Sea Change in Government Science Still Offshore

Many scientists breathed easier as a new U.S. administration took charge, but not all of their hopes have yet been realized.

In his first few weeks in office, President Obama made several significant nods to a disillusioned scientific community. He nominated respected experts like Steven Chu to head science-based agencies, elevated the clout of the science adviser within the White House, even singled out science's "rightful place" in policymaking in his inaugural address.

Nearly a year into his presidency, though, scientific integrity advocates are still awaiting several of the reform milestones key to a vast and lasting culture change in the way federal scientists conduct and discuss their work and the way government ultimately uses it.

Obama early on overturned several Bush-era policies derided by scientists. Crafting their replacements, however, has taken considerably longer. Michael Halpern, the scientific integrity program manager with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the group has been anticipating three major executive actions from the White House, the first of which was finally announced Dec. 8.

The Open Government Directive lays out broad and ambitious standards for transparency and public engagement throughout the executive branch, but it also has specific implications for scientists. The directive establishes deadlines for individual agencies to craft transparency policies that reflect the administration's main goals.

As science-based departments like the EPA and FDA move forward with that process, UCS has offered several recommendations. Scientists, the group believes, should be able to freely communicate their work with colleagues and discuss it with the media, including when that means speaking in the capacity of private citizens and not as government employees. A UCS scorecard of current agency media policies produced several failing grades, and the group has offered up a model alternative.

Scientists, they believe, should also have the right of last review of documents bearing their names or drawn from their work as a check against encroaching politicization. And while government is making information transparent, UCS suggests that include the names of organizations and people meeting with the agencies (such as drug makers with the FDA) and conflicts of interest of anyone sitting on scientific advisory boards (such as former drug makers).

The Open Government Directive has been widely celebrated, but Halpern cautions that much of the impact remains in the implementation. Scientists have also yet to see two other key executive orders: one that will spell out a new regulatory framework and the role of the Office of Management and Budget in that process, and the other that will specifically lay out a scientific integrity policy.

The first will replace a Bush executive order that inserted OMB officials deeper into the science that underpins regulation. The second stated policy will be an entirely new creature, with no Bush-era precedent.

"From the scientific community's perspective, we never really thought we'd have to put so much effort and attention into telling government officials not to censor scientists or distort scientific documents," Halpern said. "But clearly it's been shown that that's quite easy to do."

Under the previous regulatory policy, for example, OMB officials could take documents from scientists at the EPA and hand them to the Department of Defense for rewriting, removing their fate from the experts involved.

UCS hopes another systemic change to complement all three executive orders eventually will come from Congress (with some White House prodding): a whistleblower bill to protect scientists who call out abuses of the central principle that government science should serve the people and not political aims.

Halpern expects implementing the new culture will take a while. But he hopes the reforms are in place with enough time that they become the new business-as-usual model throughout government agencies by the end of Obama's current term.

"But also, once these policies are in place and government realizes that the sky isn't falling," he added, "then it's time to codify these reforms, to work with Congress to set a floor so that other administrations can't turn back the reforms that are put in place."

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