Science Integrity Plan Throws Scientists Under the Bus
OSTP Encourages Dissent but Offers No Legal Protection Against Backlash
Washington, DC — The White House’s new Model Scientific Integrity Plan touts the “free flow of scientific information,” including speaking with the media and filing “differing scientific opinions,” but provides no enforceable legal safeguards for scientists who face reprisal for doing so. That gap means scientists working on controversial topics will continue to do so at their professional peril and renders key provisions of the Model Policy largely toothless, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In a January 12, 2023 memo entitled “Delivery of the Framework for Federal Scientific Integrity Policy and Practice,” White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar told agencies that a new Model Policy sought, among other things, to implement six principles outlined in a similar effort by President Obama back in 2009. Under the principle regarding protection for scientists, the 2009 Obama order stated:
“Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes…” (Emphases added)
Biden’s OSTP, however, cut out the “additional procedures” language and instead urges adoption of circular language that agencies should merely obey the current Whistleblower Protection Act. This approach repeats the same mistake committed by Obama’s OSTP in that –
- Scientists conducting research or publishing on controversial issues or filing dissenting opinions are not whistleblowers, in that they are not reporting violations, waste, fraud, or abuse. Thus, they are not covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act; and
- Scientists who suffer retaliation for having reported a violation of a scientific integrity policy are already covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act, since they are reporting a violation of a rule. Thus, the Model Policy offers nothing new.
“A scientific integrity policy that does not protect scientists when they exhibit integrity is not worth much,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch. “It is utterly irresponsible for the White House to encourage scientists to file formal dissents without offering safeguards if those dissents trigger professional reprisals that could end a scientific career.”
The Biden effort to reform scientific integrity policies is premised on the fact those policies are largely ineffective, as underlined by how they functioned during the Trump years. The ability of scientists to voice dissent or present controversial research is central to whether these scientific integrity policies will ever be meaningful or will remain merely rhetorical window dressing.
“In the past, agencies could suppress unwelcome scientific research and blackball the researcher because there was no rule against it,” added PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, arguing that if scientific dissent is to survive there must be enforceable mechanisms to shield both the dissent and dissenters from the political power within an agency that wants everyone to support the official talking points. “The White House has the opportunity to create enforceable safeguards for scientific integrity but appears to be blowing it again.”