Four Years Later, a Mixed Bag of New Scientific Integrity Policies at Federal Agencies

Published Mar 8, 2013 Updated Aug 8, 2013

WASHINGTON (March 8, 2013)—Federal agencies have made great strides in establishing new scientific integrity policies, but four years after they started this process a new analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) finds that agencies were inconsistent and sometimes lackluster in their approach.

“I commend the changes that have been achieved, but in no way are we done,” said Francesca Grifo, senior scientist for scientific integrity at UCS. “A future administration, especially one willing to attack science, could still wreak havoc on our scientific enterprise with disastrous consequences for our health and safety.”

On March 9, 2009, President Obama issued a memo affirming his administration’s commitment to scientific integrity. John Holdren, the president’s science advisor, subsequently directed departments and agencies to create new scientific integrity policies.

Twenty-two departments and agencies submitted policies to the White House. The UCS analysis found:

  • Six submitted policies that actively promote and support a culture of scientific integrity: the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.
  • Five policies, including those from the FDA and Department of Commerce were found to promote scientific integrity, but need additional work.
  • Eleven agencies, meanwhile, submitted policies that do not make adequate commitments on scientific integrity.

All the submitted policies state that officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings. They also pledge to uphold some aspects of independence for federal advisory committees and have provisions ensuring research undergoes peer review.

However, many policies have significant flaws. Seven agencies require scientists to obtain permission from supervisors or public affairs offices before they discuss their research. None of the agencies publish their visitor logs. Further, none of the agency policies worked to separate scientific and technological analysis from regulations and so-called “pre-decisional” documents that are used to set policy.

“It’s still too easy to go after the science, especially when it comes to science that forms the basis of new rules,” Grifo said. “The American public deserves to know what the best-available science is when it comes to our health and safety.

Finally, none of the agencies have updated their policies to reflect the new Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. Grifo said the agencies and departments should update their policies to reflect the new law, which protects scientists and other federal employees from retribution when they expose interference in their work.

Grifo has written a blog post discussing her findings in greater depth. Next week, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS will release a related scorecard of agency media and social media policies. These twin analyses bookend Sunshine Week, which promotes greater transparency and public access to government information.