New report finds holes in scientific integrity effort

Posted: Mar 12, 2013

Written by

Jessica Estepa, E&E
President Obama and scientists

On the fourth anniversary of President Obama's promise to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking, a watchdog group is releasing a report saying the government is moving in the right direction but that some policies are flawed and more work still needs to be done.

The Union of Concerned Scientists today released a report that analyzed the scientific integrity policies of 22 federal departments and agencies, listing each department policy's strengths and weaknesses.

While the Interior Department, U.S. EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were praised for their scientific integrity policies, the Energy, Transportation and Agriculture departments were among those criticized for policies that did not make "adequate" commitments to using science in their decisions.

Additionally, the Commerce Department and the Marine Mammal Commission had written policies that promoted scientific integrity but that needed to be worked on to "stand the test of time."

Francesca Grifo, UCS's senior scientific integrity scientist and author of the report, said the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy needs to look into how the policies are being implemented and how they could be improved, especially given that new leadership will soon take the helm at key agencies, including EPA, Interior and DOE.

"I really think that we've started something grand," she said. "It seems a shame to abandon it now."

Of the 22 policies she analyzed, 11 of them were deemed inadequate. The problem was, she said, that some of the agencies simply didn't take them seriously.

For example, DOE's policy lacks specific details on how certain principles will be enforced or upheld. Additionally, it does not explicitly state that it applies to everyone who works at the department, from political appointees and supervisors to contractors. It also has no procedure for reporting and resolving differing scientific opinions.

Grifo also warned that a well-written policy does not necessarily translate into one that actually works.

She pointed to the Interior Department, which in her report is described as having "one of the most detailed and comprehensive policies." But she found Interior's handling of the case involving wildlife biologist Charles Monnett -- whose 2006 paper on polar bears and melting ice caps galvanized the global warming movement -- to be troubling.

Interior's policy outlines how allegations of scientific misconduct should be investigated and resolved, but it appears to not have been taken into account in the Monnett case, Grifo said. The investigation into Monnett began in 2010, before Interior released its policy, but some of the investigation in the case has happened since then.

"The policy should have prevented this," she said. "We should be looking at that example and wondering, 'Why was that scientist hung out to dry?'"

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