Interior Department Releases 'Scientific Integrity' Policy

In recent years, the Department of the Interior has taken a lot of criticism about abuse of science, such as a Bush Administration political appointee who scientists said played fast and loose with research on endangered species.

Now a new policy designed to prevent such problems is getting an enthusiastic welcome from advocacy groups.

The policy lays out general principles that apply to all of the agencies within the department, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, which handles endangered species. According to the policy, scientific findings that are used to set policy should be made public, except when they are exempt by law. Findings should never be suppressed and scientists shouldn't be pressured into changing their findings.

Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls the document "a great framework" but said that many specifics need to be worked out, such as deadlines for releasing information.

She welcomed changes from the draft version of the document that remove loopholes and call for protection of whistleblowers.

Jeff Ruch of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility also welcomed the new policy, with a few cautious notes in the press release:

" ... We have seen bold rhetorical commitments to scientific integrity before without follow-up," added Ruch, noting that the Interior order did not set a deadline for promulgation of implementing rules. "Once the rules are in place, they must be enforced. So, we will wait for the day when this administration punishes one of its own political appointees for covering up or sugarcoating inconvenient facts."

The Department of the Interior says the policy is consistent with long-awaited guidance on scientific integrity from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Officials insist the principles behind that plan are in force though its details were due in May 2009.