COMMENTARY | New Integrity Policies Exhibit Old Problems

Jeff Ruch

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New Integrity Policies Exhibit Old Problems

This commentary was originally published in the Spring 2024 edition of PEEReview.

Days after his inauguration, President Biden directed all federal agencies to strengthen their scientific integrity policies to Trump-proof federal science and thereby “restore public trust” in government. It has not gone well.

More than three years later, no new policies have been ratified. None of the eight draft policies that have emerged offer any discernible improvements. Most are fluffy declarations with little substance.

For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft policy promises to “expeditiously draft necessary procedures including those on addressing scientific integrity concerns, addressing DSOs [Differing Scientific Opinions], and others such as clearance of scientific product as needed.” Disturbingly, these are the same issues for which EPA has been promising to draft rules since it first adopted a policy back in 2012.

This astounding lack of progress means EPA –

  • Has yet to conduct a formal investigation of a single allegation of scientific misconduct during the Obama, Trump, and Biden years because it lacks a protocol for doing so;
  • Still has no fixed procedure for clearing research for publication, thus scientists remain unable to push back against suppression or alteration of scientific findings; and
  • Encourages scientists to file Dissenting Scientific Opinions but offers no protection if that scientist experiences reprisal for doing so.

One disquieting aspect of these draft policies is their differences in what scientists may say or write. These prohibit scientists from “making or publishing statements that could be construed as being judgments of, or recommendations on [their own] or any other Federal Government policy.” This stunning gag rule has no place in a scientific integrity policy as it could be used to stifle research due to its policy implications.

By contrast, two drafts limit this restriction to when a scientist is “speaking or writing on behalf of” the agency. Fortunately, three other drafts do not contain this restraint at all.

There is no reason why a scientist in any agency should be prohibited from discussing the policy implications of their research, and there is no reason why different agencies should have different rules on this topic.

The common theme of these efforts is that they appear crafted to serve bureaucratic self-interest, not the scientific enterprise. PEER is leading a coalition seeking to strengthen these policies or at least not make the situation worse, but it is like trying to sculpt molasses.

Jeff Ruch is the former Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and now serves as its Pacific Director.

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