Whistleblower Protections for Scientists Sidelined
Science Integrity Initiative Allows Agencies to Certify Current Practices as Sufficient
Washington, DC — A vaunted effort by the Obama White House to outlaw political manipulation of science has become mired in official resistance and inertia, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). After more than two years, most federal science-based agencies have yet to even draft policies. Now the White House is urging them to adopt boilerplate language on key provisions, such as whistleblower protections for scientists, which provide no additional safeguards.
Documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the White House arm charged with implementing a trailblazing March 9, 2009 presidential directive on scientific integrity, show that only 5 of 19 affected agencies have developed draft policies. Agencies still without policies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control, the Departments of Labor, Agriculture and Energy and even the Executive Office of the President. Only the Interior Department has adopted partial final rules governing scientific misconduct with other rule-sets to follow.
One key element that has yet to be defined, however, is whistleblower protection for scientists. The 2009 Obama order stated: “Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes…” (Emphases added) By contrast, OSTP is now urging agencies to adopt circular language which says agencies should merely obey current law:
“To the extent your agency or department has already explicitly adopted specific whistleblower protections, you may simply make reference to them in your scientific integrity policy. Alternatively, OSTP recommends including—at a minimum and in consultation with your general counsel—language akin to the following:
Under these scientific integrity guidelines, [Agency or Department name] shall continue to comply with the requirements of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (WPA), Public Law 101-12, and its expanded protections enacted by Public Law 103-424. The [Agency/Department name] shall also continue to comply with all Department- and Agency-specific WPA regulations, rules, and policies.” (Emphases added)
“This language makes the presidential directive meaningless because it embraces the status quo as sufficient. What part of additional whistleblower protections did these guys not get?” asked Ruch, noting that no agency has yet adopted specific whistleblower protections. “This deliberate ambiguity means that conscientious scientists will be subjected to years of litigation to define these terms in the event they are unlucky enough to incur official displeasure.”
Citing “major challenges presented by the deliberative process,” OSTP has been inordinately late and lax in the guidance it has provided agencies. Most agencies, in turn, have been more than ready to take advantage of such wide leeway. This March, for example, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration issued a vague draft policy which put all the details off to a yet-to-be-written Procedural Handbook. Similarly, on April 18, 2011, EPA put out a progress report that fails to even mention whistleblower protections. Once again, EPA pledged to finally adopt a Communications Policy governing staff interaction with media and others – a policy that was first promised by Administrator Lisa Jackson in August 2009 when she vowed that her agency would act as if “in a fishbowl.”
“These scientific integrity policies are on no fixed time-line and the White House appears incapable of exercising quality control. If an agency produces a ham sandwich it will pass White House integrity muster,” Ruch added. “Today, most federal scientists have no more protection from political interference than they did under Bush. This scientific integrity rule-making process is entirely within the control of the White House but they lack follow-through.”
View the OSTP table of agency progress toward policies
Look at vague OSTP guidance to agencies
Try to decipher EPA 2011 progress report
Note mixed messages from EPA on scientific integrity
See the NOAA draft policy
Compare the Interior final policy