Interior unveils new scientific integrity policy

Advocacy groups embrace rules designed to prevent political manipulation of findings, but seek further refinement.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday announced new scientific integrity rules in response to President Obama's 2009 call to end political manipulation of science.

The rules, which take effect immediately, prohibit nonscientists in the department from modifying scientific findings, and spell out criteria for hiring scientists and evaluating their job performance.

The policy is designed to clarify the role of science within Interior's broad and diverse mandate. It defines the responsibilities of all workers -- including contractors and volunteers -- in maintaining scientific integrity, and goes over how to avoid conflicts of interest.

A departmental science integrity officer and science integrity directors at Interior's eight bureaus will lead and support efforts to implement the rules.

Alan Thornhill, science adviser to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said the rules reaffirm Salazar's commitment to making "science a foundation for decision-making" at Interior. They "encourage an environment of rigorous open discussion," Thornhill said, "unfettered by political interference."

Interior has been charged with manipulating scientific data for political ends, including allegations that scientists at the Minerals Management Service -- now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement -- blocked the publication of scientific results that found oil exploration harmed wildlife.

In 2007, Interior's Office of the Inspector General found that Julie MacDonald, a political appointee, had altered the scientific findings of Endangered Species Program reports and pressured field staff to reach specific conclusions in their studies. While the IG found MacDonald's interference was above and beyond the norm, investigators said other officials in similar positions had "made changes to reports to reflect political philosophy."

Interior released a draft of the new rules in August 2010, opening them to public comment. Linda Gundersen, the director for the Office of Science Quality and Integrity at Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, said hundreds of groups responded with feedback. "It helped us address critical issues" with the rules, she said. "It was really wonderful."

Advocacy groups embraced the final rules issued on Tuesday, but called for further refinements.

Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and scientific ethics watchdog group, called the new policy "lofty and inspiring," but noted it is "still missing a lot of details." UCS, in a press release, expressed concern that the policy's process for evaluating claims of misconduct lacks transparency.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group of federal, state and local environmental employees, said the policy was a "good faith effort." But the group also claimed the rules were ambiguous at times, noting they did not lay out the specifics for whistleblower protections and were vague on when scientists could be barred from discussing work with the media.

Still, Ruch encouraged other federal agencies to implement scientific integrity initiatives of their own. "If Interior can adopt science integrity rules, then surely other agencies such as [the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Forest Service, have no excuse not to follow suit," he said.