E&E NEWS PM | Independent science groups who earlier lauded the Biden administration’s efforts to preserve scientific integrity among its agencies are asking for improvements to the framework released earlier this year.
More than a dozen environmental, public health and transparency groups, including Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, sent a letter to Ari Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, asking the document’s authors to specify certain protections for scientists and punishments for those who manipulate or suppress scientific findings for political gain.
The Biden administration has prioritized science as communities increasingly struggle with issues such as warming temperatures, extreme weather and pollution, among other medical and public health concerns. The scientific integrity framework, released in January, seeks to eliminate the chilling effect that some government scientists said they experienced under the Trump administration (Greenwire, Jan. 13).
Though at least one recent survey has found Biden’s framework has helped federal employees feel freer from political interference in their work, the groups that penned a letter Thursday want more stringent measures (Greenwire, Feb. 27).
“Transparency is the key prophylactic measure for preventing scientific misconduct from occurring in the first place,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Without stronger safeguards, agencies will always be tempted to block any information that does not support their official talking points.”
PEER and the other signees are asking OSTP to include in the framework more specific procedures for investigating allegations of scientific oppression or other misconduct, including using independent investigators and establishing a timeline for investigations.
And for those who are found to have violated scientific integrity provisions, there should be specific penalties and public identification, the groups write. With that, the framework should better outline protections for scientists whose research may clash with the agency’s position or dissent from existing or pending policy.
The groups also said they would like to see federal scientists given more freedom in communicating with the public. The existing framework includes a policy that prohibits scientists from making statements that could be construed as commenting on policy without permission.
“Such a broad statement risks making scientists afraid of talking to reporters at all, given that many appropriate statements could be ‘construed as’ recommending policy,” the letter says. “E.g., describing a research finding that a pesticide is associated with a decline in an insect population could be construed as recommending a policy restricting use of that pesticide, even if the scientist does not give such a recommendation.”
“President [Joe] Biden directed stronger scientific integrity policies as an indispensable step in restoring public trust in government,” Whitehouse said. “These are core elements each scientific integrity policy must embrace to be credible.”
The White House OSTP did not respond to a request for comment.