Biden New Science Integrity Plan: Buzzwords and Evasions
Guidance Unlikely to Strengthen Agency Policies Over Next 12 Months
Washington, DC —Like herding cats, the White House has unveiled an elaborate process to induce 30 separate federal agencies into toughening their scientific integrity rules. Released last week by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the “Framework for Federal Scientific Integrity Policy and Practice” is hopelessly vague and avoids many of the hard questions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Just a week after his inauguration nearly two years ago, President Biden directed his OSTP to oversee a process to strengthen scientific integrity policies commissioned under Obama that had proven to be utterly ineffectual under Trump. This January, nearly nine months behind schedule, OSTP unveiled guidance for agencies in rewriting scientific integrity policies to bolster scientific transparency and prevent political manipulation. Agencies are slated to submit “updated” draft policies to OSTP within two months and provide for “public input” within six months as part of an iterative process that is supposed to culminate in adoption of new policies within the year.
Although the OSTP Framework is full of lofty rhetoric, it leaves gaping holes, such as –
- How can the “independence” of Scientific Integrity Officers who implement these policies be assured if these officials must be full-time, senior government employees?
- What protections if any will exist for scientists who voice professional “dissent,” as encouraged by OSTP, or whose research findings clash with agency priorities? and
- How can “accountability” for scientific integrity transgressions be accomplished when committed by agency leaders or political appointees?
“While the intentions are laudable, the follow-through by the Biden team leaves a lot to be desired,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that OSTP is relying upon the same Scientific Integrity Officers who, for the most part, were unable to stem rampant scientific integrity abuses that occurred under Trump. “Without truly independent enforcement mechanisms, any updated policies will prove just as weak as their predecessors.”
In acknowledging that the Obama scientific integrity polices did not work, the Biden directive required as a first step that OSTP oversee an “analysis of any instances in which existing scientific-integrity policies have not been followed or enforced, including whether such deviations from existing policies have resulted in improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research …[or] led to the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results.” However, the Scientific Integrity Task Force report issued a year ago by OSTP did none of these things.
“Without a diagnosis of what went wrong, a prescription for fixing it will remain elusive,” added PEER Scientific Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Implementation of meaningful scientific integrity programs requires officials to name names and to explicitly punish violators, regardless of rank.”
The Biden process is reminiscent of the effort by Obama, who issued a similar directive in March of 2009. A year later, his OSTP also issued guidance for agency policy development. That guidance was also quite vague, and no agency policy was rejected, no matter how weak or incomplete.
PEER has been urging the Biden White House to issue government-wide rules that assure uniformity and provide for their enforcement as other civil service rules, such as whistleblower protection, where cases can ultimately be reviewed by courts.