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The White House’s Scientific Integrity Directive

President Obama tours biotech
facilities in North Carolina.

Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

On December 17, 2010, recognizing that political interference in science had become a serious problem, the White House released a Scientific Integrity Directive.

If fully implemented by federal agencies and departments, the directive could help protect government scientists from pressure by special interests, and would ensure that the government can make fully informed decisions about public health and the environment.

The directive is a response from White House Science Advisor John Holdren to a March 2009 presidential memorandum which outlined broad scientific integrity principles for the executive branch.

For years, interference from politicians and government officials has prevented government scientists from doing their jobs, and has led to flawed policy decisions on numerous issues, from prescription drug safety to childhood lead poisoning. In a recent survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), hundreds of government food safety scientists and inspectors reported political and industry pressure to soften their scientific findings.

The directive instructs federal agencies and departments to come up with detailed scientific integrity plans that include:

  • giving the public better access to the science considered in making policy decisions
  • establishing principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the public
  • clarifying government scientists’ right to share their research and scientific analyses with the public and the press
  • setting clear standards that govern conflicts of interest
  • removing roadblocks that had kept scientists from staying current on the latest research

UCS is praising the directive, saying it "articulates a broad vision for defending science from political interference.” UCS also expressed caution, however, that the directive leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the federal agencies and departments who are now charged with furnishing the details. 

UCS has suggested minimum requirements for what should be included in each agency’s action plan. The Department of Interior is already at the front of the pack, having released its own scientific integrity policy in September 2010, which drew wide praise from UCS and other science organizations.

In this UCS fact sheet, you can see how previous instances of political interference in science might have been prevented by this directive. UCS is also assessing allegations of political interference in science against the Obama administration and tracking the Obama administration’s progress—and missteps—towards restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking.

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