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White House Issues Rules on Scientific Integrity

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The White House's chief science advisor has put out a memorandum listing steps that should be taken to ensure the credibility of government-led research and to allow scientists to talk more freely with the press and the public.

The memo from John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, proposes a set of "minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules," and includes a "clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency."

The new rules were developed in response to President Barack Obama's call in March of 2009 to develop proposals aimed at "ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes."

Holdren's list of rules include broad principles and goals for ensuring scientific integrity, a policy for public communications of scientific information, rules for how federal advisory committees (FACs) will operate, and recommendations for professional development for government scientists.

Holdren identified several "foundations" for ensuring a "culture of scientific integrity." In order to strengthen the credibility of government research, all candidates who are chosen for scientific positions in the executive branch should be based on scientific knowledge, credentials, and experience, according to the memo.

Also under the new rules, all data and research that are used to support policy decisions must undergo independent peer review by qualified experts.

In order to foster the free flow of scientific information from government, agencies are tasked with expanding and promoting access to scientific and technological information by making it available online in open formats.

Holdren said that agencies will need to set principles for conveying scientific information to the public, and they should include clear explanations of underlying assumptions and put uncertainties in their appropriate contexts. They also should describe the probabilities that are associated with both optimistic and pessimistic projections, and include best-and-worst-case scenarios where they are appropriate.

Public communications policies should be developed that promote openness and transparency with the public and the media, but classified information should remain protected, according to Holdren.

In addition, agencies should provide spokespeople who can talk about the important dimensions of research findings. Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific matters, with oversight from supervisors and public affairs offices, according to the memo, but public affairs officers will under "no circumstances" be allowed to ask scientists to alter or direct their findings.

He also noted that protocols will need to be implemented to resolve disputes that arise from decisions about proposed interviews or public information-related activities.

The memo also demands that agencies develop policies to enhance the transparency of recruitment of new FAC members — and full professional information about the members, such as lobbying activities, should be available.

FAC members are to be hired based on expertise and knowledge, and committees should aim to be "fairly balanced in terms of point of view represented" on these committees. In addition, FAC members must make all conflict-of-interest waivers available to the public, and all reports issued by FACs should be considered their findings and not those of the US Government.

Holdren also calls for more professional development of government scientists and engineers, and wants agencies to encourage them to publish research findings in professional or scholarly journals and present their findings at professional meetings. Government scientists will be allowed to become editors or board members of journals, and should be able to participate fully in professional societies, committees, and task forces, including sitting on the governing boards of such societies, according to the memo.

They also should be able to receive honors and awards for their research and discoveries in order to minimize the extent of the difference with which public and private sector researchers accrue awards and honors.

In order to begin ensuring implementation of these rules, Holdren calls for department and agency leaders to report to him on their progress within 120 days.

In response to the White House directive, Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program, said in a statement, "This is a rough but promising blueprint for honesty and accountability in the use of science in government decisions. If the details are fully articulated by federal agencies and departments, the directive will help keep politics in its place and allow government scientists to do their jobs."

However, she added, "I’m worried that the directive leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the agencies. We will be watching them every step of the way."

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