When it comes to scientific misconduct, the Interior Department has a troubled past.
Under the George W. Bush administration, environmentalists accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of doing shoddy research. Polar bears, trumpeter swans, prairie dogs: All were up for Endangered Species Act protection under a process that environmentalists say was marred with selective studies, misrepresented research and direct political interference.
The low point came in 2007, when Interior's inspector general accused political appointee Julie MacDonald of inappropriately meddling with ESA decisions. She resigned, and Interior suffered a public relations nightmare.
Five years later, Interior officials are in the middle of a charm offensive, working hard to clean up a tarnished image. While most agencies put scientific integrity on the back burner, the department issued a widely praised policy, appointed a departmentwide scientific integrity officer and tasked nine employees with helping to root out political interference in research.
But Interior has yet to find any evidence of scientific misconduct under its new process. A point of pride for the agency has become a source of suspicion to critics: Can an agency with 70,000 employees who handle plenty of controversial decisions really be that squeaky-clean?
"It is becoming obvious that Interior's scientific integrity process suffers from a glaring lack of integrity," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "These rules were created at the behest of President Obama to root out rampant political manipulation of science, yet in more than two years, Interior has managed not to find a single instance of it."
In a recent interview, Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes emphasized that the process is still new and in need of improvement. Officials, he said, are dedicated to finding out "the good, the bad or the indifferent."
But he also asserted that "one would not expect to find scientific misconduct" at Interior.
"We have always respected science," Hayes said. "One would be troubled if in fact our early investigations were finding significant concerns."
Interior officials seem hard-pressed to find any concerns at all.
The department has closed 12 scientific integrity complaints since the agency released its policy in 2011. Four came from PEER; others were filed from a mix of employees, companies and outside individuals. None resulted in a finding of misconduct.
Most recently, Interior released its response to a PEER allegation that officials had written a press release distorting scientific research with political spin. An outside panel agreed with most of PEER's allegations -- but chalked it up to a "typical press release" that suffered from what it called "false precision" (Greenwire, March 27).
In other words, press officials included some inaccurate data, but the panel determined that to have been the product of ignorance, not misconduct.
Last year, another outside panel -- convened by the same "dispute resolution" company, Resolve -- dismissed allegations first made by a U.S. district court judge. The judge, Oliver Wanger, accused two biologists of providing testimony that was "false," "outrageous," "incredible" and "unworthy of belief."
Interior launched the review in the wake of media coverage on Wanger's comments. The panel ruled that no misconduct had taken place; instead, it explained that the scientists could have been "clearer and more forthcoming" (Greenwire, Jan. 6, 2012).
Such conclusions rankle complainants, who view Interior's process as little more than a public relations campaign. In their view, Interior is able to deflect accusations by cursory reviews of complaints; once the review is done and the case dismissed, there aren't many more avenues for critics to pursue.
Still, that's hard to prove, said Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' scientific integrity program. She conceded that "something isn't working right" but emphasized that it's hard to know what goes on inside the agency.
She gave Interior credit for opening itself up to criticism. Most agencies, she said, have kept the entire process out of the public eye.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you everything they've done is brilliant," Grifo said. "I am going to tell you that they're out there and putting stuff out there and moving the conversation forward."
That's not the view of Corey Goodman, a neurobiologist who has spent years double-checking research from the National Park Service. Goodman has filed several complaints with Interior -- and most recently, with the White House Office of Science and Technology -- accusing the Park Service of manipulating science to gain public support for ousting a California oyster farm (Greenwire, March 5).
Interior's inspector general took up Goodman's complaint, releasing a report in February that dismissed all of his allegations. One of the findings was that the Park Service had not committed misconduct by using 15-year-old data to estimate the noise level of the farm; among other things, an environmental impact statement had attributed the noise level of a 400-horsepower cement truck to the farm's 0.5-horsepower oyster tumbler (Greenwire, Aug. 30, 2012).
"When Interior claims that they are leading the way in scientific integrity, they must be living in a parallel universe," Goodman said, pointing to widespread criticism over how the Park Service handled the EIS. "The fact that Interior has not yet found a single instance of scientific misconduct, in light of the repeated and well-known pattern of misconduct by NPS concerning the oyster farm at Drakes Estero, shows just how determined Interior is to find no misconduct. Their internal investigations and reports have been a whitewash."
'Work in progress'
Grifo isn't ready to give up. Though Interior has "mismanaged" investigations, she said -- such as one that seemed to target a biologist for a controversial paper on polar bears -- the process is still in the early stages (Greenwire, Oct. 1, 2012).
"This is a dramatic change. I, for one, didn't expect them to get it right this quickly," she said. "I guess my expectations were lower."
Indeed, before its scientific integrity policy, Interior didn't have a formal process to review misconduct complaints. And the agency has been responsive to some criticism, drastically changing a draft scientific integrity policy to reflect suggestions from scientists and open-government advocates. Now, it's looking to update its policy again and has launched a new website detailing its progress.
Among the possibilities: a provision that directs the scientific integrity officers within Interior's bureaus to act as ombudsmen, addressing scientists' concerns and proactively defending their rights.
"This is a young program; this is a program we are continuing to learn from. We are in the process of fine-tuning the policy with suggested changes based on experience," Hayes said. "This continues to be an important work in progress, and I think it's particularly important for us to project that we're humble here. We are not arrogant. If there are issues, we want to find out what they are."
Critics say one of those issues is a somewhat confusing process. Right now, a complainant can submit a scientific integrity complaint to either the IG or the scientific integrity officer. Both offices may conduct a review or investigation, or one might refer a complaint to the other.
When an allegation is made, a scientific integrity officer conducts an "initial review" to determine whether to dismiss it or launch an inquiry. That inquiry can be done by the SIO -- or by a "Scientific Integrity Review Panel" of experts. That panel makes recommendations to the SIO, who can conduct further investigation.
The IG has its own process, which does not necessarily include scientific experts. But Hayes said Interior is considering adding a provision to its policy that invites the IG to make use of the agency's scientists in investigations.
"From where I sit, I see the rigor of the process ... and I'm impressed," Hayes said.
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