By Rob Stein and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 17, 2010; 7:01 PM
The Obama administration Friday issued long-awaited guidelines designed to protect federal scientists from political interference - the first time the federal government has had an explicit government-wide policy of this kind.
The four-page memorandum "describes the minimum standards expected as departments and agencies craft scientific integrity rules appropriate for their particular missions and cultures, including a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparencies," wrote John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a blog post accompanying the memo's release.
Among the new guidelines is a prohibition against government public affairs officers asking or directing federal scientists to alter scientific findings. The guidelines also require that appointments are made based primarily on the applicants' "scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience and integrity" and that "data and research used to support policy decisions undergo independent peer review by qualified experts."
The guidelines call for agencies to develop public communications policies that promote openness and transparency "while ensuring full compliance with limits on disclosure of classified information." The directive did not cover all of the difficult questions surrounding scientific policy, such as how to treat government whistleblowers.
The directive reflects the administration's efforts to distinguish itself from the George W. Bush administration, which was frequently charged with censoring federal scientists on climate change and other hot-button issues.
In one instance, Council on Environmental Quality Chief of Staff Phil Cooney and his aides made nearly 300 changes to the Bush administration's Strategic Plan of the Climate Change Science Program that either played down the link between human activity and climate change, or highlighted scientific uncertainties associated with it. Political appointees edited federal scientists' congressional testimony concerning climate change and its effects, and screened interviews with reporters on the subject.
Within weeks of taking office, Obama ordered his advisers to draw up the guidelines, which were supposed to be finished within four months; the administration has come under increasing criticism for the delay.
In March, researchers at George Washington University issued a report based on 37 confidential interviews conducted with researchers working on environmental and health related issues at 13 federal agencies and found that most did not think conditions had improved with the change of administrations.
Another survey of more than 1,700 scientists and inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department released in September by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that many said they faced frequent political and corporate interference with their work.
The guidelines received mixed reviews from independent government watchdogs.
"This is a rough but promising blueprint for honesty and accountability in the use of science in government decisions," said Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "At the same time, I'm worried that the directive leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the agencies."
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, noted that the memo "said scientists are free to speak to the media" but also "directs agencies to develop 'mechanisms . . . to resolve disputes' about whether 'to proceed or not proceed with proposed interviews.' "
"In other words, scientists are free to speak except when they are not," Ruch said.