Federal Scientific Integrity Policies Missing and Mediocre
Several Agencies Still Yet to Finalize While Others Field Weak or Incomplete Policies
Washington, DC — President Obama’s call in March 2009 for all federal agencies to develop policies safeguarding scientific integrity remains significantly unfulfilled, according to an analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Four years after agencies were supposed to have policies in place to police against political manipulation of science, most are either nonexistent or still in draft form, half-completed or hobbled by hopelessly vague standards and stunted procedures.
The President’s directive tasked agencies not only with outlawing alteration or suppression of scientific information but also with ensuring transparency of decision-making, strengthening peer review and advisory committee processes while providing additional protection for scientific whistleblowers. A detailed breakdown of agency actions by PEER shows that –
- Of the 24 agencies charged with developing policies, a quarter (6) has yet to do so. Four (Justice, Education, NIST and VA) have policies still in draft form that are finalized. Another two (SSA and the Office of Science & Technology Policy) have no polices at all. Ironically, OSTP was supposed to be in charge of shepherding agency completion of policies;
- Several other agencies have only partial policies in which topics such as transparency in decision-making, the ability of scientists to publish and lecture or peer review, not addressed; and
- More than two-thirds of the agencies with policies received less than 50 of a possible 100 points on a consistent rating scale. Low ratings reflect weak provisions, such as the lack of independent review of complaints of scientific misconduct or explicit protections for whistleblowers.
“Many of the scientific integrity policies consist of mushy mouthfuls of lofty rhetoric without any teeth,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that OSTP failed to impose any minimum standards or deadlines on agencies. “Quality control has not been the hallmark of the Obama administration.”
Fortunately, these policies are not static, with several agencies considering changes. For example, USDA and State revised their policies in recent months. In addition, the mere existence of rules, however unenforceable, has enabled scientists to secure coverage under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The most notable failure of these policies has been the absence of any confirmed instance of politicized science. For example, Interior which had repeated scandals about political alteration of science in the Bush era has rejected all complaints filed under its policy, most as not even meriting a full investigation.
“Lack of independent review of misconduct complaints means that we might as well have public affairs offices adjudicating integrity concerns,” Ruch added. “These scientific integrity policies are very much a work in progress. Our review is designed to help agencies identify and adopt best practices developed by sister agencies.”