NOAA Takes Lead on Protecting Scientific Integrity

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) efforts to protect scientific integrity make the agency a leader among its federal counterparts, OMB Watch said in comments filed last week.

The Obama administration recognizes that sound, uncensored science is critically important to protecting our health, economy, and environment. Consequently, President Obama issued a memo shortly after taking office, establishing protections for scientific integrity and directing agencies to implement them. However, implementation has been sluggish and uneven.

NOAA represents some of the best efforts so far. The agency's draft scientific integrity policy and procedural handbook, released to the public in June, are thoughtful and detailed. In addition, NOAA has been an exemplar of openness in developing its policy, most importantly by soliciting public comments on its draft policy.

Fundamentally, an effective scientific integrity policy must do two things: prevent political interference with science and protect the free flow of scientific information. NOAA's draft policy makes strong provisions for both.

In our comments, OMB Watch makes the following recommendations:

  1. Retain strong protections to prevent and redress political interference with science;
  2. Retain and strengthen protections for the free flow of scientific information;
  3. Strengthen protections for personnel who blow the whistle on violations of scientific integrity;
  4. Improve the timeliness of investigations of scientific integrity violations;
  5. Improve the transparency of investigations of scientific integrity violations;
  6. Regularly review the policy and update it as appropriate; and
  7. Strengthen scientific integrity in interagency processes.

Although our suggestions would further improve the policy, NOAA should be commended for its leadership for posting a strong draft. At a time when some agencies are struggling to meaningfully move scientific integrity forward, other agencies should look to NOAA as a model.

At the same time – as we point out in our final recommendation – NOAA alone can't fully protect its science. The biggest recent scientific integrity controversy at NOAA, regarding the mysteriously delayed disclosure of worst-case models for the BP oil spill, revolves around the role of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), not NOAA itself. As we write in our comments:

Consequently, while NOAA has done its duty to develop strong scientific integrity protections, the task of fully securing NOAA science will not be complete until other agencies do so as well, particularly OMB and other White House offices.

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