White House Issues Memo on Scientific Integrity

President Obama's science and technology advisor issued a memo to federal science agencies today (Dec. 17) to guide them in making rules to ensure scientific integrity.

The memo, which applies to executive branch departments and agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation, is "several steps in the right direction," said Al Teich, the director of science policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren sent out the guidelines after a March 2009 memo by Obama emphasized the need for public trust in science. In that memo, Obama highlighted principles of scientific integrity that he said would be at the core of his administration's approach to science policy.

New guidelines

The new memo is meant to provide further guidance to the heads of federal scientific departments and agencies, the White House announced today.

Topics covered include:

  • Scientific integrity in government. The memo outlines guidelines for open communication among federal scientists and the public, including making data available online. 
  • Public communications. Agencies are required to offer "articulate and knowledgeable" spokespersons to explain scientific findings to the media and public. The memo requires that agencies put mechanisms in place to resolve disputes about decisions to proceed with or refuse media interviews.
  • Federal advisory committees. These committees, or FACs, are tasked with providing scientific advice for policy decisions. The memo requires transparency in recruiting committee members. It also requires that any conflict of interest information be publicly available. Finally, agencies are to be prohibited from revising committee recommendations, protecting the independence of FACs.
  • Professional development for federal scientists. Agencies and departments must encourage scientists to publish and present freely. Scientists should also be allowed to participate in professional enrichment activities like sitting on journal editorial boards.

Some of the changes are significant, said AAAS's Teich, including a rule that federal scientists must put their results into context by highlighting uncertainties and including best- and worse-case scenarios. [Read: White House Wonders if Climate Will Be Hostage to Politics]

"There's a natural tendency on the part of people to want to put their research results in the most favorable light," Teich told LiveScience. The requirements will force federal researchers to "take a different perspective, and a much more open and balanced perspective, if in fact it's implemented the way it's written," Teich said.

In the memo, Holdren gave department and agency heads 120 days to report their progress in setting rules to meet the guidelines.

"All in all, we're pleased, but the word 'appropriate' appears a half a dozen times in this document, and that means there's a lot of discretion for these agencies as to how they implement it," Teich said, adding, "They've talked the talk, now we'll see if they walk the walk, and we hope they do."

Politics and science

These guidelines may help prevent situations where political ideology interferes with the communication of scientific information, according to Neal Lane, a professor of public policy at Rice University. These incidents included the editing of an Environmental Protection Agency report to the point where it glossed over the risks of climate change.

"Those are the kinds of things that should not ever happen in any administration, whatever the party is," he told LiveScience. "These agencies are large complex organizations with many layers and sometimes you can find people who don't know the science in a position to influence what the agency puts out about the science."

Hopefully, these guidelines will prevent this from happening in the future, according to Lane.

Wendy Wagner, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and a member scholar at the Center for Progressive reform had some reservations about the lack of guidance in the memo for how agencies should use non-federal science data in setting regulations.

"On the whole, however, the new policy is an important step forward," Wagner said in a statement. "Hopefully it will be followed by many more positive directives on science-policy in the not too distant future."

Michael McPhaden, president of the American Geophysical Union and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminsitration scientist, lauded the guidelines emphasis on peer review, transparency, and the lifting of restrictions on government scientists' activities in professional societies.

"This is really a revolutionary document," McPhaden told LiveScience.

LiveScience Senior Writer Wynne Parry contributed reporting to this article.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.