'Scientific integrity' memo is released -- at last -- to mixed reviews

Eighteen months after its deadline, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released guidelines today aimed at ensuring government scientists' work isn't altered for political purposes.

Reactions were mixed. Stakeholders in the scientific and advocacy communities offered grades on the four-page document ranging from A-minus to a "tardy C."

The memorandum, issued by OSTP Director John Holdren to the heads of all federal agencies, lays out the minimum standards the White House expects as departments craft their individual scientific integrity rules.

In his memo, Holdren states "science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses from inappropriate political influence; political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings."

Holdren offers guidance for how agencies can make their public communication strategies more open and how they can make the selection and recruitment for federal advisory committees more transparent. Holdren specifically wants government scientists and engineers to be able to publish work in professional journals and for them to be able to serve in professional and scholarly societies.


Holdren's memorandum requires agency leaders to report their progress toward completing those rules within 120 days, a time frame that at least one scientific advocate said was ironic considering that President Obama originally set a July 2009 deadline for OSTP to come up with its guidelines.

The Department of the Interior recently received accolades for being one of the first agencies to release their scientific integrity policies. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar outlined the new policy in a secretarial order in September.

After reading the memorandum, Michael Halpern, the scientific integrity program manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the document a good framework for what is to come.

"It gives the agencies a lot to work with," Halpern said. "There's a lot of discretion there, and you're going to have to have agency leaders that are committed to making these changes. ... Certainly it has great potential."

Al Teich, director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the memorandum.

"We'll have to see how it's implemented," Teich said. "You've got to wonder why it took so long to get this out and how much was originally in here that didn't get in."

Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, was less enthralled by the document. PEER has been outspoken in its criticism of OSTP for taking so long to release its guidelines and is currently involved in a federal suit in which it is seeking documents that explain the cause of the delay.

"I'd give them a tardy C," Ruch said. "I would hold them after school until they finish the project."

Ruch said that while the document does have some "hopeful sounding words," it does not resolve much.

Does 'message control' trump 'nuanced science'?

One of Ruch's concerns comes from Holdren's discussion of communication policy.

"Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work, with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office," Holdren wrote.

He went on to note that communications policies should ensure that "mechanisms are in place to resolve disputes that arise from decisions to proceed or not to proceed with proposed interviews or other public information-related activities."

Ruch said that section sends mixed messages.

"It's still not resolved whether message control trumps nuanced science," he said. "There's been surprisingly little progress [since Obama first called for a scientific integrity policy]. It would be interesting to hear the real explanation for what is taking so long. ... This is a step that should have been taken 18 months ago."

The advocacy group OMB Watch released a statement calling the memorandum a step forward but also had concerns about what happens next.

The OMB Watch release points out that Holdren's memorandum does not explicitly call for the agencies' reports to OSTP to be made public, nor does it require public involvement in the development of agency scientific integrity policies.

"Transparency and public participation are part and parcel of scientific integrity," said Gary Bass, the group's executive director. "Agencies should operate as transparently as possible and involve the public to the greatest extent possible in implementing the goals of this memo."

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