Where’s the Rigor?

The Gulf oil spill highlights the management issues federal scientists face.

One decade ago, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy instructed federal agencies involved in scientific research to set up and follow integrity policies -- rules and procedures designed to ensure government-funded scientists produced reliable, accurate and objective work. Many federal agencies that spend billions of dollars on scientific endeavors still have not created such policies. One notable example is the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department bureau that oversees offshore oil production, including the well that created the worst oil spill in American history this spring and summer.

The Interior inspector general reported recently that several years ago the department began developing an integrity policy that would cover MMS and other bureaus, including the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. But officials quietly abandoned the effort, even after a departmentwide council created in 2007 came up with a draft policy. "A decision was made to delay the adoption of the policy," the IG reported. "This was due to several reasons, such as the bureaus' inability to reach consensus and the impending administration change." Apparently unwilling to accept the presidential changeover as an excuse to avoid sound management action, only the U.S. Geological Survey adopted a full integrity policy. Such policies can help ensure that misconduct or bad science is rooted out and resolved.

Interior is among seven Cabinet-level departments that didn't have comprehensive scientific integrity policies in place, the inspector general found, despite the fact that the Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations have been calling for them for years. Several Interior scientific efforts had to be overhauled recently because of allegations of misconduct, so it's all the more striking that the department didn't adopt a policy.

Scientific agencies also are behind the eight-ball when it comes to measuring the results of the billions of taxpayer dollars invested in their research projects annually. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is working on a $1 million project to help science agencies develop measures to demonstrate the outcomes their work will produce. The first stage is an effort to show how many scientists and other workers are employed thanks to federal dollars at agencies, universities and research centers. That of course is only an input measurement. Project managers also promise to develop measures that show how federal science is helping the nation. But if the project follows the same trajectory as the integrity policy effort, then a decade from now those measures might still not exist.

The Gulf oil spill is a reminder of the life-and-death stakes involved in federal science. Research might be a trial-and-error enterprise, one that shouldn't be held to the same standards for results as routine operations. But it should be held to some standards. The lack of comprehensive integrity policies and the elementary state of performance measurement across many government science agencies shows managers of those operations have some work to do to instill rigorous management practices.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years.

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