Interior Integrity Policy: Is Science Door Half-Open or Half-Closed?

February 23, 2011

The Interior Department's issuance of an updated science integrity and openness policy was greeted by some science watchdogs as a positive step — but that so far may be largely a matter of what public affairs professionals and media pundits call "optics."

The good news, perhaps, is that Interior felt a need to take some policy action in response to the White House's Dec. 17, 2010, memo on science integrity. It has not been clear that the White House memo required agencies to respond with any substantive changes or actions — and some agencies have seemed to signal that no changes to their existing practices will be needed.

But the bad news is that the Interior policy seems to rehash a 2010 decree that scientists criticized, to punish the innocent, and to reward the uninvolved.

The policy announced Feb. 1, 2011, by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar actually said very little about whether and how agency scientists and staff could talk to reporters — a key question raised during the Bush administration. Bush political appointees at Interior and other science agencies routinely required scientists to get press office permission before they could talk to reporters — and insisted that Saddam-style "minders" be present during interviews to prevent scientists from sharing politically inconvenient facts or views.

The Interior policy still to a large degree neglects the key problem of whether politically appointed press officials are twisting science, and instead battles the straw-man problem of whether the lab-level scientists may somehow be fudging their research, making up data, or pilfering test tubes. Those have not been a serious problem, in the experience of science journalists and watchdogs covering the agency. By perpetuating this false premise, the Interior science policy has helped distract major news media from the issue of political interference in science.

Interior under Salazar initially published a draft science integrity policy Aug. 31, 2010. After criticism from groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Interior revised that policy and reissued it as a final secretarial order on Sept. 29, 2010. The revised policy made clear that it applied to political appointees as well as scientists and stated that scientific information should be made freely available to the public. Both PEER and UCS acknowledged the Sept. 29 revision as a major step forward.

The policy Salazar announced Feb. 2 (which was actually posted to the DOI Departmental Manual with an effective date of Jan. 28, 2011), in many respects simply tracked the order of Sept. 29, although the press release described it as "new" and a response to the White House directive of Dec. 17, which it also tracked closely.

The policy requires covered employees (including political appointees) to subscribe to a code of conduct that states, among other things, "I will communicate the results of scientific and scholarly activities clearly, honestly, objectively, thoroughly, accurately, and in a timely manner." But it does not anywhere describe the duties or behaviors expected of press office and public affairs personnel, nor does it specifically address whether scientists need press office permissions and minders to talk to the press.

Likewise, the policy requires covered employees (including politicals) to avoid even apparent conflict of interest. But it does not address the likelihood that political appointees would have severe and inherent conflicts of interest any time they try to explain the scientific basis for policies that may be pre-ordained by orders from higher up the political chain — often for reasons that go well beyond science (such as economic factors or regional politics).