policies into OSTP last week, only five have made them publicly available. The Department of Interior was the first, soliciting public comments and then finalizing its policy earlier this year. U.S. EPA is one of the most recent, posting its draft online when it turned it into OSTP on Aug. 5.

In his blog post, Weiss said that along with Interior, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, NASA and the Director of National Intelligence turned in final policies. The policies for Commerce and NASA are available online; DOJ and the Director of National Intelligence are not easily found and officials did not return a request for a copy in time for publication.

Of the 14 drafts, EPA and the National Science Foundation are the only agencies to make them public. Under Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute for Standards and Technology have also posted policies online.

Baker argued that OSTP should be directing agencies to make their policies public before they are finalized. But Holdren's December guidance did not include such specifics, leaving such decisions up to agencies.

"The Obama administration has taken the important step of leading from the top and asking all agencies to develop protections to ensure that their science is sound and as they do that, they should hear from the people who will be affected and we should have a chance to give our opinion before it's too late," he said. "Once the agencies have finalized their policies, final says they're done."

Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' scientific integrity program, agreed that the drafts should be made public. But she also said taking time to finalize those drafts is understandable.

"Although I can understand keeping draft policies under wraps until final -- much the same way pre-decisional docs are not released -- OSTP should have asked them to turn in a public facing document of some kind," she said in an email. "So I agree this process does not have the transparency it ought to have."

OSTP is so far keeping its draft policy under wraps. Weiss said the policy is still in its deliberative stages; other White House offices, such as the Council on Environmental Quality, also are considering whether to adopt the OSTP policy as their own.

Drafts in various forms

The status of the drafts turned into OSTP is unclear. At least one agency -- the Department of Energy -- reported that it had so far only turned in a progress report that was not a public document.

In an email, a DOE spokeswoman said the agency had submitted a progress report to the White House in April "rather than a draft of the scientific integrity policy."

"Developing the scientific integrity policy is an agencywide effort, and establishing a DOE point of contact for the policy is under consideration at this time," the spokeswoman said.

Weiss said the April report was detailed enough to be considered a draft.

"DOE submitted a detailed document to OSTP in April that we tallied then and still consider a draft policy," he said. "DOE did not provide an update last week, but OSTP has been in touch with DOE and we know the agency is continuing to develop that draft."

The Department of Veterans Affairs was similarly murky on its progress, reporting that its draft policy was submitted to the Executive Secretary Office and would be forwarded to OSTP after it underwent an "expedited concurrence process." Weiss said OSTP has a PowerPoint presentation that displays all of the elements of the draft as is goes through clearance.

Other agencies acknowledged that a draft has been submitted but declined to provide a copy. The Department of Transportation is among those that does not plan to make its draft public before finalizing the policy.

"It is a draft and not for release until it receives final approval," DOT spokesman Bill Mosley said in an email. "There are no plans to circulate the policy for public comment."

USDA, meanwhile, is "discussing options for soliciting comments and ultimately releasing that policy publicly," according to a spokeswoman.