Ask Dr. H: "Where Are We on Scientific Integrity?"

[Ed. Note: In this week’s "Ask the President's Science Advisor," OSTP Director Dr. John P. Holdren answers an e-mail question concerning the Obama Administration's efforts to enhance scientific integrity in Federal policymaking. To have your question considered for this feature, e-mail your short query to or tweet @whitehouseostp using the hashtag #AskDrH. The selected question will be posted in the blog with Dr. Holdren's answer.]

Dear Director Holdren,

The President put scientific integrity on the top of his science agenda as a candidate and pledged in his inaugural address to "restore science to its rightful place."

The President asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy 15 months ago to create a plan to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. The plan was due by July 9, 2009. Why is there such a delay in restoring scientific integrity to the federal government? What are the sticking points? Can you give me a date when you expect a plan, directive, or Executive Order to be released?

Jason, San Francisco

President Obama’s “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” of March 9, 2009, on the subject of scientific integrity stated clearly and unconditionally the fundamental principles of the Administration’s stance on this subject. These clear and unconditional statements begin, in the document’s second paragraph, with the following:

Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the Executive Branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

This set of principles is augmented later in the Memorandum, in connection with the President’s request to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for recommendations for further Presidential action “to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the Executive Branch”. As formulated there, the principles on which these recommendations for further Presidential action are to be based are as follows:

(a) The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the Executive Branch should be based on the candidate's knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity;

(b) Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency;

(c) When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards;

(d) Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions;

(e) Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised; and

(f) Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decision-making or otherwise uses or prepares.

There should not be any doubt that these principles have been in effect—that is, binding on all Executive departments and agencies—from the date of issue of the Memorandum on March 9, 2009. All that has been awaiting the requested action by the Director of OSTP is recommendations to the President on what further instructions he might issue in augmentation of these principles in order to advance the goal of achieving the highest level of scientific integrity across the Executive Branch.

Pursuant to that request, my staff and I have been engaged since the date of the Memorandum in development of such recommendations, which as specified in the Memorandum has included consultations with “the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and offices and agencies within the Executive Office of the President”. Indeed, OSTP began the process by creating an interagency panel with representatives from all of the major science offices and agencies. That group launched an unprecedentedly open, Web-based process to accept detailed input from stakeholders inside and outside government. Based on that input and internal discussions, the group developed draft recommendations for consideration by OSTP and OMB. And over the intervening months representatives from those two offices have been honing a final set of recommendations.

I am the first to admit that the process has been more laborious and time-consuming than expected at the outset. Determining how to elaborate on the principles set forth in the Memorandum in enough detail to be of real assistance in their implementation, while at the same time retaining sufficient generality to be applicable across Executive departments and agencies with a wide variety of missions and structures, has been particularly challenging. And other demands on the participants over this time period have also been much greater than expected. But 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.

In addition to the strong scientific integrity principles that, as noted above, have been in effect since the President’s memorandum of March 9, 2009, there has been other important activity on transparency and integrity ongoing in parallel with the process of developing the supplementary recommendations that the memorandum requested. In particular, OSTP and OMB have spearheaded an array of Open Government initiatives that have, together, made a record-breaking amount of government data available to the public and, more generally, have unveiled many previously hidden workings of the Federal government. Indeed, I believe no Administration has pushed as hard as this one to restore integrity in general—and scientific integrity in particular—to the Federal enterprise. I am confident that with the completion of OSTP’s recommendations on scientific integrity these already high standards will be strengthened and assured well into the future.

John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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