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Scientific Integrity Recommendations for the Obama Administration

In an updated report, UCS has put forward a set of detailed recommendations for President Obama and Congress to adopt to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making. UCS urges policy-makers to prioritize these key reforms during the presidential transition and beyond. The recommendations are based on input from thousands of scientists, current and former government science advisors, congressional aides, reporters, and public interest organizations from throughout the political spectrum. They center around five broad themes:

Increasing Transparency and Openness
Scientific Advice to the President
Protecting Government Scientists
Regulatory Reform
Strengthening Monitoring and Enforcement


Increasing Transparency and Openness

Problem. Both democracy and science are based on the free exchange of ideas. A strong democracy depends on well-informed citizens who have access to comprehensive and reliable information about their government's activities. Similarly, science thrives when scientists are free to interact with each other, opening their ideas to wide-ranging scrutiny. Because our country's decision makers need access to the best scientific information available, federal agencies must allow their scientists to participate in the scientific community and speak freely about their research to Congress, the media, and the public. Yet too often an agency's desire to "control the message" has led to the suppression of information and the censorship of the government's own experts.

Example. Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona charged the Bush administration with pervasive levels of political interference in his work as the nation's doctor, compromising his ability to deliver the best available public health science to Americans. During his tenure, Carmona experienced censorship of his speeches, suppression of scientific reports, and restrictions on media and outreach opportunities. He stated, "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointee's ideological, theological, or political agenda is ignored, marginalized, or simply buried."

This interference resulted in less information being made available to the public on topics such as second-hand smoke and mental health. The independence of the Surgeon General is vital so that Americans can act on the best available information regarding the risks to their health.
 
"You don't want Republican or Democratic scientific information," said Carmona. "You want real scientific information, and that's our job, to bring it forward."

Solutions. The president should actively promote a culture of openness at federal agencies. Following the troubled tenure of Ann Gorsuch, the Ruckelshaus memo turned a page at the agency and reassured the American public that new policies of openness and transparency would be implemented. We urge President Obama to send a message to agency heads, asking each to adapt the major provisions of former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus' "Fishbowl Memo." The memo committed the EPA to: 

  • Facilitating "the fullest possible public participation in decision-making," taking "affirmative steps to seek out the views of those who will be affected by the decisions."
  • Prohibiting "privileged status" to any special interest.
  • Ensuring "that the basis for the Agency's decision appears in the record" for either formal or informal rulemaking proceedings under the Administrative Procedures Act.
  • Making accessible to the public the weekly appointment calendars of the EPA administrator and his top deputies
  • Making public "all written comments received from persons outside the Agency (whether during or after the comment period)" and include "a memorandum summarizing any significant new factual information or argument likely to affect the final decision received during a meeting or other conversations."

This model honors the public's right to know and guarantees the government's accountability. A charge to new agency heads to emulate the Ruckelshaus memo would send the strongest possible message of a new direction for the administration.


Scientific Advice to the President

Problem. The United States has enjoyed prosperity and health in large part because of its strong and sustained commitment to independent science. As the nation faces new challenges at home and growing competitiveness abroad, the need for robust federal scientific information and advice is ever more critical. Science and technology issues are closely intertwined with national priorities, including health, agriculture, energy policy, and national security. Without high-quality objective scientific advice, the president cannot make informed policy and resource decisions.

Solutions. The Obama administration should quickly appoint a science advisor. The science advisor should:  

  • Serve at the Cabinet level to ensure that scientific expertise and the best scientific information is available to the president the administration's most senior decision makers.
  • Provide counsel on other appointments before Inauguration Day and into the new administration. 
  • Be a well-respected and nationally recognized scientist.
  • Work with the new president on ways to maintain respect for the expertise of agency scientists, clarifying that the White House should not undermine the independence or quality of federal agency science in regulatory matters.

The science advisor should also be an advocate for scientific integrity in federal decision making. The administration should create an assistant director within OSTP to oversee the integrity of science in the executive branch. The Assistant Director for Scientific Integrity should:

  • Monitor each agency's efforts to improve its scientific integrity. 
  • Work to improve agency-wide policies to ensure transparency and openness.
  • Work with department and agency leaders to identify policies that discourage abuses of science, assisting each leader with public annual reports on the state of scientific integrity at his or her agency or department.

Protecting Government Scientists

Problem. When a federal employee steps forward to protect the public from harm, that worker is often harassed, demoted or fired. Over the years, court decisions have eroded whistleblower protection laws, rendering them largely ineffective. Furthermore, the ability of employees to report waste, fraud, and abuse depends greatly on Executive Branch leadership.

