As Scientific Integrity Policies Roll In, What Comes Next?

March 30, 2012 | 12:54 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

Today is the deadline for federal agencies and departments to publicly announce final or “final draft” policies designed to prevent political and corporate interference in the science behind government decision-making. The results, as expected, are all over the board. We’re keeping track here.

Where the Policies Stand

Some agencies, like NOAA and the EPA, and the Department of Interior, are well positioned to begin implementation of strong policies that have the potential to change agency culture for the better. For example, they make it clear that the policies apply to all employees and contractors. They have developed media policies that make it more difficult for agency leaders to censor scientists. They give scientists the chance to review, correct, and approve agency documents that rely upon their scientific work.

Others, like the USDA and the Department of Labor, have “fulfilled the minimum requirements” by more or less restating what is the general White House scientific integrity guidelines. This is not enough.

Some entities, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Veterans Affairs, are seeking public comment on their  policies. As the White House has noted, public comment periods have greatly improved several of the final policies that have been put forward.

And, well, we’re still waiting for some as of this moment. Once all of the policies come in, we’ll do a more detailed analysis of where agencies have succeeded and what work still needs to be done.

White House Leadership Needed on Bigger Issues

For now, this much is clear: There’s only so much the agencies can accomplish alone. None of the policies released thus far sufficiently address issues like whistleblower protection, disclosure of meetings with special interests, and interagency review of scientific documents.

These issues are bigger and need more attention and leadership from the White House. The White House should explain how it plans to address the challenges to scientific integrity that the agencies are not well positioned to tackle alone.

Policies Should be Made Accessible

Agencies and departments need to follow NOAA’s lead and do a much better job of making their policies accessible. Finding these policies should be easy, but it is not. The Department of Energy, for example, issued a general policy statement last week, has no scientific integrity landing page that I could find, and a Google search for Department of Energy Scientific Integrity Policy yields nothing useful. And there’s certainly no place on the White House website with links to all of the policies.

While we’re happy to help, agency employees shouldn’t have to depend on the Union of Concerned Scientists to keep track of them.

Implementation is Key

In a February blog post, Dr. Holdren wrote: “Publication and implementation of these policies will close an important chapter in an historic process that promises a new level of government accountability and will help ensure scientific integrity across the executive branch for years to come.”

I hope agencies and the White House recognize that the implementation part of this process is just as important as the publication part. While some agencies have assembled most of the necessary ingredients, they’re still not ready to put the pie in the oven.