White House unveils science integrity policy

The White House released a long-awaited federal scientific integrity policy on Friday, which says, "political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings."
President Barack Obama talks with Erika DeBenedictis, 18, a student at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico, during an unscheduled tour of auxiliary exhibits in the East Garden Room of the White House following the White House Science Fair, Oct. 18, 2010. DeBenedictis won the top award in the Intel Science Talent Search for developing a software navigation system to improve spacecraft travel through the solar system.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Released by Office of Science and Technology Policy chief John Holdren, the four-page guidance to federal agencies and departments gives them 120 days to report on their implementation of policies. President Obama called for the science integrity rules in March of 2009, following years of disputes over political interference with scientists at NASA, FDA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and elsewhere in the executive branch during the Bush Administration.

"The new memorandum describes the minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules appropriate for their particular missions and cultures, including a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency," Holdren writes on a White House blog. The guidance lists principles for scientific integrity standards, public communication, federal advisory committee membership, scholarly development and implementation of the guidance. "Scientific progress depends upon honest investigation, open discussion, refined understanding, and a firm commitment to evidence," Holdren says.

"There are a lot of good things in the guidance, but the proof will be in the pudding," says Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group. Some agencies regularly require scientists talking to the public or reporters to have "minders" from public affairs office monitor and cut off their conversations for example, she notes. Whether those practices cease will be telling. "I suspect the regulatory agencies will find it particularly hard to implement the policies, because the stakes are very high there," she says.

Science agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation will likely experience less friction over the new policies, she suggests.

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