Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Interior today imposed a new set of rules covering all of its employees – including political appointees – and contractors to promote the integrity and transparency of its scientific work. Taken together, the rules confer new legal protections on both scientific information and the specialists who create it, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which has pushed for enforceable safeguards.
Adopted as a new chapter in the Interior Departmental Manual, the rules take immediate effect. They are the first concrete action to implement a March 2009 presidential directive that all agencies adopt rules to prevent political manipulation and suppression of scientific findings. That government-wide effort is more than 18 months behind schedule and it is not clear if other agencies will follow Interior’s lead.
The most salient feature of the rules is a prohibition against altering scientific conclusions for non-scientific reasons by public relations staff, political appointees and non-scientist managers.
The rules also lay out a process for investigating misconduct allegations against scientists and non-scientist managers. “This is the first official attempt to punish managers who skew science to advance agency agendas,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the previous pattern was to reward managers who bend science to win approvals. “As amply evidenced by official public statements following the BP Gulf spill, political manipulation of scientific information still is common practice. These rules will begin to change agency culture once they are successfully applied to a political appointee.”
Interior’s new rules still leave a number of gray areas that will have to be filled in, including –
- Ambiguity about scientists’ prerogative to publish findings or submit papers to peer reviewed journals (a right secured in only one Interior agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service);
- Promised whistleblower protections for scientists are not spelled out; and
- Circumstances under which scientists are forbidden from speaking with the media are unstated.
“This is very much a work in progress but appears to be a good faith effort to grapple with a basket of knotty issues which heretofore have been kept out of sight,” Ruch added, pointing out that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is not even asking other federal agencies to report on the status of their efforts in promulgating rules until mid-April. “Historically, the Department of Interior has been infamous for thorough-going political distortion of science. If Interior can adopt science integrity rules, then surely other agencies such as EPA, NOAA and the Forest Service, have no excuse not to follow suit.”