Coming: Needed Protections for Science Integrity

The big news out of the White House yesterday was a lifting of the ban on federal funding for research using stem cells. Far more important — though less heralded — was other news coming out of the same event: a pledge by the prez to depoliticize Uncle Sam’s use of science.

OLD GUARD Grifo (left) poses with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a lawmaker who has convened many hearings to probe alleged federal abuses of science. Grifo

At some level, it’s easy to understand why many news organizations missed this. The president’s prepared remarks made only passing reference to a new memo on “scientific integrity.”

I requested a copy of that memo from the White House. And what it calls for should be music to all of our ears. Said Obama: “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. . . [and] selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on . . .knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.”

Yesterday’s memo goes on to direct the president’s science adviser — John Holdren, if the Senate ever gets around to confirming him — to implement a new scientific-integrity-assurance plan by July 7. It’s to include “recommendations for presidential action.”

They’re to ensure:

— that any science or data used in policy decisions “be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate”
— that such data are used “in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards”
— that policies be in place to ferret out instances where science or the integrity of research data “may be compromised”
— and that whistleblower protections and other procedures exist to safeguard the science and data that any federal agency develops or uses.

Rules to ensure and protect scientific integrity not only should have been on the books already but actually served as guiding principles for public servants. But Barack Obama rightly recognized that the Bush administration — and especially the bean counters in its Office of Management and Budget — considered science far more malleable than research principles, much less the law, allow.

In fact, the Bush White House held science hostage on scores of occasions. There were times when science studies were ignored because their conclusions — and the data upon which they had been based — didn’t support administration policies. In some cases, scientists were reprimanded, muzzled or suffered retaliation for not making their science tow the administration’s line, notes Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The scientific integrity program that she runs at UCS has surveyed scientists throughout the federal government about such abuses and describes its findings in a series of reports on the organization’s website.

Some 90 separate examples are profiled, for instance, in the A-to-Z Guide to Political Interference in Science.. It’s indexed by alphabetical listing, issues, timelines and agencies. For instance, it notes how Pieter Tans was muzzled about his work at NOAA. In 2005, for instance, Tans “was asked by lab director Dr. David Hofmann to cancel a conference session on energy use and the carbon cycle due to its ‘policy implications’ and was told that the words ‘climate change’ could not appear in the titles of any presentations,” the A-to-Z Guide notes. “Hoffman had previously told Tans and other NOAA scientists not to use the word ‘Kyoto’ [as in the Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations treaty to limit global warming] in presentations or papers,” it adds.

Then there was the controversy that FDA’s David Graham ignited about five years ago. According to the UCS guide: “Graham testified that the FDA’s failure to recall the arthritis drug Vioxx . . . resulted in as many as 55,000 premature deaths from heart attacks and stroke,” or human losses equivalent to “two to four jumbo jetliners” crashing every week for five years.

Shortly afterward, Grifo says, his agency “tried to discredit his research by contacting editors” at journals in which he wanted to publish. FDA also, for a time, “reassigned him to an empty office with nothing but a phone,” she reports. “Now that’s retaliation.” 

Overall, she told me, scientific abuse in the last administration “was pervasive.” Indeed, her group conducted surveys of federal scientists in many agencies over several years. Grifo says they showed that “1,413 scientists reported fearing retaliation for speaking out — either inside or outside the agency — about their agency’s mission-driven work. That’s 42 percent of our respondents.”

Those surveys turned up other disturbing observations, as well. Such as that 213 scientists had been directed by officials in their agencies to “provide incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading information” to the public; 1,028 climate scientists at seven agencies (60 percent of respondents) had experienced political interference in their work during the previous five years; and 69 FDA scientists (9 percent of respondents) had frequently or occasionally“been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or my conclusions in an FDA scientific document.”

Lately, Grifo reports, in the interests of taking a bipartisan look at the issue “We’ve started to research the Clinton administration. And we haven’t been able to document any scientific abuses. I’m not saying there weren’t any. But we honestly couldn’t find any primary documentation. We also have quotes from many federal and other high-level scientists who told us, it wasn’t like this even under Bush 1.”

She acknowledges that such observations are “anecdotal. But all of it together suggests there really was a big change with the recent Bush administration.”

Of course, science will never support all we do or want to do. But when it doesn’t, we should explain why we feel a need to reject it. What we should condemn is sweeping inconvenient data under the rug and pretending they don’t exist.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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