White House Releases Long-Awaited Guidance for Scientific Integrity

It was an awfully long wait for a four-page memo. Seventeen months late on meeting the deadline set in a March 2009 order from President Barack Obama, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) today released high-level guidance for federal agencies on how to develop policies on scientific integrity. The guidance, which includes a prohibition on political interference, is being received warmly but somewhat cautiously by advocacy groups.

Obama's order followed concerns about the politicization of science during the Bush Administration and recognition that the federal government lacked uniform rules and practices. The memo lays out four areas that agency policies should cover: the foundations of scientific integrity in government, public communication about science, the use of advisory committees, and the professional development of scientists.

The guidance includes the following points:

  • "Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings."
  • Data used for policy decisions should "undergo independent peer review by qualified experts, where feasible and appropriate."
  • Agencies should set clear standards for dealing with conflict of interest and adopt whistleblower protections.
  • Agencies should expand and promote access to scientific information by making it available online.
  • There should be principles for communicating science to the public, such as explaining uncertainties and describing the probabilities of best- and worst-case scenarios.
  • Federal scientists can speak to the media and public about their research "with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office."
  • Agencies should facilitate professional development of scientists, such as encouraging publication of results and presentations at meetings.

Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, welcomed the memo in a statement: "This is a rough but promising blueprint for honesty and accountability in the use of science in government decisions." Al Teich, director of science policy at AAAS (which publishes Science Insider) in Washington, D.C., tweeted his reaction about the White House memo: "They've talked the talk. We hope they'll walk the walk."

In blog post about the memo, science adviser John Holdren, who directs OSTP, emphasized that these were minimum standards designed to enhance ongoing efforts to ensure scientific integrity within agencies.

Holdren told ScienceInsider earlier this week that part of the reason for the delay in issuing the memo was the difficulty of getting agreement from all the stakeholders and crafting guidance that would be applicable to all.

Federal agencies are supposed to report back to Holdren within 120 days on their progress implementing the guidance. If they do, they'll beat their boss's performance by more than a year.