White House sets standard code for federal scientists to follow across government

The White House, following up on one of President Joe Biden’s earliest priorities in office, is setting a common standard for science and research policies across the federal government.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy earlier this month released a framework for strengthening federal scientific integrity policies and practices.

The framework, released on Jan. 12, provides the first governmentwide definition of scientific integrity, and gives agencies a model scientific integrity policy meant to help shape their own agency-specific policies.

“By bolstering these policies and practices across the federal government, this first-of-its-kind framework will strengthen the ability of agencies and federal scientists to produce critical scientific information for evidence-based policymaking that can help make our nation healthier, safer, more prosperous and more secure,” the framework states.

The framework also requires all agencies that fund, conduct or oversee research to name a chief science officer, and directs agencies to regularly assess and improve their scientific integrity policies.

The framework comes two years after the Biden administration issued a presidential memorandum to prevent political appointees from interfering with the work of career federal scientists.

The Obama administration last updated scientific integrity policies across government in 2010.

Jacob Carter, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, now a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said the framework helps set a high bar for scientific integrity policies across the federal government.

“There will be less confusion, hopefully, about, ‘When this happened at EPA, would it also be considered a scientific integrity violation at [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], or vice versa?’ There will just be less ambiguity about what a scientific integrity violation is, and how it should be addressed,” Carter said in a recent interview.

In a 2018 survey of 63,000 federal scientific experts led by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 20% identified the White House or political appointees at their agency as a top barrier to science-based decision-making. Half of the respondents said more generally that “political interests” hindered their work.

Carter said public concerns about the transparency and integrity of federal science policies are also heightened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Scientists that are creating these documents, as well as the policymakers, really need to step back and think more in terms of accessibility and what the public’s actually going to be able to take in, in terms of these documents, and fully understand what’s going on without having to read through thousands of words of jargon,” Carter said.

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), under the framework, is also creating a scientific integrity subcommittee to oversee the implementation of the framework and evaluate agency progress.

OSTP will permanently co-lead the subcommittee, along with the Interior Department and the EPA for the first year of the subcommittee’s launch.

The subcommittee will bring together scientific integrity officers at more than two dozen agencies. These agencies’ officers implement interagency functions related to scientific integrity.

The framework is based on input from 30 federal agencies and feedback from more than 1,000 individuals and organizations that participated in three listening sessions and several requests for information.

Carter said current scientific integrity policies across federal agencies vary considerably, and may not sync up on issues common across the federal scientific community.

“Of course, you do want to allow federal agencies at least some of that flexibility to craft their own policies, based off of their own unique processes and their own unique scientific issues,” Carter said. “But when we talk about scientific integrity, there really are some core principles, some core metrics that you can look at that make up really good scientific integrity process and implementation. So it’s really good to see that standardization.”

Carter said the EPA and certain bureaus and offices within the Interior Department have made their scientific integrity policies a priority. But he said other agencies, lacking resources or staffing, may need to rely more heavily on the sample policy outlined in the White House framework.

“A lot of agencies now that are going to be grappling with how exactly to do this. Providing that sample policy is going to be really good, because I imagine some of these agencies might just adopt that [sample framework] as their policy,” he said.

The framework directs the subcommittee to coordinate with several related organizations, including the Evaluation Officer Council, Chief Data Officer Council, and Interagency Council on Statistical Policy.

The memo directs the subcommittee to share “public allegations of scientific integrity violations that cannot be suitably handled at an individual agency, department or executive office of the President component-level.”

The framework directs agencies to educate employees on their scientific integrity policies, and train supervisors and leadership on the policies.

The framework also reminds agencies to inform federal scientists under the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act (No FEAR Act).  The legislation requires agencies found in violation of antidiscrimination or whistleblower protection laws to pay for settlements, awards or judgments against them out of their agency’s budget.

While the framework looks to standardize scientific integrity policies across government, Carter said the framework falls short in some key areas. Including a standard for disciplinary action when supervisors or employees violate their agency’s scientific integrity policies.

“If somebody violates the policy, they need to be held accountable for it. And currently, there is no direction, aside from asking agencies to look at that and to create something within their policies, on accountability measures,” Carter said.

Carter said the framework should have made it clearer when federal scientists are permitted to speak to the media.

“That’s very important, especially in terms of public transparency, when you may have like a chemical spill, for example, and you don’t want scientists running around wondering whether or not they could speak to media and let the public know that’s safe to drink water or not.”

 

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