Obama Calls for Improved Scientific Integrity

Yesterday, President Barack Obama issued a memo aimed at restoring scientific integrity in the federal government. Many agencies, especially those charged with protecting the environment, workers, and public health and safety, rely heavily on scientific studies and conclusions. If the science is compromised, the corollary decision may be compromised as well.

Thomas DolbyObama’s scientific integrity memo is receiving, deservedly, its fair share of plaudits. (See here and here for good insights.) But allow me to be a wet blanket for a moment by pointing out two concerns.

First, the kinds of things Obama is calling for in his memo are exactly the kinds of things the government should be doing as a matter of course. In other words, there’s nothing extraordinary about statements like, “Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions,” or, “If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.” That’s what the public deserves.

Second, and more importantly, Obama’s memo doesn’t really lay out any new policy in the short-run; it’s more of a signal to agencies and the public that science will be taken more seriously than it was during the Bush administration. The memo instructs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to produce for Obama recommendations on ensuring scientific integrity. The real meat and potatoes will come when OSTP formulates its recommendations (within 120 days, if the memo is heeded to).

Obama has identified six principles for OSTP to stew over. Translating those principles into meaningful policies that can serve as a tool for the public to hold government officials accountable will be a challenge. If OSTP makes good, then we’ll really have something to cheer about.

For example, Obama’s first principle calls for the selection and retention of scientific experts. Retention is a key issue, because of the pending retirement of baby boomers. Meanwhile, the need for qualified scientists will likely grow as the government continues to grapple with issues like climate change and toxic chemical exposure.

What can Obama do over the next four or eight years to restock the government’s scientific shelves and ensure long-term continuity in critical fields?

Another example: Obama’s second principle states, “Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency.”

The challenge here will be creating both the carrot and the stick. Regardless of the administration, politics and science are bound to butt heads from time to time. Will the White House create credible deterrents against abuse? If science is compromised, will the administration enforce any kind of sanction against the abuser?

It seems the next 120 days will be a critical time both for the White House and for the agencies that rely on science to make decisions. Stay tuned for updates.

Image by Flickr user The Shifted Librarian, used under a Creative Commons license.

back to Blog