Interior Department Updates Scientific Integrity Policy and Creates Handbook

December 18, 2014 | 10:34 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The Department of the Interior came out late yesterday with the 3.0 version of its scientific integrity policy, along with a new handbook that describes how the policy will be implemented. The new materials are simplified, streamlined, and more clear, bringing the department once again to the front of the pack in the Obama administration’s quest to create strong scientific integrity standards within federal agencies and departments. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to speak about the new policy in a keynote address today before the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

The Department of Interior has significant authority over federal land, natural resources, and American Indian affairs. Photo: DOI via Instagram

The Department of Interior has significant authority over federal land, natural resources, and American Indian affairs. Photo of Canyonlands National Park: DOI via Instagram

DOI has been well ahead of the curve from the get go, devoting significant resources to establishing and then cementing scientific integrity commitments. DOI issued its first scientific integrity departmental order in September 2010, months before the White House Office of Science and Technology asked agencies to create their own scientific integrity plans. The departmental order was followed shortly by a scientific integrity and scholarly policy in January 2011, the document that was replaced this week.

In the time since, the department has gone well beyond what the White House asked for. While different DOI bureaus and services have embraced scientific integrity accountability to varying degrees, headquarters has demonstrated its commitment to creating strong and meaningful scientific integrity standards and building them into departmental culture.

So why all of the revisions? They knew what we knew: scientific integrity reform would need considerably more than the creation of a statement of values that would sit on a shelf.  The department created a policy, lived into it, and then made changes based on that experience.

And over the past few years, the department has had its share of experience. At the behest of a private company, for example, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) managers manipulated the process by which scientists were monitoring the impact of pollution on freshwater mussels. The same individuals knowingly adopted flawed scientific models, published shoddy work, and “knowingly impeded” investigations into their conduct regarding the protection of an endangered beetle that was in the way of the proposed Keystone pipeline.

Photo: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, via the Department of Interior Instagram (you really should follow them)

Photo: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, via the Department of Interior Instagram (you really should follow them)

Incredibly, one of the agency’s own appointed scientific integrity officers filed his own complaint when he was allegedly retaliated against after he raised concerns that some officials were skewing the science around the removal of dams in the Pacific Northwest, an Obama administration priority.

Of course, we might not know about these cases, and probably wouldn’t have any resolution to them, without a scientific integrity policy in place. At agencies where poor policies exist, we simply don’t know what is going on until, say, a scientist at a national laboratory gets fired for publishing his opinions about nuclear power and raises a stink.

So, what to think about the new DOI policy? I haven’t had time yet to do a line-by-line analysis of the new policy and handbook, but can see that they have retained a lot of the good stuff and made some significant improvements. Among the highlights:

  • As before, the policy applies to all DOI employees (3.2.A.1).
  • The policy uses the term “outside parties” to apply to contractors, permittees, leasees, grantees, simplifying the definition of who it covers. In essence, if you do business or volunteer with DOI, you have to abide by it (3.2.A.2 and 3.2.A.3).
  • The policy recognizes that best practices may differ among scientific disciplines (3.4.A.8).
  • The policy makes explicit in several places that career employees are responsible for carrying out the policy, helping to guard against interference.
  • The policy retains good language to ensure that scientists can serve on outside boards, such as those for a scientific society, while protecting against conflicts of interest, which may arise with private company boards (3.9).
  • The policy now contains a process by which scientific integrity decisions can be appealed (3.8.G).
  • The policy requiring those who make allegations to state any of their own conflicts up front, helping to guard against frivolous complaints (3.8.A.3.e)
  • In general, the definitions section (3.5) and responsibilities section (3.6) are more clear, concise, and comprehensive in a way that allows for better policy implementation.

Most notably, DOI took steps to make clear how it is operationalizing the scientific integrity policy. The new handbook, which has the effect of policy, lays out specific steps that employees should follow in reporting and evaluating allegations of scientific integrity violations. In addition, the department announced an online training program for employees regarding the use of the policy, and a intra-agency council for those charged with implementing the policy to support each other and share information and best practices.

I would be remiss, however, not to mention a few areas of concern that should be addressed in future updates or that should be monitored. For example:

  • The policy states that the department should “document the scientific findings considered in decision-making, share this documentation proactively (when appropriate) as soon as possible” (3.4.A.6). Proactive is wonderful, but who determines when that is appropriate?
  • Whistleblower protection statements continue to be modest. While the policy refers to established whistleblower laws, the language used could be considerably more aggressive to state that there will be zero tolerance for any retaliation against anyone who files a scientific integrity complaint.
  • Questions regarding the definition of conflict of interest remain (3.5.E). Does the policy extend to the interests of an employee’s spouse, parent, or adult child? What amount constitutes a conflict–a cup of coffee, or a $5,000 speaking fee? When is a conflict of interest no longer relevant–a year? Five years?
  • A new provision declares that scientific activities do not include “educational programs or exhibits.” Presumably this was in response to some cases where complaints were submitted that the department considered outside of the policy’s purview. Now, what kind of recourse would be available if the Grand Canyon National Park bookstores once again started selling creationist versions of the origins of the Grand Canyon?
A sea otter in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The Department of Interior is largely responsible for protecting America's biodiversity. Photo, again, via DOI's  Instagram account.

A sea otter in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The Department of Interior is largely responsible for protecting America’s biodiversity. Photo, again, via DOI’s Instagram account.

But here’s the most glaring flaw: while the department has been reporting out scientific integrity cases on its website, there is nothing in the policy that requires it to do so. While DOI needs to protect the privacy of the accused and discourage frivolous use, it also needs to maintain an appropriate level of transparency to ensure that the public can evaluate whether the policy is being meaningfully implemented.

The EPA, for example, is required to put out an annual report on the state of scientific integrity at the agency. No such provision exists here. Should the DOI stop publishing closed cases, we’d just have to take their word that the policy is well-implemented.

Further, on the communications side, the department continues to be excessively cautious. The scientific integrity policy and handbook does not delve deeply into the rights and responsibilities scientists have in speaking with the public and the press, stating that scientists and scholars “may speak to the media” (3.4.A.7) but leaving the specifics to the departmental communications policy. Unlike the NOAA scientific integrity policy, for example, there is no explicit statement that experts do not need to seek permission before speaking publicly about their work.

The communications policy, which was last updated in 2012, still contains too much language that emphasizes restrictions placed on employees at the expense of encouraging their freedom to speak. The tone of these documents is nearly as important as its content, as those reading these documents will inevitably read between the lines. For example, the policy states that the department of communications “must be notified in advance of any media interviews, media requests or contacts…that may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry.” This language implies that the department could have the discretion to allow scientists to speak when it is convenient and to prevent them from doing so when it is not.

Overall, though, the Department of Interior has taken a good step forward with this new policy. And according to one DOI employee familiar with the development of the new version of this policy, the work on the next iteration starts today. Kudos to the Department of Interior for taking scientific integrity seriously and continuing to devote significant resources to improving its performance.