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Complaint Tests Rule Protecting Science From Politics

One of the first things President Obama did after he took office was put out a memo that basically said: Don't mess with science.

The March 9, 2009, memorandum stated that "political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions" and said all government agencies should have appropriate rules and procedures to safeguard the scientific process.

Nearly three years later, only a few have finalized new policies — though they're starting to be put to the test.

Meanwhile, many more agencies are still drawing up their plans and face a Dec. 17 deadline from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"The order that President Obama issued in March of 2009 was a better job than I could have written myself. It was quite a bold declaration, and we're waiting for it to be filled in," says Jeff Ruch, a lawyer with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that helps scientists who feel they're under political pressure.

The Complaint

On Wednesday, Ruch's group is testing some of the government's new protections by filing a complaint with the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, it was the first government agency to set up a new system for protecting science.

Ruch's complaint alleges that federal officials with the Bureau of Land Management hired researchers to do a major review of all the different environmental impacts on a half-dozen regions in the Western U. S., but directed the scientists to exclude livestock grazing from the analysis.

Government officials said they didn't include livestock grazing in the review because they didn't have the appropriate data. But Ruch doesn't buy it. He says livestock grazing on public land is a touchy subject because any restrictions would affect ranchers.

"To us, this is exactly the sort of abuse that the White House directive was designed to prevent," says Ruch. "And so we will file a formal complaint, under one of the few policies that exist."

'Learning As We Go Along'

His allegations are going to Ralph Morgenweck, the Interior Department's scientific integrity officer, who is responsible for investigating accusations of political interference.

Morgenweck, a scientist who has worked with the department for more than three decades, notes that the new rules cover everyone, including political appointees.

"I think it puts everyone on notice that you can make a decision and ignore the science — you do that at your risk — but what this policy is really getting at is not to mischaracterize that science," Morgenweck says.

Morgenweck said last month that he had already received several complaints under the new policy but didn't give details.

"We don't really know how the policy is going to work until we actually get into the practice of it," he says. "And we're into it now, and so we're learning as we go along."

A Complicated Process

Government officials make decisions that involve science all the time — everything from approving new drugs to regulating offshore drilling. When George W. Bush was president, critics charged that if science conflicted with political goals, it was suppressed or manipulated. That's why, in his inaugural address, Obama pledged to "restore science to its rightful place."

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been coordinating the scientific integrity effort across the government.

"The process was a lot more complicated than we expected or than the president expected at the outset," says director John Holdren, the president's top science adviser.

He says each agency has had to develop its own procedures because they have such different missions — some deal with classified information, for example.

He expects to get final policies from around 20 agencies and says the bottom line will be the same for all.

"The president's guidelines, my guidelines, all of these policies simply forbid political manipulation of scientific findings," says Holdren. "And if we find out that's happened, we will fix it."

Call For Transparency

Francesca Grifo, head of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, welcomes this effort and says it has boosted morale among government researchers.

"The very fact that we're having these conversations has had a fundamentally good effect," says Grifo.

But like others in the scientific community, she says the handful of policies that have been made public so far dodge critical issues.

"None of the policies are comprehensive," says Grifo. "None of the policies deal with the really hard stuff."

She wants to see things like strong whistle-blower protections, and guarantees that scientists can speak freely about their research.

She also says agencies should have to tell the public how many investigations they do, and how they're resolved.

"Right now, one of the frustrations with the Interior policy is that there isn't external accountability," she says. "You know, there is no external reporting."

In her view, without more transparency, it will be hard to know what these policies really accomplish.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.