The situation is even worse for federal scientists because whistleblower protection laws have not specifically addressed situations where federal scientists expose attempts to distort or suppress federal research or technical information.

Of the nearly 3,400 federal scientists working across nine federal agencies who responded to UCS questionnaires over the past three years, more than 1,400 federal scientists said they feared retaliation for discussing their agencies' mission-driven work.

Example. When Dr. David Ross, a lead FDA medical reviewer for the antibiotic Ketek, raised concerns about the drug's safety, agency management discouraged and muzzled him. The agency approved the antibiotic, Ross told the House of Representatives, "knowing that it could kill people from liver damage and that tens of millions of people would be exposed to it; despite FDA knowing that the drug maker submitted fabricated data; and despite knowing that Ketek is not better than other antibiotics and may not work."

"I tried to work through the system," Ross recently told the Washington Post.  But he found himself marginalized in the FDA, and he knew that the federal court that hears all whistleblower cases--the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals--nearly always rules against the whistleblower. "Because of the court's impossibly high standard, I was left with fewer rights than a criminal," he said. "I did not even bother asking for whistleblower status, because it would have been like painting a target on my back."

Dr. Ross was so angered by the FDA's actions that he left the agency. In 2007, the FDA withdrew its approval for Ketek to treat acute bacterial sinusitis and acute chronic bronchitis.

Solutions. Stronger whistleblower rights should be combined with strong executive leadership to support the ability of federal workers to tell the truth and expose waste, fraud and abuse without fear of retaliation. 

  • The president should issue a strong statement calling on Congress to complete its work on federal whistleblower protection legislation this year.
  • To combat the perception that federal scientists are particularly under the gun, the president should make it clear that scientists who report efforts to alter or suppress federal research or technical information will be protected.
  • The president should send a message to all agency heads clearly stating that federal whistleblowers should not be punished for protecting taxpayers and public health and safety. This message should also make clear that federal scientists, when they report efforts to alter or suppress federal research or technical data, are whistleblowers who must be protected from retaliation.


Regulatory Reform

Problem. Federal regulatory agencies are mandated by Congress to protect the public health and safety on issues ranging from air pollution to nuclear power to food safety. To fulfill these mandates and create effective policies, agency decision makers must have access to the very best scientific information. Changes to the regulatory process have opened the door to political interference in agency science and upended the checks and balances that make our regulatory system work.

Executive Order 13422, issued in January 2007 by President George W. Bush, expands the review powers of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to include not only regulations, but also any "significant" guidance documents put out by federal agencies.  OMB has a valuable role to play in the regulatory process, but it should not serve as the gatekeeper or editor of science.

The executive order requires that each agency name a Regulatory Policy Officer (RPO) who is appointed by the President. The order diverts the authority for beginning work on a regulation away from agency heads and places it in the hands of the RPOs.

The executive order also directs agencies to prove to OMB that a regulation is justified because it addresses a "market failure." These provisions potentially give the White House the power to block new public health and safety rules, even those mandated by Congress.

Example. In recent years, the White House has:

  • Pushed for greater review of scientific information in EPA's toxics database by federal agencies responsible for pollution clean-up.
  • Asked for the removal of specific information about mercury contamination from EPA’s report on America’s Children and the Environment.
  • Challenged scientific findings about the danger posed to endangered right whales by ship strikes.

As one anonymous EPA scientist put it, OMB is a "source of frustration. They truly interfere and want to stamp the White House Agenda over every document that is sent to them for review....few realize the impact that they have."

Solution. We call on the president to issue an executive order in the first 100 days that:

  • Affirms that OMB should govern the interagency review process and determine the policy and economic consequences of rules and regulations in a transparent manner, refraining from undermining the independence and quality of federal agency scientific analysis and establishing a firewall between scientific analysis and policy analysis.
  • Returns the responsibility for initiating rulemakings to the Senate-confirmed Department Secretaries and agency administrators.
  • Revokes the language requiring the identification of specific "market failures" to justify new agency actions.

Strengthening Monitoring and Enforcement

The president should value the information gathered by the many scientific monitoring programs and use it in decision making. A searchable, shareable, usable database of federal monitoring programs should be available to the public through www.science.gov. Examples of such monitoring programs include air pollution monitoring networks, satellite observations of Earth systems, and the collection of workplace injury statistics. Agencies should work to identify data gaps, restore important monitoring systems that have been downsized, and convene advisory committees to identify new monitoring needs.

Congress should investigate the ways in which reduced or eliminated funding for monitoring and enforcement undermine the integrity of science. Greater transparency in budget and spending decisions would help to expose instances where funding levels have been manipulated for political purposes. Congress should conduct oversight of this issue either through hearings or investigations by the GAO.

 

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