Advocacy and Public Policy Newsletter ~ January 2011
Scientific Integrity in America
“Climate change” is a much more palatable term used today for global warming, which started to gain serious attention during the late Bush Administration. Despite a clear consensus among scientists that the threat of global warming is real, based on evidence such as the melting polar ice caps and geological temperature trends, the media has painted a much more indecisive picture. Citing heavy rain and snowstorms as evidence for the faulty nature of the global warming “theory”, conservative pundits and television personalities demonstrated a clear lack of understanding about the science behind climate change. But whose fault was this? Was it the fault of columnists and writers who studied journalism in school, or the television anchormen and women who studied communications; that their understanding of climate science was shaky? Perhaps it was the scientists’ fault for not clearly communicating their findings. Or could it be other factors such as political influence by the oil and automobile industries that played a role in the distortion of scientific evidence, which would have otherwise demonstrated the real threat of global warming?
This issue is a sensitive and extreme example of a recently politicized scientific debate, but it exemplifies a trend that is not unique. When requesting information about science being conducted in a federal research lab, American citizens, the media, and all others must submit a written request for information under the Freedom of Information Act. The initial request may eventually lead to a response from the Public Affairs, or Press Office associated with the research agency being asked for an interview or raw data, and is often delayed by weeks or even months. By the time a journalist may hear back from the agency about their request, the opportunity for a story is long-gone and he/she will either have trashed the idea, or relied on inaccurate or less credible sources to provide the needed information.
In March 2009, President Obama issued a Memorandum to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) addressing this and other issues, asking him to develop a set of guidelines within 120 days to ensure scientific integrity within the federal government. He acknowledged that misinformation about scientific research is a problem, and encouraged OSTP to create a standard for the federal government that could serve as an inspiration and a model of integrity, excellence and good science for the rest of the nation. 21 months later, (almost two years late) John P. Holdren, the Director of the OSTP issued a response to the President’s Memorandum, “to provide further guidance to executive departments and agencies to implement the Administration’s policies on scientific integrity.”
Advocacy and science groups across the nation eagerly anticipated the development and release of these guidelines, because none had ever been issued before. It was to be a great first step in bridging the steep gap between science and the public. Unfortunately, the long wait turned out not to be an indication of new and creative ways to improve the scientific integrity of the federal government. Instead, it disappointed and dismayed. Without actually developing guidelines or requiring that federal agencies develop their own policies, Holdren’s memo simply suggests that the agencies involved in scientific research develop policies to improve the appearance of scientific integrity. In fact, the second guideline in this document identifies the goal of “strengthen[ing] the actual and perceived credibility of Government research” without providing methods with which to actually achieve this.
To be sure, the OSTP’s four-pages of guidelines on Scientific Integrity are a critical first step, however inconsequential. There are some basic stipulations that make sense and in some cases improve the current situation. For example, it clarifies that selection of candidates for scientific positions within the executive branch should be “based on their scientific knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.” Whew. Additionally, it suggests that federal agencies should encourage their scientists to engage in activities that will enrich their professional career, such as publishing their findings in scholarly journals, presenting at professional meetings, and participating in academic societies. These seem like logical policies that should have been written long ago. However, other recommendations are a bit fuzzy. For example, the guidelines recommend that scientific research used to inform policy decisions should undergo independent peer review by qualified experts, but only “where feasible and appropriate, and consistent with the law.” Whose job is it to interpret what is feasible, appropriate, and consistent with the law?
Furthermore, Holdren’s guidelines reinforce agency control over the information that is published about its science, by ensuring that agencies will offer “articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons” – as opposed to the actual scientists doing the research – “to describe and explain these dimensions to the media and the American people.” To be sure, “federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work,” but only “with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office.” Essentially, this policy does not change standard protocol of having to go through a public affairs or media relations office within each agency to request information from federal scientists. In fact, it may even be more difficult now than ever before to obtain an interview with a federal scientist, since a written policy guideline now exists that mandates approval by both the public affairs office and the scientist’s immediate supervisor.
This suggests a multitude of problems if the ultimate goal is transparency and clarity of the scientific message. The environmental writer and founder of Climate Science Watch, Joseph A. Davis dissects these recent guidelines with a level of scrutiny that is both informed and incensed. He points out that even if an interview is permitted, federal scientists are restricted to talking only about their “official work,” meaning they cannot contextualize it in a way that is relevant to the average American. Additionally, they will be prohibited from making informed recommendations or providing insights that may influence important policy decisions. Finally, Davis acknowledges, requiring researchers to coordinate with their supervisor and the public affairs office before speaking with a member of the press will likely ensure a level of spin or politicization of the science being presented.
Despite the fact that no agency has written policies about scientists talking to the media about their research, Davis reports, “scientists continually told journalists that the policy was ironclad and that their jobs were at risk if they granted an interview.” He suggests that the OSTP’s recent guidelines for scientific integrity essentially condone these practices of intimidation and secrecy by not forbidding them explicitly. I would add that President Obama has also made a silent statement about these guidelines, as he has yet to acknowledge their release (more than one month after the fact). Nor has he issued an endorsement, support or an executive order to direct the implementation of the document. Perhaps he is as disappointed as we are with the lack of vigor and veracity in what was supposed to establish scientific integrity in the United States Federal Government.
The moral of this story is that much more work needs to be done to illuminate this problem, and the lack of scientific integrity within the federal government is an issue that will only get worse with time. The more technologically advanced and potentially controversial research becomes, the less likely it is that the federal government will allow this information to reach the public. And if there is no communication by federal scientists to the media and the people, members of Congress will be unable to respond to science in a way that is responsive to the American public, and federal researchers will essentially be operating in a vacuum with no off-switch. This is a serious concern, and we are calling on OSTP to take their recommendations back to the drawing board…even if it takes another two years.