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On eve of Trump, Obama’s Energy Department announces new policy to protect scientists

The Department of Energy building is seen in Washington, Friday, May 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Speaking at the National Press Club Wednesday, outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced a new “scientific integrity” policy for an agency recently wracked by concerns about how an administration led by President-elect Donald Trump will treat employees who worked on climate change and other sensitive energy-related issues.

“It’s part of establishing the environment that allows scientists to do their work, to stay with us, and to recruit new people,” Moniz said in announcing the new policy.

Moniz, a physicist, gave an example of his own role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. “Seven of our laboratories were providing near real-time support to our negotiating positions in a highly technical negotiation,” Moniz said, “and I certainly needed correct answers, stated clearly, as opposed to anything that somebody may have thought was the answer I wanted. That would not be helpful.”

Moniz’s remarks come as the energy department releases a first-ever report on the state of 17 national laboratories, and the secretary offered praise for the scientists who work at them and highlighted extensively the centrality of science to the agency’s mission.

But the new scientific integrity policy also follows a move by the Trump transition team to send the department a questionnaire asking for the names of personnel who had attended meetings related to climate change (although Moniz did not mention this in his remarks).

The new policy states as its “cornerstone” that “all scientists, engineers, or others supported by DOE are free and encouraged to share their scientific findings and views.” That includes talking to the media, giving public talks, and even expressing views on social media (though these can’t be attributed to the government).

The seven-page policy prevents other agency employees, such as political appointees or press officers, from leaning on or torquing scientific findings. “Under no circumstance may anyone, including a public affairs officer, ask or direct any researcher to alter the record of scientific findings or conclusions,” the document states.

The document also embraces a strong commitment to whistleblower protection laws and says the agency will install a “scientific integrity official” within the Energy Secretary’s office to head up enforcement of the policy.

The new policy is in line with a memorandum issued by President Obama all the way back in March 2009, outlining a process for all executive branch agencies to institute “appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency.” It followed on a string of controversies over the treatment of scientific information during the administration of George W. Bush.

Following additional guidance from the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Energy Department had then created such a policy in 2012. Nineteen federal agencies, and five sub-agencies, now have such policies.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading group tracking uses and abuses of science in government, had faulted the 2012 Energy Department policy as weak. “This policy is less than three pages long and hence has many significant gaps,” wrote the group. “Does not fully embrace the principles in the OSTP guidance memo and has many additional missing elements.”

Now, the group seems thrilled with the new policy announced by Moniz.

“The Department of Energy just created a powerful tool to protect its scientists,” wrote Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, of the new policy.

“The language is strong and precise, giving scientists and science advocates a solid platform to stand on in pushing back against the manipulation and suppression of science and the harassment of scientists,” Halpern said. “Notably, the new policy extends protections to contractors in addition to DOE employees — essential because nearly all of the national labs are run by contractors.”

“It was pointed out a few years ago that our policy wasn’t strong enough,” Moniz acknowledged.

The policy is not a new rule or regulation by the agency, so it would be easier to reverse than such regulatory measures. On the other hand, it would invite controversy if the incoming Trump administration were to try to reverse a policy designed to protect scientific information and those who create it.

“Clarifying our protections for scientific integrity will I think help as our science and technology enterprise moves forward,” Moniz said.

Read more at Energy & Environment:

Antarctica is about to lose a huge piece of ice. Scientists aren’t quite sure what will happen after that

America’s first ‘clean coal’ plant is now operational — and another one is on the way

Methane may not last long in the atmosphere — but it drives sea level rise for centuries

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