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OSTP Director Issues Memorandum on Scientific Integrity

Richard M. Jones
Number 4 - January 12, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, has issued a “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” on scientific integrity.  The four-page memorandum was issued on December 17, 2010, drawing the quick attention of the new chairman of a subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee who said “I look forward to evaluating these guidelines in the upcoming Congress.”

President Obama signed a seven-hundred word memorandum on scientific integrity on March 9, 2009.  In issuing this memorandum, Obama explained that Holdren was “to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.” Obama’s memorandum described the rationale for the memorandum as follows:

 “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.”

Coming less than three months after the President’s inauguration, the memorandum and an accompanying Executive Order on stem cell research followed years of controversy about actions taken by the Bush Administration regarding climate change and other research.

In a posting on the OSTP website, Holdren described his December 2010 memorandum as follows:

“Today, in response to the President’s request, I am issuing a Memorandum to the Heads of Departments and Agencies that provides further guidance to Executive Branch leaders as they implement Administration policies on scientific integrity. The new memorandum describes the minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules appropriate for their particular missions and cultures, including a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency. It requires that department and agency heads report to me on their progress toward completing those rules within 120 days.”

Holdren’s memorandum has five sections.  The first is entitled “Foundations of Scientific Integrity in Government” and calls for executive departments and agencies to develop policies to “ensure a culture of scientific integrity,” “strengthened the actual and perceived credibility of Government research,” “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information, consistent with privacy and classification standards” and “establish principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the public.”  This section sets the tone for the rest of the memorandum and includes guidance on the selection of candidates for scientific positions, independent peer review, whistleblower protections, promoting access to scientific and technological information in online open formats, and agency communications. 

The remaining sections are more specific in their guidance.  They are entitled “public communications,” “use of Federal advisory committees,” “professional development of government scientists and engineers,” and “implementation.”  Regarding implementation, Holdren’s memo suggests that each department or agency may take different approaches to implement the above guidance.  It also addresses the review of congressional testimony:

“The scope of an agency's scientific work and its relationship to the mission of each department or agency may necessitate distinct mechanisms be used by each to implement this guidance. In addition, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will be issuing guidance to OMB staff concerning the review of draft executive branch testimony on scientific issues prepared for presentation to the Congress. That Guidance will provide standards that are to be applied during the review of scientific testimony. I ask that all agencies report to me within 120 days the actions they have taken to develop and implement policies in the areas above.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) has been very interested in this issue.  Broun was the Ranking Member of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee in the last Congress.  Broun is now the chairman of this subcommittee.  Broun has written to Holdren several times about the status of the guidance that was just released, as well as other issues.  The new House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s website identifies scientific integrity as a “hot topic,” with a lengthy list of documents on this subject.  As chairman of the subcommittee, Broun will determine what hearings will be held in the next two years.  Following the release of the December memorandum, Broun stated:

“The Administration announced this review with great fanfare after the President proclaimed during his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful place.’  Unfortunately, over the last two years scientific integrity has not faired any better. 

“Upon initial review, these guidelines seem very similar to the standing guidance already in place.  So it raises the questions: Why did they take this long? How were they developed? Why were they 18 months late? And how will the agencies ultimately implement them? 

“I look forward to evaluating these guidelines in the upcoming Congress because, as we have seen over the last two years, rhetoric without action only breeds additional abuses of scientific integrity.”

Other members of the subcommittee have not been named.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095