Washington, DC — The Obama administration is taking its first step toward its stated aim of outlawing political manipulation of federal science, according to public comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is asking for ideas on how to implement a presidential directive to protect scientific integrity.
Under the Bush administration, cases of political alteration of scientific documents on topics ranging from global warming to grazing became notorious, resulting in a parade of adverse court rulings, embarrassing reports and media exposés. In the 2008 election, presidential candidates from both parties decried the practice of political appointees skewing scientific findings to suit pre-determined ends.
On March 9, 2009, President Obama issued an Executive Memorandum to all federal departments and agencies declaring his intent to adopt policies that protect scientific integrity. That order directs his OSTP to develop proposed policies for Presidential action by July 9, 2009. On April 23rd, OSTP issued a notice in the Federal Register calling for public comments on how to best implement this goal. The deadline for public comments is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 13th.
In public comments filed today, PEER underscores that there are currently no rules forbidding alteration of scientific conclusions for non-scientific reasons: “The main reason the Bush administration was able to politically manipulate science was that there is no rule against it.” PEER recommends that the Obama Administration adopt government-wide rules forbidding political interference with science, including –
- New transparency rules allowing scientists and other specialists to freely speak and write, as well as to communicate directly with Congress and the media. In addition, professional scientific societies should be able to work with scientists and agencies on studies within their disciplines;
- Disciplinary action against government managers, especially political appointees, who twist or suppress scientific findings. PEER urges the Obama administration to hold officials to account when they sign off on decisions found by courts to violate legal standards of scientific accuracy or sufficiency, as under many environmental statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act; and
- Whistleblower protection for scientists and technical specialists who today largely lack any legal shield against on-the-job retaliation for reporting politically inconvenient facts.
“To stop political manipulation of science, particularly on high-profile issues, scientific integrity rules must have teeth in the form of enforceability,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Another key measure of the effectiveness of new rules will be the willingness of the Obama administration to hold its own appointees accountable.”
Congress is now considering legislation to extend whistleblower protection, for the first time, to scientists. PEER is urging Congress to enact a broader package of scientific integrity rules so that the safeguards will continue beyond the current administration.