How Can We Ensure Transparency and Integrity at the Intersection of Science and Policy Making

Ask a Scientist - February 2013

This month, Senior Staff Writer Seth Shulman conducted a Q & A session with Francesca Grifo, UCS Senior Scientist and Science Policy Fellow, about  best practices to ensure transparency and integrity at the intersection of science and policy making.  

SS: You and your team worked hard to get the Obama administration to implement stricter scientific integrity policies at governmental agencies. As we enter the administration’s second term, how successful has this effort been?

FG: We have had a major success in that 23 federal departments, agencies, commissions, and offices drafted and finalized scientific integrity policies, many of which we have posted online. That’s a big deal and shows some real, concrete progress. As we’ve said from the start, what is at stake in this effort is nothing less than the quality of the information upon which our government’s decisions are based. Sound policy decisions start with the best possible information. When government agencies have strong policies in place, people can see the science used in the decision-making process. That makes it much harder for people to change that science or suppress it.

SS: Can you explain a bit more about what these policies entail and the impact they have on people’s lives?
FG: These policies are designed to ensure that when we bring science into the decision-making process, it is as solid and independent as possible. That means creating mechanisms through which it is safe for scientists in government to speak up when they have questions about problems with the data and that make it possible for them to be heard. In worst-case situations scientists must become whistleblowers, and thankfully we made huge progress with last November’s passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. Scientists now have better tools to fight retaliation from federal managers if they expose censorship or other abuses of science. 

The implications of these kinds of policies are enormous. Let’s say you are going to your pharmacy to get a prescription filled. You need to have confidence that, if scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had any misgivings about the safety or efficacy of that drug, they were able to speak out and that the issues were resolved based on science, not politics or profits. Only in that kind of a policy-making environment can we feel certain that a drug is safe. And the same holds true when scientists in government have concerns about problems with food safety, the quality of our air and water, or a host of other issues.  The key is: we need to know about the science, not about somebody’s political remix of research results.

SS: So, you’re saying that most federal agencies now have rules in place to protect scientists and ensure the integrity of their data?

FG: Scientific integrity policies are now in place but they vary in quality and comprehensiveness. Roughly a third of the agencies and departments broke significant new ground. Others did the bare minimum.

For instance, one key area of scientific integrity involves protecting the right of last review for scientists. If an agency is publishing a document that contains data that an agency scientist worked on, that scientist should be able to look at the final document to make sure the information is accurately presented. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several other agencies put that into their policies but other agencies did not.

Another important area is an agency’s media policy. It is important for members of the media to have timely access to agency scientists. To be sure, you can’t run an agency where 500 scientists are each making policy.  So, there can and should be rules about coordination. But we also want a system where our scientists are free to speak out and where they can speak as private citizens so we don’t infringe on their First Amendment rights. 

With all these new policies in place, however, the huge challenge at every agency is implementation: the job of taking these rules and guidelines off the shelf and putting them into action every day. It is not an easy task, and a key piece is leadership. It is vitally important for agency administrators to say they believe in the scientific process, in transparency. Two outgoing agency directors in the first Obama administration, Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency and Jane Lubchenco at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, displayed an exemplary commitment on these issues. Each of them spoke over and over about the importance of scientific integrity and they both worked hard to change the culture at their agencies. That kind of leadership is critical.

SS: What’s next for UCS efforts in this area? 

FG: We believe it’s vitally important for people to stay engaged on this issue in this administration and beyond because there is more work to be done. None of the agencies took on the issue of visitor logs, for instance: it matters who senior aides at an agency meet with in crafting an important piece of policy and there should be transparency. Very few agency policies address issues of data sharing or interagency review but transparency is needed in these areas as well. Ideally, you want a system where, when scientific data pass from one agency to another, drafts remain publicly accessible. These areas still need more attention and work.

Meanwhile, we are monitoring progress. We will know we were successful when we stop hearing from reporters that they can’t speak directly with scientists at federal agencies; when we see federal scientists expressing their views as private citizens without retaliation; and when we don’t see agencies issuing waivers to scientists on federal advisory committees for conflicts of interest because they’ve eliminated the conflicts in the first place.

Next month, as the administration’s second term gets more fully underway, we will be releasing a report assessing progress on media policies at federal agencies. In his first inaugural address, President Obama famously championed his desire to “restore science to its rightful place” in governmental decision making. We hope our efforts can help agencies continue their work to realize that lofty goal.

Dr. Francesca Grifo is a senior scientist and science policy fellow at UCS. She has a doctorate in botany from Cornell and a bachelor's degree in biology from Smith College. Before joining UCS she directed Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation graduate policy workshop and ran the Science Teachers Environmental Education Program. Prior to that, she was director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and a curator of the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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