Obama Science Policy Legitimizes "Minders," PIO Interview Permissions

January 12, 2011

A White House science policy issued December 17, 2010, allows agencies to require press office permission before a journalist can talk to a scientist and to require Saddam-style "minders" to supervise the scientist while s/he is giving an interview. The policy does not restrict agencies from punishing scientists who give unwanted answers. Anonymous White House lawyers have blacked out all information about how the administration's science openness policy was arrived at, and are fighting in court against efforts to shed light on it.

The Society of Environmental Journalists and other J-groups had urged the White House to ban this practice of requiring minders and permissions — which was greatly expanded during the years of Bush administration suppression and distortion of science. Expectations had been raised when President Obama began his administration with vows of openness.

Obama had seemed to embrace open communication of science when he issued a March 9, 2009, memo to agency heads declaring openness key to restoring "scientific integrity" at federal agencies. That memo ordered John Holdren, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to come up with more detailed recommendations for integrity and openness within 120 days. The Dec. 17, 2010, memo was the long-delayed result of Obama's March 2009 memo.

Despite appearances, Obama had given "responsibility" for science policy to OSTP without giving it the actual power to do anything. That power resided all along with the Office of Management and Budget (under Executive Order 11030). OMB has consistently worked for secrecy and the politicization of science in multiple administrations.

OSTP and federal agency representatives came up with a set of recommendations for carrying out Obama's openness decree as early as May 22, 2009 — well before the July 7 deadline Obama had set. Newly released documents show that OMB blocked the recommendations thereafter — forcing the science policy to miss Obama's deadline and holding up its release for more than a year and a half more.

The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a FOIA request, and ultimately a lawsuit, in the fall of 2009, seeking documents on why the policy was being delayed. The White House resisted PEER's FOIA request, and when it came up with a fraction of the documents just before Christmas 2009, they were almost entirely blacked out.

Nonetheless, the few words not blacked out showed clearly that OMB had been the holdup all along, and that OMB's role was what the Obama White House was hiding.

OMB had a long history, even before the Bush administration, of overruling the science findings of agencies like EPA about environmental risks to people's health — one of the most notorious being the "endangerment finding" that would have triggered EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.

But even during the Obama administration, it had continued this role — sandbagging EPA's regulation of coal ash after secret meetings with utility industry lobbyists and spearheading efforts to help BP dodge financial liability by lowballing scientific estimates of how much oil had been spilled from the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf.

OMB — an agency with no scientific expertise — has claimed power under various executive orders to overrule agencies required by law to protect public health with scientific assessments of risk. This assertion of executive authority has not been challenged by Congress, which decreed under the Administrative Procedure Act that evidence in rulemaking must be on the record. OMB can meet in secret with lobbyists who want to change agency rulemaking decisions — a practice which has for decades encouraged corruption and betrayal of the public trust, when those lobbyists happen to represent major political campaign contributors.


Some open-government groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and OMB Watch, expressed cautious encouragement on release of the Dec. 17, 2010, guidelines. But even those groups acknowledged that the guidelines left detailed science policy largely up to the agencies to determine for themselves.

For journalists unhappy about minders and permissions, however, the policy offered little to be happy about.

For example, it only espoused openness and transparency "to the extent practicable" — leaving undefined what "practicable" meant.

Nor did the policy say journalists should be allowed to interview the specific scientists they ask to interview. It only conceded that journalists should talk to "articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons" — which can translate as press officers or political appointees loyal to the administration.

The policy only allows scientists to talk to journalists "with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office." That language would allow agencies to require minders and permissions. There is nothing in the policy that forbids minders and permissions.

Finally, the policy allows agencies to severely restrict what scientists can talk about. It does not say they can talk about the policy implications of their work. It does not say they can talk about their field of research generally, or even about other studies within their field of expertise which they did not personally conduct. They can only talk about "scientific and technological matters based on their official work." That means they could be forbidden to discuss a study by one of their peers on their immediate field of expertise (something journalists often seek), and could be punished for doing so.

One sign of how little the Obama administration seems to value scientific integrity and openness is the total absence of any presidential endorsement of the policy. Obama's original 2009 memo called on OSTP to come up with "recommendations for presidential action." There were none in the December 2010 guidelines. President Obama did not stand beside Holdren as he released the policy — or even show any sign that he knew it existed. The guidelines did not have the force of an executive order signed by the president himself. There were no provisions for enforcing the guidelines. No deadlines for implementing them. No consequences for not implementing them.

In the end, the December 2009 OSTP memo was just a set of guidelines. Not an order. With vague and general language, it told the agencies they "should" follow the president's March 2009 principles, but left largely to the agencies the job of determining how to implement them.

And it left intact the secret, politicized process by which the OMB illegally subverts and ignores science findings and orders agencies to set whatever regulations the White House wants. It also left intact OMB's current de facto authority to clear or edit any science testimony agencies present to Congress — specifically exempting OMB from the president's science integrity and openness policy.


SEJ Publication Types: 
Topics on the Beat: