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December 19, 2011 

Majority of Departments, Agencies Struggling on Scientific Integrity

As Deadline Passes, Only 6 of 19 Have Publicly Released Draft or Final Policies

One year after the White House instructed federal agencies and departments to create and implement protections for their scientific work, and in the wake of two high-profile examples of political interference in federal government science, the majority of these authorities in question have failed to publicly release draft or final scientific integrity policies.

In October, the White House told federal scientific agencies and departments that they must submit “final draft [scientific integrity] policies” by Saturday, December 17. But of the 19 departments and agencies asked to develop new policies to defend the government’s scientific work and decisions against political interference, only six publicly released draft or finalized policies before the deadline this past Saturday.

The Department of Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Agriculture, and NASA released final policies, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Science Foundation put forth draft policies on which they sought public comment.

“Nearly three years after the president pledged to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking, many federal agencies and departments are struggling,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program. “Difficult issues, such as the protection of whistleblowers, cannot be fully solved agency by agency, but need to be addressed across the board—which requires more leadership from the president.

“To protect and enhance their own credibility, the remaining agencies and departments should make draft or final policies immediately available and invite the public to help them improve their policies. They should also disclose plans to meaningfully implement their policies by the end of the president’s first term.”

The agencies and departments that have taken action have been met with a generally positive reception.  Interior’s policy has been in place for more than a year and supplemental policies—such as an update to the rules that govern how departmental scientists can communicate with the media—are expected to be released toward the beginning of next year.  

Earlier this month, NOAA released its final scientific integrity policy that gives scientists the right to review documents that draw on their work and reaffirms their First Amendment rights. The NASA policy, released Friday, reaffirms that its scientists can speak openly about scientific and technical issues and also improves peer review at the agency.

“NOAA, NASA, and Interior are not unaccustomed to controversial work. So why can’t the other agencies get this done?” asked Grifo. “As we have seen recently with air pollution standards and prescription drugs, the failure to make scientific integrity a priority has direct consequences for public health and the environment.”

Among the government entities that failed to publicly release a plan is the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In an unprecedented move earlier this month, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision to allow over-the-counter sale of the emergency contraceptive Plan B to all females of childbearing age.

In September, the White House prevented the EPA from fulfilling its obligation under the Clean Air Act to update ground-level ozone pollution standards for the United States based on the best available science. The EPA has long been subject to political pressure from industry to misuse science to justify policy decisions. Under the Bush administration, agency officials bowed to that pressure on issues from pesticides to plywood to climate change.

The EPA has yet to publicly respond to the thousands of comments it received on the draft of its scientific integrity policy. “People care deeply about the ability of the EPA to make science-based decisions,” said Grifo. “The agency should move quickly to address the comments it received and release a final scientific integrity policy as soon as possible.”

Grifo called on the White House to hold the agencies who have not yet released policies accountable. “If the administration expects that scientific integrity policies will be fully implemented by the end of the president’s first term, they must accelerate their efforts. We need to see final policies and implementation plans immediately.”

 

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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