Scientific Misconduct Carries No Penalties  

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For Immediate Release:  Monday, June 14, 2021
Contact:  Kirsten Stade

Scientific Misconduct Carries No Penalties

Scientific Integrity Policies Do Not Protect Scientists or Punish Manipulators

Washington, DC — Federal scientific integrity policies typically provide no punishment for violations and, in some cases, insulate offenders from the disciplinary process, according to a new analysis from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  At the same time, these policies’ promised protections for scientists against interference and censorship remain largely nonexistent.

The absence of either penalties or protections is a central weakness which President Biden’s newly formed Task Force on Scientific Integrity is currently struggling to resolve. The PEER analysis highlights three key weaknesses of current agency policies and recommends solutions:

  • No prescribed penalties for violators coupled with the lack of any reference to these offenses in agencies’ official Tables of Penalties.  Some agencies, in fact, prohibit scientific integrity review panels from even recommending sanctions for violators;
  • Lack of clear application of the policies to political appointees even though their main goal is to prevent political manipulation or suppression of science.  This gap is glaring in that political appointees are a major source of any political pressure; and
  • Failure to provide any meaningful legal protections for scientists whose findings clash with agency positions or who express differing scientific opinions.

“The current toothless policies protect neither science nor scientists,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, pointing out that it is hard to find a single case of a manager or political appointee being punished in the decade since these scientific integrity policies were created.  “If there is no penalty for violation, why have these policies?”

The PEER analysis cites a statement by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Integrity Officer Francesca Grifo on what actions would be taken against managers who improperly altered scientific assessments as the epitome of this dysfunctional disconnect:

“We’re not playing a blame game. The way our scientific integrity policy is written is that specific disciplinary accountability is not in our lane.”

Meanwhile, legal protection for scientists is limited to those who openly file formal complaints about violations of scientific integrity policies.  Left unprotected are scientists targeted because their findings are politically inconvenient or who express differing viewpoints.

“Scientific integrity policies are of not much value if they permit scientists to be harassed based on the content of their research,” added Whitehouse, whose organization has represented many federal scientists targeted precisely because their work is controversial. “Since they invite detrimental reliance upon the false promises of protection and quality control, in some sense as they function today, these policies are worse than nothing.”


Read the PEER analysis

See how Interior sabotaged its own Scientific Integrity Policy

Look at examples of where and why Scientific Integrity Policies have not worked

Examine case of USDA scientist harassed because of his pollinator research

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