NOAA Scientific Integrity Plan Has Big Gaps to Fill In
Unresolved Tension Between Transparency and Management Content Control
Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has taken its first step toward enacting rules forbidding political manipulation and suppression of science, according to an agency draft released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The NOAA draft rules juxtapose broad principles of scientific freedom against agency prior restraints yet contain no specifics on how conflicts are to be resolved.
The NOAA draft “Scientific Integrity Policy” was distributed to employees in February and to employee unions in March for comment. Significantly, the draft policy contains the following prohibition:
“NOAA science managers and supervisors, political and career, must never suppress, alter or other wise impede the timely release of scientific or technological findings or conclusions. Further, science managers and supervisors will not intimidate or coerce employees, contractors, grantees or others to alter or censor scientific findings.”
However, this ringing vow is tempered by caveats studded throughout the nine-page draft, including –
- Scientists are “encouraged to publish” but all work, including outside work, must be approved by the chain-of-command to ensure that it is “consistent with NOAA policies”;
- A pledge “to establish a culture of transparency” is contrasted with a requirement to withhold “to the fullest extent permitted by law…confidential and proprietary information” – an extremely problematic conflict when dealing with entities such as oil companies and the U.S. Navy; and
- “NOAA supports” its specialists serving as officers or on boards “in professional organizations” but “subject to applicable ethics requirements and certain other limitations” not spelled out.
“NOAA seems to be saying that it supports transparency and scientific freedom so long as it is not inconvenienced by them,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency has yet to act on PEER rulemaking petitions to lift prior official restraints on scientists and to end vague prohibitions on Sea Grant recipients deemed to be “advocates” for resource protection. “This draft is so non-specific that it reads more like a political platform that a protocol for scientists.” Key portions of the NOAA rules are left for future drafting or unaddressed altogether. For example –
- All of the specifics for how the policy is to implemented and enforced are for a Procedural Handbook but as the draft points out “The handbook is currently under development”;
- The draft does not provide guidance about when or if scientists can interview with the media, respond to Congress or collaborate with colleagues; and
- The draft promises NOAA scientists whistleblower protections but leaves unstated under what circumstances. The draft merely references “additional procedures [to be] adopted as needed, including any appropriate whistleblower protections….”
“A consumer has access to far more information about a used car than a NOAA scientist does about what this policy actually means and how it would work,” added Ruch, pointing out that NOAA is acting under a March 2009 White House science integrity directive which has been slow to develop as, thus far, only the Interior Department has adopted final rules. “Unfortunately when it commissioned government-wide promulgation of scientific integrity rules, the White House abdicated any quality control over what the agencies finally produced.”
The NOAA transmittal announcement to employees proclaims that “NOAA embarked on a thoughtful and transparent effort” which heretofore has taken place entirely behind closed doors. It is not clear when the agency will unveil a draft for public comment or what its ultimate adoption timetable will be.