For Immediate Release: Jul 24, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Few Complaints Filed Inside Interior and None Sustained Since 2015
Washington, DC — The odds of scientists successfully correcting breaches in scientific integrity are slim to none, according to an analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Very few scientists report research misconduct under official agency scientific integrity policies and almost none of those complaints are investigated, and even fewer sustained.
Under an Obama federal directive in 2009, all science-based agencies adopted rules to prevent political manipulation or suppression of research and to protect scientists from retaliation for controversial findings. While the results of this directive during the Obama years were uneven, today the policies are largely ignored. For example –
- The Department of Interior last upheld a scientific integrity complaint in 2015. Only seven such complaints were decided under Trump; none were found to have merit;
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found “no loss of integrity” in any of the 16 allegations it resolved during FY 2017 (the last available report); and
- The Department of Agriculture has refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change but none of these incidents has been investigated under USDA scientific integrity policies.
“Today, these policies give a false impression that there are real barriers against agencies suppressing science that doesn’t conform to their political ideology,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, noting that these policies lack any whistleblower protection. “Government scientists who file complaints of misconduct must be prepared to stand their ground.”
Some agencies, such as the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, enshroud scientific
Integrity complaints in a cloak of confidentiality. Thus, the type of complaints and their ultimate disposition remain unknown, even though NOAA’s policy claims to bolster public confidence in the integrity of its scientific work.
Not all the deterioration is due to Trump, however. In late 2014 following the substantiation of two high-profile Fish & Wildlife Service complaints, the Interior Department narrowed its rules and erected barriers against holding managers who suppress science accountable. Since those changes, only one complaint has been upheld.
“One lesson that the Trump experience should have driven home is that executive branch agencies cannot be trusted to police the accuracy of their own science,” added Whitehouse. “Congress needs to enact standards and safeguards that are externally enforceable.”