Interior Dept. issues new policy protecting government scientists
The Interior Department on Tuesday became the first federal entity to set rules that would protect scientific information and the people who create it from political interference, earning wide praise from outside groups who have long alleged that top political officials regularly manipulate or misinterpret scientific data.
The new scientific integrity policy applies to the department's 67,000 employees as well as its contractors, grant recipients and volunteers when they analyze or share scientific information with reporters and the public or use the department's information to make policy or regulatory decisions, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The hiring and promotion of officials should be based on "knowledge, credentials, and experience relevant to the responsibility of the position," according to the new policy that also requires the public distribution of scientific and scholarly work not protected by government secrecy laws.
The changes "sets forth clear expectations for all employees - political and career - to uphold the principles of scientific integrity, and establishes a process for impartial review of alleged breaches of those principles," Salazar said in a statement.
The policy details new whistleblower protections, and says workers may share their findings with reporters without manipulation by public affairs officials. Department employees are also encouraged to work with professional organizations and societies so long as they don't create conflicts of interest.
Allegations of scientific or scholarly misconduct will be investigated within 60 days, and officials will work to ensure unfounded allegations don't negatively affect an employee's reputation, the department said.
Obama in 2009 ordered federal scientific agencies to adopt new rules meant to prevent political interference with scientific findings after government scientists and advocacy groups alleged that top officials in George W. Bush's had either manipulated or suppressed scientific reports on environmental concerns and endangered species.
But Obama administration officials have also faced criticism for misinterpreting data released in the wake of the BP oil spill. A report last month by the National Oil Spill Commission faulted White House Climate Adviser Carol Browner for incorrectly stating last August that "the vast majority" of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico was gone.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said political manipulation of scientific information is still common practice, but the department's new policies appear "to be a good faith effort to grapple with a basket of knotty issues which heretofore have been kept out of sight." The advocacy group represents state and federal scientific and environmental workers.
"This is the first official attempt to punish managers who skew science to advance agency agendas," Ruch said, adding however that the policy won't work until it's "successfully applied to a political appointee."
Several scientific groups first shared their concerns about the political manipulation of scientific data during the 2008 presidential transition, said John Fitzgerald, policy director with the Society for Conservation Biology. He called on the department's watchdogs to report on whether the new policies lead to revisions of Bush-era reports on endangered species.
James P. Collins, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, credited the department for incorporating the recommendations of outside groups and for applying the new rules equally to career and political officials.
"Federal scientists are often leaders in their fields. Science benefits when they are able to fully participate in their professional communities," Collins said.
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| February 2, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues
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