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June 16, 2011 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sets High Bar with New Scientific Integrity Policy, Science Group Says

Agency Still Has Work to Do on Details to Ensure Success

WASHINGTON (June 16, 2011) – A new scientific integrity policy released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received high praise from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), but the organization cautioned that NOAA will need the support of its parent agency, the Department of Commerce, to successfully implement the policy.

NOAA also released a handbook for employees that explains how the agency will address scientific misconduct.

“NOAA has raised the bar for scientific integrity policies,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. “However, it is ultimately under the Department of Commerce and will need broader support to make this policy a success.”

Throughout the early 2000s, political appointees at the Department of Commerce and NOAA tried to prevent scientists from speaking to the press, particularly on the issue of climate change. In 2006, NOAA’s administrator, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., encouraged employees to speak freely to the media. However, the Department of Commerce later developed a media policy that contradicted Lautenbacher and added extra layers of bureaucracy that stymied scientists from talking about their work with the news media.

NOAA’s new policy is comprehensive, covering both employees and contractors. According to Grifo, it does an excellent job outlining employees’ rights and responsibilities, including their right to speak freely to the press and public. “In general, the necessary policies are there,” she said. “We just need the details to understand how this policy will work in practice.”

Grifo made several recommendations to strengthen the policy. For example, NOAA needs to establish visitor logs so that the public is aware of who is meeting with agency officials, she said. Likewise, the agency should publicly report on its progress in addressing allegations of scientific misconduct. It also is critical for the agency to establish specific practices to protect the integrity of agency scientific findings to prevent manipulation by other federal agencies or the White House.

NOAA is one of more than 30 agencies and departments scheduled to produce scientific integrity guidelines at the behest of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The White House has asked agencies to finish their draft policies by August. NOAA and the Department of the Interior are the only two agencies that have released draft scientific integrity policies. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA have updated OSTP on their progress and posted their responses online. Other departments and agencies have responded to OSTP regarding their progress, but those responses are not publicly available.

“It’s important for agencies to articulate how they’ll make the promise of scientific integrity a reality,” Grifo said. “Americans depend on good, science-based policy for protecting their health and well-being.”

Note: UCS has tracked cases of political interference in science under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations and has conducted several surveys of scientific agencies to uncover employees’ experiences with political interference in their work.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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