New Obama Science Integrity Guidance: Timid, Torn and Tardy


New Obama Science Integrity Guidance: Timid, Torn and Tardy

Memo Sends Evasive Mixed Messages and Raises More Questions than It Answers

Washington, DC — A long overdue White House guidance memorandum on how to implement scientific integrity principles is vague and contradictory while setting no timetable for implementing the rules, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The 4-page memo leaves many issues unsettled and could be interpreted to impose new restrictions on scientific candor.

Issued last Friday by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), this guidance memo was due back in July 2009 under the deadline in a presidential directive on scientific integrity and transparency. Despite its lengthy gestation, the memo sidesteps several critical topics, including –

  • Whether alterations of scientific and technical papers and the reasons for those changes will be part of a public record or whether these rewrites will remain secret;
  • Whether non-scientist senior managers may alter scientific documents for non-technical reasons. The memo only forbids alterations by “political officials” and “public affairs officers.” Thus, for example, alterations of Arctic offshore drilling reviews by non-scientist managers as documented in an April 2010 Government Accountability Office report may not be prohibited; and
  • The memo once mentions adoption of “appropriate whistleblower protections” but does not say what is “appropriate” or even what specialists will be allowed to blow the whistle. It concludes by stipulating that nothing in the memo create any “substantive or procedural” right against a federal agency or officer, suggesting any new protections may only be rhetorical.

“This guidance was almost two years in the making but it reads like it was finalized at the last minute,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has sued OSTP for violating the Freedom of Information Act by its failure to release materials about how this memo was formulated or why it is so late. “These policies suffer from being negotiated in secret. The public should learn the rationale for all of the equivocations and ellipses in this obviously tortured document.”

The memo lays out several dicta such as scientists should be encouraged to publish and serve on the boards of scientific societies. Yet none of the provisions in the OSTP memo is self-executing; all require follow-up action by agencies to be meaningful. However –

  • The OSTP memo contains no deadlines for agency rule promulgation and only requests that agencies report what if any progress they have made by mid-April 2011;
  • The guidance creates no mechanism for approval or review of agency rules to ensure that they comply with the intent of the presidential directive; and
  • In a curiously self-congratulatory blog posting, OSTP Director John Holdren writes that although these policies are new, they have been “exemplified…since Day One of this Administration,” implying that no federal practices need to be significantly improved.

“If it took this long to produce this very short guidance memo, how long will it take agencies to do the hard work of reducing these hazy principles to concrete, enforceable rules and procedures?” asked Ruch. “At this rate, integrating scientific integrity and transparency values into actual practice will still be a work in progress at the end of this term, assuming that they are ever implemented.”

At the same time, the guidance appears to impose new restrictions on scientific presentations and testimony. For example, the OSTP memo states that –

  • Scientists are free to speak “to the media and the public” subject to “appropriate coordination” with the agency and its public affairs staff. The memo directs agencies to develop “mechanisms …to resolve disputes” about whether “to proceed or not proceed with proposed interview.” This sounds like a new federal policy that all scientific presentations must be screened by agency PR staff who are empowered to block scientists from speaking or publishing;
  • Clearance from public affairs for scientists is triggered when the speech is “based on their official work,” implying that agency approval is required even when scientists are speaking on their own time as private citizens if the subject is work-related. Thus, NASA scientist James Hansen would be subject to public affairs clearance, as he was for a time under Bush, for his numerous private appearances to advocate for action on climate change. If so, this would be a sweeping new restriction on scientific speech with troubling First Amendment ramifications; and
  • The Office of Management & Budget will develop “standards that are to be applied during the review of …draft executive branch testimony on scientific issues prepared for presentation to the Congress” but what these standards are designed to accomplish is left unstated. Adding to the mystery, Director Holdren declares that OMB is exempt from compliance with scientific integrity and transparency principles in carrying out its “budgetary, administrative or legislative” functions.

“No agency needs openness and data quality controls more than OMB,” Ruch concluded. “Because the OSTP-OMB dialogue on developing this guidance has been behind closed doors, it is hard to tell whether these backhanded constraints are intentional or inadvertent.”


Read the OSTP guidance memo

Examine the PEER lawsuit against OSTP

Look at the GAO report on manipulation of Arctic offshore drilling reviews

View the OSTP blog posting

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