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Interior Dept. adopts new scientific integrity policy

The U.S. Department of Interior hopes to avoid a repeat of politically tainted endangered species decisions by adopting a new scientific integrity policy.

Whistleblower protection and communications with media part of new guidelines for agency researchers

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After several scandal-ridden years when political influence shadowed decisions by agencies the like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the former Minerals Management Service, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week took a strong step toward assuring the legitimacy of scientific decision-making by announcing the appointment of an integrity czar and the establishment of a new policy that includes a scientific code of conduct for government researchers.

The policy, announced Feb. 1, also gives more protection to whistleblowers and establishes a framework for communication between agency scientists and scholars and the media.

“Because robust, high quality science and scholarship play such an important role in advancing the Department’s mission, it is vital that we have a strong and clear scientific integrity policy,” said Secretary Salazar. “This policy sets forth clear expectations for all employees, political and career, to uphold the principles of scientific integrity, and establishes a process for impartial review of alleged breaches of those principles.”

Dr. Ralph Morgenweck, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Senior Science Advisor, to serve as the Department’s first Scientific Integrity Officer.

The rules also lay out a process for investigating misconduct allegations against scientists and non-scientist managers.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made several decisions on endangered species listings that were later discredited after leaked information showed that political appointees skewed or ignored scientific reports to make decisions that favored business and industry interests. And the former Mineral Management Service was notorious for tainted decisions.

“This is the first official attempt to punish managers who skew science to advance agency agendas,” said Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that has long pushed for enforceable safeguards.

According to Ruch, some federal agencies had fallen into a pattern of rewarding managers who bend science to win approvals — as recently as during and after the Gulf oil disaster.

As amply evidenced by official public statements following the BP Gulf spill, political manipulation of scientific information still is common practice. These rules will begin to change agency culture once they are successfully applied to a political appointee,” Ruch said.

In a press release, PEER said the new policy still leaves several gray areas:

•    Ambiguity about scientists’ prerogative to publish findings or submit papers to peer reviewed journals (a right secured in only one Interior agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service);
•    Promised whistleblower protections for scientists are not spelled out; and
•    Circumstances under which scientists are forbidden from speaking with the media are unstated.

“This is very much a work in progress but appears to be a good faith effort to grapple with a basket of knotty issues which heretofore have been kept out of sight,” Ruch added, pointing out that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is not even asking other federal agencies to report on the status of their efforts in promulgating rules until mid-April. “Historically, the Department of Interior has been infamous for thorough-going political distortion of science. If Interior can adopt science integrity rules, then surely other agencies such as EPA, NOAA and the Forest Service, have no excuse not to follow suit.”

More information from the Department of Interior:

The new policy applies to all Department of Interior employees when they engage in, supervise or manage scientific or scholarly activities; analyze and/or publicly communicate scientific or scholarly information; or use this information or analyses to make policy, management or regulatory decisions. Additionally, the policy includes provisions for contractors, partners, grantees, leasees, volunteers and others, who conduct these activities on behalf of the Department.

Under this new policy, the Department will:
•    Use clear and unambiguous codes of conduct for scientific and scholarly activities to define expectations for those covered by this policy.
•    Facilitate the free flow of scientific and scholarly information, consistent with privacy and classification standards, and in keeping with the Department’s Open Government Plan.
•    Document the scientific and scholarly findings considered in decision making and ensure public access to that information and supporting data through established Departmental and Bureau procedures—except for information and data that are restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum.
•    Ensure that the selection and retention of employees in scientific and scholarly positions or in positions that rely on the results of scientific and scholarly activities are based on the candidate’s integrity, knowledge, credentials, and experience relevant to the responsibility of the position.
•    Ensure that public communications policies provide procedures by which scientists and scholars may speak to the media and the public about scientific and scholarly matters based on their official work and areas of expertise. In no circumstance may public affairs officers ask or direct Federal scientists to alter scientific findings.
•    Provide information to employees on whistleblower protections.
•    Communicate this policy and all related responsibilities to contractors, cooperators, partners, permittees, leasees, grantees, and volunteers who assist with developing or applying the results of scientific and scholarly activities on behalf of the Department, as appropriate.
•    Encourage the enhancement of scientific and scholarly integrity through appropriate, cooperative engagement with the communities of practice represented by professional societies and organizations.
•    Examine, track, and resolve all reasonable allegations of scientific and scholarly misconduct while ensuring the rights and privacy of those covered by this policy and ensuring that unwarranted allegations do not result in slander, libel, or other damage to them.
•    Facilitate the sharing of best administrative and management practices that promote the integrity of the Department’s scientific and scholarly activities.

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