Interior Department issues new policy protecting government scientists

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:50 PM

The Interior Department set new rules Tuesday that will protect scientific information and the people who create it from political interference, earning wide praise from outside groups that have long alleged that top political officials regularly manipulate or misinterpret data.

The new scientific-integrity policy applies to the department's 67,000 employees as well as its contractors, grant recipients and volunteers when they analyze or share scientific information with reporters and the public or use the department's information to make policy or regulatory decisions, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The hiring and promotion of officials should be based on "knowledge, credentials and experience relevant to the responsibility of the position," according to the new policy, which also requires the public distribution of scientific and scholarly work not protected by government secrecy laws.

The new policy "sets forth clear expectations for all employees - political and career - to uphold the principles of scientific integrity, and establishes a process for impartial review of alleged breaches of those principles," Salazar said in a statement.

The rules detail new whistle-blower protections and say workers may share their findings with reporters without manipulation by public affairs officials. Department employees are encouraged to work with professional organizations and societies, as long as they don't create conflicts of interest.

Allegations of scientific or scholarly misconduct will be investigated within 60 days, and officials will work to ensure that unfounded allegations don't negatively affect an employee's reputation, the department said.

In 2009, President Obama ordered federal scientific agencies to adopt new rules to prevent political interference with scientific findings after government scientists and advocacy groups alleged that top officials in George W. Bush's administration had manipulated or suppressed scientific reports on environmental concerns and endangered species.

But Obama administration officials have also faced criticism for misinterpreting data released after the BP oil spill in April. A report last month by the national oil spill commission faulted White House climate adviser Carol M. Browner for incorrectly stating last August that "the vast majority" of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico was gone.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said political manipulation of scientific information is still common practice, but the department's new policy appears "to be a good-faith effort to grapple with a basket of knotty issues which heretofore have been kept out of sight." The advocacy group represents state and federal scientific and environmental workers.

"This is the first official attempt to punish managers who skew science to advance agency agendas," Ruch said, adding that the policy won't work until it's "successfully applied to a political appointee."

Several scientific groups shared their concerns about the political manipulation of scientific data during the 2008 presidential transition, said John Fitzgerald, policy director for the Society for Conservation Biology. He called on the department's watchdogs to report on whether the new policy leads to revisions of Bush-era reports on endangered species.

James P. Collins, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, credited the department for incorporating the recommendations of outside groups and for applying the new rules equally to career and political officials.

"Federal scientists are often leaders in their fields. Science benefits when they are able to fully participate in their professional communities," he said.

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