New Revisions Weaken Interior Scientific Integrity Safeguards
Rules Against Politicized Science Honeycombed With Loopholes and Escape Hatches
Washington, DC — New revisions purporting to strengthen the Interior Department’s rules for protecting scientific integrity actually substantially weaken them, according to an analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The new changes narrow the scope of the rules, erect barriers against holding miscreant managers accountable and enshroud scientific integrity reviews in secrecy, preventing independent analysis of the facts.
Adopted on December 17, 2014 without any prior review of its provisions, the revisions completely rewrite Interior’s Scientific Integrity rules first adopted in 2011, inserting a score of changes. In a brief press statement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell contends the revisions “strengthened” agency protections against political manipulation of science and reflect “lessons learned over the past three years.” Yet all of the changes tilt in one direction, making it harder to bring and pursue charges of misconduct while blurring lines of accountability for what happens when scientific misconduct is proven, including –
- Cutting the definition of scientific misconduct back to plagiarism, fraud and fabrication. Political alteration of science is moved to a nebulous new category called “loss of scientific integrity” that is judged in comparison to “accepted practice” rather than accuracy.
- Forbidding scientific reviewers from recommending “any specific personnel actions or other corrective measures.” Moreover, any adverse finding must be vetted by agency lawyers; and
- Allowing agency heads to handpick who oversees investigations.
“These changes threaten to make a sham out of an already tattered scientific integrity process,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that most of the 27 complaints processed since 2011 were summarily dismissed without any investigation; only two were upheld. Meanwhile, guilty managers went unpunished while the scientists who made or testified in support of complaints suffered reprisal without any intervention from Interior officials. “Success of scientific integrity complaints will be less likely under these revisions which read as if they were written to accommodate every bureaucratic grievance from agency managers and lawyers.”
The thrust of the revision moves away from reliance upon the scientific process and the judgment of disinterested scientists toward a defensive, legalistic thicket in which official misconduct can escape public scrutiny because all proceedings are supposed to be handled confidentially.
“Given that a key purpose of the rules is to restore public confidence in Interior’s scientific integrity, it is inexplicable that Department officials did not put these changes out for public comment before adopting them,” Ruch added, pointing out that many major changes are buried in text that requires a line-by-line comparison to detect. “The process Interior employed suggests that it should consider substituting the bison in its symbol with a weasel.”