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Interior Department issues policy to protect scientific integrity

The rules, which come as such recommendations for the entire executive branch have yet to be made, require that Interior agencies document the science behind their decision-making.

September 30, 2010|By Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday became the first federal department head to issue long-awaited rules to protect scientific integrity, drawing praise from environmental and scientific advocacy groups who had grown frustrated waiting for White-House-promised action on the issue.

The Interior Department policy comes more than a year after an executive order by President Obama requiring the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, to issue recommendations to guarantee scientific integrity across departments and agencies within the executive branch. Those recommendations were due in July 2009.

An OSTP spokesman declined to comment. This month, OSTP Director John Holdren said the recommendations would be issued before the end of the year.

Jeffrey Ruch, who heads the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, applauded the Interior Department for issuing its new rules despite the delay of broader guidelines.

"Interior has been the poster child for manipulation of science," Ruch said. The new policy "will have government-wide influence because if Interior can do it, then anybody can do it."

The policy requires that Interior Department agencies document the science behind their decision-making. It prevents career employees and political appointees from suppressing or altering scientific findings. And it protects whistleblowers who report violations of that policy.

It applies to all Interior Department agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — the successor to what was the embattled Minerals Management Service.

"The American people must have confidence that the Department of the Interior is basing its decisions on the best available science and that the scientific process is free of misconduct or improper influence," Salazar said in a statement. "This policy clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of all department employees, including career staff and political appointees, in upholding principles of scientific integrity and conduct."

The four-page policy took effect immediately, but has yet to be codified into an enforceable set of rules.

For years, the Interior Department has been accused of putting policy objectives before science. An inspector general's report in April declared that "the lack of a comprehensive policy leaves not only Interior, but those who rely upon its scientific information, vulnerable to tainted data and misinformed decisions."

The inspector general noted one case in which "a National Park Service senior science advisor for Point Reyes National Seashore misrepresented research regarding sedimentation, failed to provide information sought after from a Freedom of Information Act request, and misinformed individuals in a public forum regarding sea life data."

By mid-June, OSTP was promising to release its recommendations — meant to be a blueprint for agencies to use when crafting their policies — within a matter of weeks. But the recommendations never came.

Francesca Grifo, who heads the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the Interior Department policy "pretty exciting," but cautioned that it applies to just one of the many departments within the executive branch.

Clear recommendations from the White House are needed to nudge other department heads into action, Grifo said.

"Time is passing and we're not there at a national level," Grifo said. "We are a giant step closer at Interior, but obviously there's still a lot of work to be done."

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