Science Transparency Policy Swathed in Secrecy
White House Withholds All But Snippets on Why Science Guidance Went Off Course
Washington, DC — The White House has decided to withhold the vast majority of documents explaining why its science integrity and transparency policies are more than 18 months behind schedule and why the final four-page guidance to agencies failed to address or clarify a raft of issues, according to materials posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The tiny fragments the White House did release in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by PEER do not even identify what topics were the subject of such prolonged internal wrangling.
Early in his administration, President Obama issued a directive on implementing six sweeping scientific integrity and transparency policies. He directed the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) to develop guidance for all agencies by July 2009. After months of delay and missed target dates, in October 2010 PEER filed a federal lawsuit against OSTP for its failure to release any documents about the status of the guidance. Finally, last Friday, December 17, OSTP issued its guidance. Yesterday, OSTP delivered, via the Justice Department, fragmentary material representing all “non-exempt records responsive” to PEER’s request for an explanation of why this very short guidance took so long to produce.
The vast majority of the 155 pages delivered were blacked out; all of the meeting notes, progress reports and even congressional testimony were heavily redacted. The shreds of text released indicate that OSTP sent a draft to the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) roughly on schedule. In a weekly OSTP report dated June 29, 2009, the only released entry read: “OSTP and OMB continue to negotiate a handful of remaining fine points …With luck a draft will be ready for consideration by agency Principals by the end of this week.”
By August 4, 2009, the effort was derailed, as OSTP “talking points” reveal: “Discussions have been taking place at the highest levels at OSTP, OMB, and other EOP [Executive Office of the President] offices to resolve these remaining items. Be assured your efforts have received a high level of attention with the EOP.” However, the portion of the talking points describing the issues in contention was blacked out. By October 2009 a version had been kicked back to OSTP where it sat for weeks. As one OSTP staff person replied when asked “What is happening with the Science Integrity memo?”
“We are clearly the bottleneck – not sure we will get a cleared draft before our fearless leader departs for Russia.”
The matter then languished for some months more. By June 18, 2010, OSTP Director John Holdren authorized a blog posting assuring that scientific integrity directives are already in effect, although there are no enforceable rules. In approving the entry, Holdren added “I think it is fine to go – much better than leaving all this crap unanswered for weeks more.” But the process still dragged on. The next cogent entry is dated July 9, 2010 from Holdren reading: “On Thursday this week, culmination of a lengthy and thorough multi-agency process, OSTP and OMB agreed on penultimate language…I should note that today marks the one-year anniversary of the original deadline for submission of these recommendations and I anticipate some level of negative press over the weekend regarding this delay.” The final guidance was not issued for more than six months after that.
The snippets of information suggest that the product had to achieve inter-agency consensus: “OSTP staff are working closely with OMB to revise the proposed recommendations to the President in a way that is satisfactory to all.” (emphasis added). As a result, any participating agency, such as the Department of Defense, apparently had the power to block particular guidance. The need for consensus may explain why the final product was so vapid and late.
“Given that the guidance states its objective is to ‘strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of Government research’ how does it help to exclude the public, government scientists and the scientific community from that discussion?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, indicating that his organization would press for release of more documents through the litigation. “Today, federal agencies have no clear guidance or timetable for producing rules and procedures for implementing the President’s directive. If the OSTP experience is any indication, this process will drift for years longer before it finally implodes from inertia.”
PEER is still seeking information detailing, among other things –
- What were the thorny issues that dragged out and diluted the OSTP process;
- Which agencies voiced what specific objections and concerns; and
- How did OMB affect the drafting of guidance and what role will it continue to play.
The long negotiations with OMB did produce one of the few pellucid results from the guidance – OMB was declared exempt from integrity and transparency directives applied to other agencies.