White House Under the Gun on Science Integrity, Openness

November 17, 2010

For many science reporters, one of the low points in the Bush administration was the spectacle of prominent climate scientist James Hansen, who had done pioneering research for decades and headed a major NASA lab, being told in 2006 he could not talk to reporters without clearance from a 24-year-old political appointee who lacked a college degree (NYT story).

President Obama won office vowing to do better, and in March 2009 he issued a memorandum directing his science adviser, John Holdren, head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to come up with a government-wide policy for science integrity and openness. More than a year and a half later, after lengthy consultation with federal science agencies, that policy is long overdue. Now the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is suing the administration under the Freedom of Information Act for documents that would explain the delay.

Obama's memo ordered that "the Administration’s decisions about public policy be guided by the most accurate and objective scientific advice available. The public must be able to trust that advice, as well, and to be confident that public officials will not conceal or distort the scientific findings that are relevant to policy choices."

A key part of that policy discussion, the WatchDog has learned, are the many agency restrictions requiring scientists and other federal employees to get permission from the agency press office before talking to reporters — and the Saddam-style practice of requiring press office "minders" to sit in on interviews or monitor phone conversations with reporters. The Society of Environmental Journalists and other journalism groups have opposed such restrictions.

With pressure amplified by the PEER lawsuit, the long delay on the integrity policy, for which Obama set a deadline of July 2009, may soon end. Sources say the White House may decide on it and release it as early as December 2010.

That may mean a White-House level decision on the issue of minders and permissions for press interviews — at least for government scientists.

Pressure on the White House was increased further when the Society of Professional Journalists, at its meeting in Las Vegas, adopted on October 6, 2010, a resolution calling specifically for an end to the minders-and-permissions restrictions.

The resolution stated: "SPJ urges President Obama to declare that all such restrictions in the federal executive branch are to be ended and to establish a mechanism by which any continuing restrictions can be reported to the highest level of his administration and subsequently eliminated."