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White House issues science integrity guidelines

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued long-awaited guidelines Friday to prevent political interference in science and promote transparency at federal agencies, a move that drew cautious praise from activists in the scientific community who had been dismayed by an 18-month delay.

The guidelines are a major step in a lengthy process that had left some of President Obama’s allies questioning his commitment to reversing what some considered a hostile environment toward science under the George W. Bush administration.

Obama requested the guidelines nearly two years ago in one of his earliest executive orders. It was viewed as an ambitious effort to deliver key protections to government scientists and their work.

Francesca Grifo, who directs the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was among those who had been pressing the White House science office to produce the guidelines — meant to be a blueprint for departments to use to craft new policies — which were due in July 2009.

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Grifo praised the guidelines — believed to be the first-ever administration-wide push for scientific integrity policies — but cautioned that many details would be left to the agencies.

“It does some incredible things,” Grifo said. “It really brings an enormous amount of information together in one place that will apply to a broader group of agencies than we’ve ever seen happen before. But it leaves a lot of crucial details in the hands of the agencies as they implement it.”

In a statement, science office Director John Holdren described the guidelines as “the minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules appropriate for their particular missions and cultures, including a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency.”

Jeffrey Ruch, director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the guidelines have the potential to “change the balance of power within the agencies” by preventing senior managers from forcing changes to technical documents and by providing greater transparency to the decision-making process.

But, Ruch said, “the guidance is filled with loopholes and equivocations, [and] if the agencies don’t want to implement the rules, they’re under no compulsion to do so.”

The guidelines require agencies to report to Holdren on their progress within 120 days.

“Given [the science office’s] own track record in meeting 120-day deadlines, if an agency ignores them or reports back that they’ve made little progress, little will be done,” Ruch said.

Grifo also raised concerns about a provision that allows federal scientists to speak publicly about their official work “with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office.”

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“I think there is a world of opportunity for trouble in that phrase,” Grifo said, noting that it’s possible that agencies could interpret the policy to mean that public affairs officials must be present during interviews with scientists.

“It’s got a definite chilling effect having [public affairs officials] on the line,” she said. “And as soon as you start giving them gatekeeper status, you open the door to having them routing the interviews to scientists who agree with them.”

Advocacy groups will closely watch the implementation of such provisions, Grifo said.

“This is not over; this is not done,” she said. “This is the beginning of the next step. This is going to require an enormous amount of attention from the advocacy community and the scientific community to make sure that it’s implemented correctly.”

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kim.geiger@latimes.com


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