Scientists Recommend Ways to Restore Scientific Integrity to Government

3/9/2010

On March 3, the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) released the results of a two-year research effort to explore the working environment of federal scientists in the public health and environmental fields. The results showed that not only is there political interference in their work, but that scientists also faced a series of obstacles that delay the study and dissemination of scientific information that affects the public every day.

SKAPP is a project of the George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services. The researchers at SKAPP interviewed 37 scientists representing 13 federal agencies from May 2008 through January 2009 to discern the issues of most importance to scientists. SKAPP then conducted an online follow-up survey in July and August 2009 to see what effects, if any, the Obama administration had on agencies' work environments.

The report, Strengthening Science in Government: Advancing Science in the Public Interest, contains recommendations in eight topic areas plus one overarching recommendation. The study describes details of many agencies' policies and practices regarding how scientists get approval for research topics and communicate among themselves and with the public, as well as the extent of political interference by executive branch employees and members of Congress.

The recommendations address topics such as improving the management of science within agencies, opportunities for scientists to provide feedback on policies, interagency data sharing and communication, and opportunities for professional development. Many recommendations focus on two broad issues: bureaucratic delay in approving proposed research studies, and disseminating research results through cumbersome approval processes.

For example, the authors of the report note, "Many of the scientists interviewed felt that the time and effort required to obtain agency approval for research projects is excessive—and these resources could be better spent on conducting the research, rather than writing lengthy research proposals."

In addition to internal agency processes, the need for White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval also delays research. Scientists who want to survey the public must have their information collection requests approved by OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) under the Paperwork Reduction Act. Many scientists in the study considered this step to be "excessively burdensome." This criticism of OMB's information collection review process is consistent with other scientists' experiences. OMB's review can require scientists to revise and resubmit their research proposals, causing further delay.

The report recommends both agencies and OMB streamline their respective approval processes so that research can be conducted in a more timely manner.

Once research is completed, scientists are often frustrated by the processes for clearing the results for publication or other dissemination methods. "Some scientists suggested that their agencies have used the clearance process to delay or even prevent the publication of findings that could ignite controversy," according to SKAPP's report. Many agencies have written policies that outline procedures for information dissemination, but the scientists participating in this study often said that there was a difference in what those policies required and what actually happens within an agency. Managerial, procedural, and political considerations can affect not just when but whether some research results are released.

OMB also can play a role in hindering the release of scientific information. Agencies were required to establish information quality guidelines under the 2001 Data Quality Act. OMB added to this requirement additional scientific peer review requirements (even if the research may have already been peer reviewed) for "influential" and "highly influential" scientific assessments. According to the SKAPP report, "When the OMB regulations were first developed, many agencies were concerned that they introduced additional, time-consuming layers of review. In addition to the bureaucratic requirements, these regulations were potentially a means to challenge or delay findings that had regulatory implications."

The recommendations about disseminating scientific work call for an end to using the clearance process to slow or stop the dissemination of scientific information, for consistent and timely application of the review policies, and for agencies to "have processes for expedited clearance of time-sensitive materials."

One overarching recommendation applies to all the recommendations in the report. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and OMB "should ensure that agencies adopt the policies described in this report’s recommendations, and that the policies are generally consistent across agencies and appropriate within each agency’s mission and scope. These policies should be clearly and actively communicated to agency leadership, scientific managers, and the federal scientific workforce." These two White House offices can help ensure that scientific integrity policies are adopted and implemented within agencies.

On March 9, 2009, President Barack Obama issued a memo aimed at restoring scientific integrity in the federal government. The memo stated, "Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues … The public must be able to trust the science and the scientific process informing public policy decisions." Obama assigned to the director of OSTP "the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes." The memo identified six principles OSTP should consider when producing recommendations to the president. To date, these recommendations, which OSTP was to produce in 120 days from the date of the memo, have not been publicly released.

In SKAPP's follow-up survey of scientists, the majority of the respondents perceived no change in the way their agencies dealt with the issues raised in the report. Although there were a few bright spots in scientists' views of the changes that had occurred in some agencies, most believed that change would be hard to achieve. Entrenched managers, processes, and cultures and funding concerns led few scientists to expect significant change. The follow-up interviews were conducted six months after Obama had taken office, and many agency heads were not yet in place.

In the report's conclusion, the authors note that the concerns over political interference and the politicization of science reached its peak during the administration of George W. Bush. The pessimism expressed by most of the scientists in the follow-up survey about their agencies' ability to change presents the Obama administration with considerable challenges if it is to meet the scientific integrity goals the president outlined.