Lost in Space: The Latest Casualty in Reviewing Science for Obama

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The much-ballyhooed report on the future of the U.S. human space program was submitted today to the White House. Or so rumor has it. The so-called Augustine report is the latest in a series of analyses of pressing issues affecting the research community—scientific integrity and biosecurity being the others—that the Obama Administration has chosen to keep under wraps. The pattern of asking experts to study an issue and then not disclosing their recommendations seems at odds with the repeated promises of President Barack Obama to maintain a culture of openness in government.

To be sure, the White House hasn't broken any rules. The NASA panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, was told to report to the space agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). But after it held several public meetings this summer and its members spoke openly about their concerns that NASA's budget is too small to accomplish its goals, observers expected the panel's recommendations to be released simultaneously with their submission. Not so. A congressional hearing is in the offing, but there's no word from the White House on when it will discuss the findings.

That's also the situation for a review of scientific integrity across the federal government that Obama ordered on 9 March. OSTP solicited comments on the web, and OSTP Director John Holdren met the 9 July deadline in the presidential memorandum for suggesting how executive agencies should improve their conduct on everything from vetting job applicants to protecting whistleblowers. But the details remain under seal until all relevant agencies have signed off on them.

The third review was actually set in motion by President George W. Bush less than 2 weeks before leaving office. His Executive Order #13487 (pdf) created a working group of cabinet and agency heads, co-chaired by the secretaries of defense and health and human services, to analyze current practices for the handling and transportation of biological select agents and other lab materials. Their recommendations were delivered in July. No word on when they will be released.