The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its draft scientific integrity policy (alternate link) to the public last week (H/T Nature News). The EPA joins the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of the Interior in making their efforts public by the latest deadline set by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. While not everyone is keen on the specifics, I’m happy to see something out there at all, given the paltry public response from most of the government. Comments are open until September 6.
Regrettably, the EPA policy falls into a trap that is all too common. The support of scientific integrity is all too often narrowly assumed to simply mean that agency (or agency-funded) scientists need to behave, and there will be consequences for demonstrated bad behavior.
But there is a serious problem of interference from non-scientific agency staff that would go beyond reasonable needs for crafting the public message. The EPA policy indicates that agency scientists are encouraged to speak with media about their work, but it says nothing about if (or when) it is appropriate for agency officials to prevent these scientists from speaking about this work. Appearing to interfere or suppress scientific research is also a concern (or in the case of the Interior Department, being as clear as mud about what is going on with one of its scientists), and it is not really addressed in this policy. (Though the agency did manage to correct one of its supervisors who was on the wrong side of this in 2009)
Agency policies so far have been thin on exactly how this conduct will be reduced, and how instances of it will be corrected. Guidance from the Office of Science and Technology Policy would be welcome in this area, but its silence at the passing of its recent deadline suggests they will not provide it.