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An update on scientific integrity

New administration rules are a step in the right direction, but much work remains, says a watchdog group

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Washington, D.C., is not generally a place where things happen fast. Still, even seasoned science policy experts are surprised at how long it took the Obama administration to release long-expected rules governing scientific integrity at federal agencies.
“Scientific integrity,” in this context, means shielding researchers and their results from political interference.  After all, nobody wants a government where data gets manipulated, suppressed or otherwise distorted to support a predetermined policy position. President Obama, who is something of a science fan, staked his position out early when he called in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place.”

But only this winter did a major step in this direction finally take place. On December 17, presidential science advisor John Holdren finally released a directive that Obama had ordered done by July 2009. The memo calls on federal agencies to take various steps to preserve and promote scientific integrity, such as facilitating the open flow of information, allowing researchers to speak freely with the media, and making transparent how members of federal advisory committees are selected.

Sounds dry. But this sort of policy wonkese is crucial for ensuring that science is used properly in policy decisions, argues Francesca Grifo, head of the scientific integrity program for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “Science is not the only factor in policy decisions,” she says. “But when you do use science, you want it to be robust and independent.”

Grifo, a biodiversity researcher by training, got interested in scientific integrity while working at the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. In a typically Washington scandal, some researchers claimed that the George W. Bush administration was using political litmus tests to screen candidates for positions on the center’s advisory committees. And that set Grifo off on a new career as an integrity watchdog. “You don’t want somebody telling you how to do your research,” she says. “Science is an intellectually- driven process, and the idea of co-opting that for political ends hits at a very gut level.”

Grifo and her team were plenty busy during the Bush administration, when complaints poured into her office about the alleged manipulation of science for political ends. (For a good summary, see Janet Raloff’s blog post here.) So how has the Obama administration done on scientific integrity?

“They’ve done much better,” says Grifo, crediting strong scientific leaders at the heads of many agencies: Steve Chu at the Department of Energy, Jane Lubchenco at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Lisa Jackson of the Environmental Agency among others. The number of complaints arriving in Grifo’s office from federal scientists, Grifo says, has dropped 95 percent since its peak during the Bush administration.

Yet problems remain. In a 2010 survey of food inspectors and scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Grifo’s team concluded that business interests and public officials sometimes obscured the goal of using the best research available to protect the nation’s food supply. And in a report card on the Obama administration’s record on scientific integrity, the UCS gives the White House a red mark for editing a Department of Interior report to suggest that an independent scientific panel had supported Obama’s decision to impose a six-month moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Will things get better? “These are hard nuts to crack,” says Grifo. “Transparency is really scary to folks who have been doing things the same way for forever, because it involves change.” Following Holdren’s December directive, though, various agencies are in the process of issuing new scientific integrity rules; the Department of the Interior has already released its version.

Grifo’s goal now is to convince the government to institute long-term changes, such as comprehensive whistleblower legislation and rules reforming federal advisory committees. “We have to change the culture at these agencies, so that when the next administration comes in it’s much harder to undo,” she says.  

All the infighting over the use of science in the public arena suggests science is more important than many people think, Grifo says. “This is the good news for scientists: Science is important enough that folks bother to interfere with it,” she says. “If science didn’t matter, they wouldn’t try to co-opt it. The fact that folks do respect what research tells us says a lot about the power of information.”

UCS scientific integrity page:
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Further Reading

J. Raloff. Coming: needed protections for science integrity. Science News Online. March 10, 2009.
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J. Raloff. On science and the fearsome OMB. Science News Online. February 3, 2009.
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