The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Scientific Integrity

20 December 2010

In March 2009 President Barack Obama issued a memorandum on the subject of scientific integrity in which he stated emphatically, “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.”

The President charged John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), with developing specific recommendations “for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes.” On Friday, 17 December, OSTP released federal department and agency guidelines for implementing the Administration’s policies on scientific integrity.

Contents of the Holdren memo are welcome news indeed. Over the years the scientific community has contended with many controversies involving government scientists and the use of science in formulating federal policies. Most recently these controversies included attempted muzzling of federal government scientists speaking publicly about climate change (e.g., NASA’s James Hansen and NOAA scientists such as Pieter Tans, recipient of the AGU’s 2010 Roger Revelle Medal), rewriting of scientific reports by government bureaucrats to water down conclusions (e.g., the 2003 Environmental Protection Agency assessment of global warming), and using out-of-date, inappropriate scientific information to formulate policies favoring special interests (e.g., Minerals Management Service policies that helped set the stage for the BP Gulf of Mexico oil blowout).

The Holdren memo contains a landmark set of directives. Among the highlights are:

  • Federal scientists’ right to speak to the media and the public about their official work without censorship.
  • Peer review as the standard for the credibility of science when formulating policy.
  • Filling scientific and technical positions with qualified individuals who are first and foremost scientifically and technically competent, rather than because they espouse a particular political ideology.
  • Encouraging public dissemination of scientific information in a balanced and understandable way to promote scientific literacy.

Some looseness to the language suggests that implementation will vary across agencies. In many cases, “should” is used rather than “must.” Nonetheless, this memo articulates a set of principles and standards that, if acted upon conscientiously across the spectrum of federal agencies, will build trust with the public about how the government uses science and will ensure that federal policies are informed by the best available science.

As a NOAA employee and president of AGU, I am thrilled to see that in regard to government scientists, “agencies should establish policies to…allow full participation in professional or scholarly societies…including removing barriers for serving as officers or on governing boards of such societies.” This will benefit the career development of many government scientists as well as enhance the credibility of government science in the eyes of the public and the profession.

Economic vitality, national security, public health, and environmental sustainability all depend on making the best use of science in formulating public policy. The OSTP memo on integrity of science in government is an affirmation of the value and relevance of science to modern society and how it can serve the public good.

For more information, see:

President Barack Obama’s memo, 9 March 2009

OSTP Director John Holdren’s memo [pdf], 17 December 2010

Eos article on the new scientific integrity policies, 21 December 2010

Eos interview with OSTP Director John Holdren, 21 December 2010