Monday, December 20, 2010

The new White House policy on "Scientific Integrity"

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a memorandum on scientific integrity this Friday in response to President Obama's request early last year for a set of guidelines to encourage transparency among federal scientific agencies and government policymakers as well as the free flow of scientific information to the public.


On March 9, 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum asking his scientific adviser, John P. Holdren, the director of the office of science and technology policy, to develop the guidelines within 120 days. Despite that request, the guidelines are a full year and a half overdue. Ironically, the agencies targeted by the Dec. 17 memo are required to report back to Holdren on their progress in implementing the new policies within 120 days.

In his original memo, President Obama said that "Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration," and that "The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions."

Though vague in terms of process, the Holdren memo calls for overall transparency among federal agencies. The memo is broken into four sections with a fifth section addressing implementation of the guidelines. The first two sections are the more relevant ones to the public.

The first section focuses on nurturing public trust in the government and its scientific research while also encouraging agencies to make their information available to the public. Section two expands on the policy of openness giving federal scientists the liberty to talk to the media about their research as long as it isn't classified material. The section further stipulates that public affairs officers cannot intervene to require a scientist to change his or her message.

The third and fourth sections talk about federal agencies' relationships with federal advisory committees and give government scientists more liberty to get involved within the private scientific community.

The request for the guidelines was one of the first executive orders of the Obama administration and it comes as a response to feelings by some that the Bush administration was too heavy handed towards science, in some cases controlling scientific information to better align with the administration's agenda.

The first two sections of the memo clearly address these sentiments, with the first bullet of the first section stipulating that "Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings."

Though the guidelines are idyllic, they're ultimately a strategic move by the Obama administration. Though it is in itself an idyllic thought, the ideal would be for politics to be removed from science altogether. Whether or not this could really ever happen is another story.

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