White House Sued over Delayed Scientific Integrity Policy

10/27/2010

The nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is suing the Obama administration over a long-delayed policy to limit interference in federal scientific research and to protect government scientists from censorship and harassment.

On Oct. 19, PEER filed a complaint in federal district court in the District of Columbia against the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which alleges that the office is illegally withholding documents related to the development of a pending scientific integrity policy, including internal White House and interagency communications and draft recommendations for the policy.

PEER criticized the administration for failing to transparently develop a policy that itself rests upon the foundations of transparency, accountability, and integrity. "Why is the development of transparency policy cloaked in secrecy?" PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch asked in a statement.

PEER's complaint was filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The group filed a FOIA request on Aug. 11, but the White House did not provide the requested documents. PEER submitted its request in its role as an advocacy, research, and education organization "to learn how the scientific integrity policy is being developed and why it has been delayed," according to the complaint.

More specifically, PEER requested records related to communications OSTP received from other agencies regarding the draft policies, copies of draft recommendations, and documents providing reasons for the delay in publishing the new policies. According to the complaint, OSTP did not respond to PEER within 20 days as required by FOIA. PEER appealed to OSTP on Sept. 10 and OSTP responded on Sept. 20 that it acknowledged receipt of the request and the appeal. Through its letter and a subsequent phone call with PEER on Oct. 13, OSTP could not identify a date when it would fulfill the request because of the “extensive nature” of the request. PEER had not received any documents related to its request by the time it filed the complaint with the district court.

The development of new scientific integrity policy dates back to March 9, 2009, when President Obama issued a memo instructing OSTP to present him with recommendations for ensuring adequate independence for federal scientists and integrity of scientific information and its use. Obama said he will use the recommendations to take "Presidential action" as appropriate and set a deadline of 120 days for their submission. On April 23, 2009, OSTP invited public comments on development of the recommendations. However, OSTP has still not released the recommendations to the public.

The scientific community and good government groups had applauded Obama's March 2009 memo, hoping the effort would restore scientific integrity in government decision making. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), another nonprofit organization advocating for the protection of scientists and their research, catalogued a litany of abuses during the Bush administration, including the censorship of scientists researching public health and environmental issues such as climate change and the direct manipulation by non-scientists of scientific recommendations on contraception.

In its comments to OSTP, OMB Watch recognized the important role science plays in public policy and recommended 1) limitations on the White House's role in reviewing agency science; 2) additional disclosure of scientific research and draft conclusions with the goal of warding off scientific interference early in the policy development process; and 3) presidential instructions against the use of scientific uncertainty as an excuse to delay or avoid regulation.

In July, around the one-year anniversary of the recommendations' due date, groups renewed their support for strong recommendations from OSTP. PEER pointed to a continued need for better protections, citing the Obama administration's handling of the BP oil spill, specifically the lack of disclosure related to oil spill estimates and information on dispersants. UCS continues to collect instances of scientific abuse under the Obama administration.

In June, OSTP Director John Holdren acknowledged the hold-up of the recommendations but pledged their eventual release. In a blog post, Holdren wrote, "I am pleased to report here that the process, though slower than many (including myself) had hoped, has resulted in what I believe is a high-quality product that I anticipate finalizing and forwarding to the President in the next few weeks," implying that OSTP has completed the recommendations.

Scientific integrity advocates fear that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has contributed to the delay. NPR reported Oct. 7 that the draft recommendations "appear hung up" at OMB. OMB review of the recommendations before they are made public is a standard step in the development of many government-wide policies.

At least one federal agency, the Department of the Interior, has taken its own steps to protect the work of its scientific staff. On Sept. 29, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a Secretarial Order that requires greater disclosure of scientific information, expands protection for whistleblowers, and "forbids the alteration of scientific findings in policy-making activities," among other things. The order applies to both career staff and political appointees.

The announcement of the order came less than a month after Interior released a draft policy that was criticized in comments by OMB Watch, UCS, and other public interest groups for its timidity in applying new protections to scientists and for failing to cover political appointees. The final order was praised by many of those groups.

In a statement, Interior said that the order is consistent with Obama's March 2009 memo and said "guidance and recommendations" from OSTP are "expected" in 2010.

On Nov. 4, Holdren will co-chair a meeting of the President’s Council on Science and Technology. During the public hearing portion of the meeting, advocates are expected to reinforce support for enhanced scientific integrity protections and call on the office to release recommendations as quickly as possible.