OMB Watch Sees White House Science Memo as a Step Forward

12/17/2010

PRESS RELEASE
-For Immediate Release-
December 17, 2010

Contact: Brian Gumm, (202) 683-4812, bgumm@ombwatch.org

OMB Watch Sees White House Science Memo as a Step Forward

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2010—The White House today took another step toward securing the independence of federal scientists and ensuring the integrity of scientific information used in government decision making. President Obama's top science advisor, John Holdren, issued a memo to executive branch agencies outlining the administration's position on key scientific integrity issues and instructing agencies to implement reforms.

"The memo is a sign of relief for federal scientists who are unsure of their rights and whose work is too susceptible to manipulation," said Gary D. Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch.

The memo touts the importance of science in policy development and the need to maintain accuracy and integrity in government science. It plainly addresses the potentially corrosive role politics can play: "[P]olitical officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings," the memo says.

The memo, issued by Holdren in his position as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), requires agencies to report to OSTP within 120 days on the actions they have taken in support of the memo's goals. The memo specifically identifies three issues in need of agency attention: federal scientists' right to communicate their work to the media and the public; scientific and technical advice developed and presented by federal advisory committees; and professional development of federal scientists and engineers.

"Articulating a vision for scientific integrity is essential, but the devil will be in the details, some of which are lacking in this memo," Bass said. "Agencies need to act aggressively, and transparently, to advance a robust scientific integrity agenda."

The memo does not explicitly call for agencies' reports to OSTP to be made public, nor does it require public involvement in the development of agency scientific integrity policies. "Transparency and public participation are part and parcel of scientific integrity," Bass said. "Agencies should operate as transparently as possible and involve the public to the greatest extent possible in implementing the goals of this memo."

The memo also promises forthcoming guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regarding its process for reviewing congressional testimony of executive branch officials, specifically scientific testimony. The memo does not lay out the specific timeline for the additional guidance. The memo also does not challenge the long-standing practice of OMB review of testimony, nor does it question OMB's role in reviewing agency scientific findings, regulations, and information collections – activities that allow OMB to inject political considerations into scientific and technical matters.

The new scientific integrity policy has been in development for more than a year and a half, following a March 9, 2009, memo from President Obama instructing OSTP to present him with recommendations for ensuring adequate independence for federal scientists and integrity of scientific information and its use (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Memorandum-for-the-Heads-of-Executive-Departments-and-Agencies-3-9-09/). On April 23, 2009, OSTP invited public comments on development of the recommendations. OMB Watch submitted comments, which are available at http://www.ombwatch.org/files/regs/PDFs/OMB_Watch_comments_on_scientific_integrity.pdf.

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