Interior Department Inks Scientific Integrity Policy

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has finalized its policy on scientific integrity, creating code of conduct and procedures for investigation, as well as designating an official in charge. The policy was warmly welcomed by science organizations and advocates. But some details remain murky, such as whether whistleblowers will be protected in all situations. The policy is also vague about how it will ensure the transparency of science in decision-making.

Not long after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama called for a strategy to ensure scientific integrity at federal agencies and asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to come up with recommendations. Even before OSTP finished its guidance, DOI had released a draft policy. Today the agency published its official policy.

All employees from scientists to policy makers, the departmental manual now declares, should "act in the interest of the advancement of science and scholarship for sound decision making, by using the most appropriate, best available, high quality scientific and scholarly data and information." There's also list of further requirements for scientists. (Note to peer-reviewers: "professional jealousy" is now verboten.)

The policy clearly spells out what employees should do if they suspect scientific misconduct and how it will be investigated. Ralph Morgenweck, a senior science advisor at the department's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), was appointed as the chief scientific integrity officer who will review allegations of misconduct.

Jeff Ruch of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the policy is big step in the right direction and praises DOI for being the first agency to formalize a new policy. "We're glad they're finally venturing to this level" of detail, he says. (PEER's analysis is here.) But Ruch says the agency should have specifically stated that it will protect whistleblowing about scientific misconduct. The Whistleblower Protection Act covers federal employees who report crime, gross mismanagement or danger—but not necessarily scientific misconduct, Ruch says. According an agency official: "Scientists are fully protected under Federal Whistleblower protections and this policy acknowledges those protections."

Ruch also wishes that the policy explicitly stated the rights of agency scientists to publish their findings (as is FWS's) and to communicate with the media, as opposed to simply saying they "may" do that. The policy also lacks detail about how it will ensure transparency of scientific information used to make decisions. There are no timelines for releasing information mentioned, for example. DOI responds that "the addition of the scientific integrity officers as outlined in this new policy strengthens Interior's commitment to transparent, science-based decision-making."