NOAA Scientific Integrity Plan Offers No Shield for Scientists
Lack of Whistleblower Protection Leaves Scientists Vulnerable to Official Reprisal
Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is finalizing its first set of rules outlawing political manipulation and suppression of science but the draft extends no concrete safeguards for scientists who file complaints or make controversial findings, according to formal comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Without an effective shield against retaliation, NOAA scientists who resist political pressure in their work risk ending their careers.
The NOAA draft “Scientific Integrity Policy” contains strong language forbidding politically motivated alteration of technical documents, including a new process for investigating allegations of scientific misconduct by both managers and scientists, as well as promoting scientific openness.
While the policies are strong, the mechanisms to implement them are uneven. For example, the draft declares “It is NOAA policy to protect those who uncover and report allegations of scientific and research misconduct…” but fails to explain how this policy is enforced or by whom. Nonetheless, the draft policy commits NOAA to “Provide information to employees on whistleblower protections” – a tall order if NOAA officials cannot explain what those protections are or how they can be invoked.
In addition, the NOAA draft policy suggests an extremely narrow zone of protection for scientists:
- NOAA scientists who face official retaliation for making, or attempting to make, scientific findings on topics such as endangered species which trigger political backlash against the agency are provided no legal protection;
- Scientists who speak with the media have no defense against official displeasure; and
- What protections do exist appear to be limited to the period when a complaint of scientific misconduct is being reviewed and then vanish when the investigation is completed.
“By encouraging scientists to speak up without protecting them when they do so, NOAA invites needless career carnage,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization counsels federal scientists about their rights and options. “In drafting these new rules, NOAA and other agencies need to seize this golden opportunity to bootstrap in legal protections for scientists conscientiously doing their jobs in the face of political interference.”
NOAA is promulgating these rules as part of a government-wide effort mandated by a 2009 directive from President Obama to protect scientific integrity and is one of more than dozen agencies developing similar codes. The public comment period on this NOAA draft policy ends on August 20th.
In addition to weak whistleblower provisions, the PEER comments highlight several other issues such as 1) the conflict between NOAA’s proposed freedom to publish and lecture with a Commerce Department edict mandating official approval of all technical writings and speeches; and 2) NOAA draft language that may give rise to witch hunts against scientists for the affiliations of their spouses or family.
“Scientific careers are fragile and easily broken in ways that the civil service regulations often do not recognize,” added Ruch. “That is why it is vital that scientific integrity rules do not become just another management tool for attacking scientists.”