OSTP Director Issues Memorandum on Scientific Integrity

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Publication date: 
12 January 2011

John  Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and the Director  of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, has issued a “Memorandum for  the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” on scientific integrity.  The four-page memorandum was issued on  December 17, 2010, drawing the quick attention of the new chairman of a  subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee who said “I  look forward to evaluating these guidelines in the upcoming Congress.”

President  Obama signed a seven-hundred word memorandum on scientific integrity on March  9, 2009.  In issuing this memorandum,  Obama explained that Holdren was “to develop a strategy for restoring  scientific integrity to government decision making.” Obama’s memorandum described  the rationale for the memorandum as follows:

“The public must be able to trust the science  and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials  should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and  conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used  by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the  public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the  preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological  information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology  professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their  scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.”

Coming  less than three months after the President’s inauguration, the memorandum and  an accompanying Executive Order on stem cell research followed years of  controversy about actions taken by the Bush Administration regarding climate  change and other research.

In  a posting   on the OSTP website, Holdren described his December 2010 memorandum as follows:

“Today,  in response to the President’s request, I am issuing a Memorandum to the Heads  of Departments and Agencies that provides further guidance to Executive Branch  leaders as they implement Administration policies on scientific integrity. The  new 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 transparency. It requires  that department and agency heads report to me on their progress toward  completing those rules within 120 days.”

Holdren’s  memorandum has five sections.  The first is  entitled “Foundations of Scientific Integrity in Government” and calls for  executive departments and agencies to develop policies to “ensure a culture of  scientific integrity,” “strengthened the actual and perceived credibility of  Government research,” “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological  information, consistent with privacy and classification standards” and “establish  principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the  public.”  This section sets the tone for  the rest of the memorandum and includes guidance on the selection of candidates  for scientific positions, independent peer review, whistleblower protections,  promoting access to scientific and technological information in online open  formats, and agency communications. 

The  remaining sections are more specific in their guidance.  They are entitled “public communications,” “use  of Federal advisory committees,” “professional development of government  scientists and engineers,” and “implementation.”  Regarding implementation, Holdren’s memo  suggests that each department or agency may take different approaches to  implement the above guidance.  It also  addresses the review of congressional testimony:

“The  scope of an agency's scientific work and its relationship to the mission of  each department or agency may necessitate distinct mechanisms be used by each  to implement this guidance. In addition, the Director of the Office of  Management and Budget (OMB) will be issuing guidance to OMB staff concerning  the review of draft executive branch testimony on scientific issues prepared  for presentation to the Congress. That Guidance will provide standards that are  to be applied during the review of scientific testimony. I ask that all  agencies report to me within 120 days the actions they have taken to develop  and implement policies in the areas above.”

On  Capitol Hill, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) has been very interested in this  issue.  Broun was the Ranking Member of  the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight  Subcommittee in the last Congress.  Broun  is now the chairman of this subcommittee.   Broun has written to Holdren several times about the status of the  guidance that was just released, as well as other issues.  The new House Science, Space, and Technology  Committee’s website  identifies scientific integrity as a “hot topic,” with a lengthy list of documents  on this subject.  As chairman of the  subcommittee, Broun will determine what hearings will be held in the next two  years.  Following the release of the  December memorandum, Broun stated:

“The  Administration announced this review with great fanfare after the President  proclaimed during his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful  place.’  Unfortunately, over the last two  years scientific integrity has not faired any better. 

“Upon  initial review, these guidelines seem very similar to the standing guidance  already in place.  So it raises the  questions: Why did they take this long? How were they developed? Why were they  18 months late? And how will the agencies ultimately implement them? 

“I  look forward to evaluating these guidelines in the upcoming Congress because,  as we have seen over the last two years, rhetoric without action only breeds  additional abuses of scientific integrity.”

Other members of the subcommittee have not been  named.

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