March 10, 2011
Professionals for the Public Interest: Associations and Unions Defending Professional Integrity (PftPI) commends the memorandum on scientific integrity in the Executive Branch that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released on December 17, 2010. The memorandum marks an important step forward from President Obama’s March 9, 2009 directive. In instance after instance, its principles align with those that brought the organizations in PftPI together. Among other things, the memorandum emphasizes seeking the highest level of integrity and professional standards; professional expertise and achievement; continuing professional development; transparency and a free flow of information; and clear and accurate communications with the public. PftPI applauds these aspirations.
The memorandum acknowledges that federal departments and agencies will need to tailor its guidance to their work. It instructs all agencies to report to OSTP within 120 days their actions toward implementing its guidance. As the agencies develop and implement their policies, PftPI urges that the agencies involve the scientists and engineers from every level that the agency policies will govern. These professionals will have the expertise, experience, and perspectives that heighten the likelihood of useful policies and constructive implementation.
PftPI recommends that agencies employ a second route to useful policies and constructive implementation: wide consultation inside and outside the federal government. Inside the federal government are offices that have extensive expertise and experience with scientific integrity. Examples include the Office of Research Integrity in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the Office of Science Quality and Integrity in the U.S. Geological Survey;and the Office of Science Policy in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Resources section of the PftPI website offers a list of organizations outside the federal government that agencies might also consult.
Finally, the OSTP deserves thanks for the guidance its memorandum provides the federal departments and agencies about public communications. Its instructions offer both progress and a careful balance. They explicitly acknowledge the appropriateness of having federal scientists address “the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work.” The instructions also unequivocally bar any request by public affairs officers that federal scientists “alter scientific findings.” The instructions add a proviso that when federal scientists speak to the media or public, “appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office” is required. Whether the progress reflected in these instructions becomes real will depend on how the departments and agencies implement them. PftPI urges OSTP to monitor implementation carefully and closely and looks forward to seeing what next steps the OSTP memorandum brings.