Science Policy & Funding News

Interior Department Issues Revised Scientific Integrity Policy

A revised scientific integrity policy issued by the Department of the Interior underscores its commitment to sound science.

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The Department of Interior’s (DOI) newly revised scientific integrity policy broadens, clarifies, and underscores the agency’s “commitment to sound science,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. She said that the policy—which applies to DOI employees and has provisions for contractors, partners, volunteers, and others—reflects enhancements based on 3 years of experience with the current policy.

“Science is at the heart of Interior’s mission, so it’s important that we continue to lead federal efforts to ensure robust scientific integrity,” Jewell said in releasing the policy on 17 December.

Updates include specifying that adherence to DOI’s Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct is a standard for maintaining scientific integrity, adding an ombudsman role, forming a DOI Scientific and Scholarly Integrity Council, and streamlining and clarifying the intent and procedures for reporting and resolving allegations. Along with the revised policy, DOI also issued a Scientific Integrity Procedures Handbook and announced online training for maintaining scientific integrity.

“This Departmental policy assures the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities it conducts and the science and scholarship it uses to inform management and public policy decision,” the handbook states. It continues, “Scientific and scholarly information considered in Departmental decision making must be robust, of the highest quality, and the result of rigorous scientific and scholarly processes as can be achieved. Most importantly, it must be trustworthy. It is essential that the Department establish and maintain integrity in its scientific and scholarly activities because information from such activities is a critical factor that informs decision making on public policies. Other factors that inform decision making may include economic, budget, institutional, social, cultural, legal and environmental considerations.”

The policy revises the department’s scientific integrity guidelines that were originally issued on 1 February 2011. DOI was the first federal agency to issue guidelines following a July 2009 White House memorandum on scientific integrity and the December 2010 White House guidelines for federal agencies.

Critique of the Policy

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) praised the revised policy as simplified, streamlined, and clear and said that it sets “a strong standard” for the Obama administration. “Outside pressure on the Department of Interior to politicize science is strong, so it’s critical that the department respond with strong policies to protect science and scientists from political interference in their work,” Michael Halpern, program manager for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, said in a 17 December statement. “While the different bureaus within the Department of Interior have been uneven in terms of embracing reform, headquarters has devoted significant resources to implementing and improving its scientific integrity policies, and this new policy is no exception.”

Halpern specifically noted that the new policy and handbook provide more specifics on the policy and how it will be carried out. He also applauded the new online training program and the intradepartmental scientific integrity council. However, he cautioned that the department “should make clear that completed investigations will continue to be reported publicly.” In an 18 December blog post, Halpern stated that the “most glaring flaw” in the revised policy is that “while the department has been reporting out scientific integrity cases on its website, there is nothing in the policy that requires it to do so.”

He said other concerns DOI should address in future policy updates or that should be monitored include whistleblower protection. Halpern noted, “While the policy refers to established whistleblower laws, the language used could be considerably more aggressive to state that there will be zero tolerance for any retaliation against anyone who files a scientific integrity complaint.” He added that questions remain concerning the definition of conflict of interest, and that there is no explicit statement that experts do not need to seek permission before they speak publicly about their work.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) blasted the revisions, claiming that they narrow the scope of the rules and make it more difficult to bring and pursue charges of scientific misconduct. The revisions “threaten to make a sham out of an already tattered scientific integrity process,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a 22 December statement. He noted that most of the 27 complaints processed since 2011 were summarily dismissed without an investigation. “Success of scientific integrity complaints will be less likely under these revisions which read as if they were written to accommodate every bureaucratic grievance from agency managers and lawyers.”

Scientific Integrity Is Called Interior’s “North Star”

U.S. Geological Survey Acting Director Suzette Kimball told Eos in an interview that the policy update “reaffirms that scientific integrity is our absolute North Star for where we are going.” Kimball, who also serves as DOI’s chief scientific integrity officer, said, “Scientific integrity is our foundation. That is what our reputation is built on. So being able to have this document really makes a statement that it is one of our foundational policies and it is one of our foundational tenets for how we operate.”

Kimball added that the policy is “a living document” and that the department already is considering how to further strengthen it. Among those refinements could be providing more clarity about requirements for posting the results of DOI scientific integrity cases, as UCS recommended, “so that people can see how the process works. We do that, it’s part of our standard procedures, but it’s not clearly articulated,” she said.

DOI also will look into clarifying and making a stronger statement about retaliation against whistleblowers, Kimball said. She added that DOI also may look into “having stronger statements about the responsibility that we have to ensure that scientists have the opportunity to engage in professional activities, that scientists have the opportunity to participate in a number of activities, to talk to the press, and so forth.”

Kimball told Eos that another element that still needs clarification concerns communications and the public outreach aspects of scientific publications. She said the concerns relate to “how we present in press releases or outreach documents our science and how that relates to making sure that the scientists have a role in those kinds of documents so that press releases absolutely accurately portray the science in that publication that we are releasing.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2014), Interior department issues revised scientific integrity policy, Eos, 95, doi:10.1029/2014EO021241.

© 2014. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0