COMMENTARY | Science Integrity at NOAA: Run Silent, Run Deep

Jeff Ruch

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Science Integrity at NOAA: Run Silent, Run Deep

In an effort to Trump-proof federal science, President Biden ordered all federal agencies to strengthen their scientific integrity policies in order to “restore public trust in government.” Most agencies sent their draft policies out for public comment, but not the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Instead, without any public notice, NOAA simply adopted a “new” policy effective this March 1st. However, almost all of NOAA’s new policy is word-for-word identical to its old policy, with only a few, mainly cosmetic word changes.

One of those changes was the addition of this pledge of operating transparently:

“Transparency ensures that all relevant data and information used to inform a decision made or action taken is visible, accessible, and consumable by affected or interested parties, to the extent allowable by law.”

Ironically, NOAA did not apply this pledge of transparency in not explaining its decision to leave its current policy largely unchanged.

Perhaps this institutional opacity should be expected from any agency whose scientific integrity program operates in almost complete secrecy. NOAA’s Procedural Handbook for Scientific Integrity, which remains unchanged, provides that in handling any allegation of scientific misconduct, “NOAA officials involved will maintain confidentiality during and after the process…to the extent permitted by law.”

Further, if a person filing a scientific integrity complaint discloses that fact or anything else about the allegation, “the Complainant will forfeit all rights to be informed of the status of the allegation.” In other words, any discussion of scientific misconduct can be grounds for scuttling any further consideration of the matter.

Well, that certainly restores public faith in the trustworthiness of NOAA science.

Not surprisingly, NOAA’s annual scientific integrity reports are quite short. The last such report (FY22) is only one page long and discloses little more than no cases were investigated that year.

These reports paint a false picture of scientific tranquility, for, in reality, NOAA is aswirl with scientific integrity struggles, such as –

NOAA’s experience only reinforces the notion that secrecy is anathema to scientific integrity.

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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