Part of my general frustration at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for its intermittent leadership on scientific integrity policies is the absence of any policy to cover instances where agencies fail to follow their own policies. (There’s also the matter of not making deadlines, like the March 30 deadline for final policies, but that’s old news by now.)
Looking at the Department of the Interior’s latest episode, having agencies disregard their own policies is not a hypothetical concern.
Nature News is reporting (H/T Society of Environmental Journalists) that the Bureau of Reclamation, one of the many components of the Interior Department, has fired its scientific integrity officer. The officer (who also served as the agency’s science adviser), Paul Houser, was hired in April 2011 and sacked in February. He filed his own scientific integrity complaint with the Department that same month.
The specifics of Houser’s allegations concern the proposed removal of dams along the Klamath River in the region around the California-Oregon border (this has been an issue of dispute since at least 2004). He charges the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department with misrepresenting the science to support the Secretary’s intention to remove the dams. He also claims retaliatory actions against him as a result of expressing his concerns to agency and Department officials – classic whistleblower allegations.
This makes the third complaint (that we know about) filed with the Interior Department since its policy was made official in February 2011, and the third separate component of the Department to receive such a complaint. And the Department was having trouble before it had a policy. This suggests a serious problem, one that likely needs attention at the level of the Secretary or the OSTP. But without policies to encourage that activity, I don’t expect it to happen.
It’s getting harder and harder to take OSTP’s commitment on scientific integrity seriously. Whether that’s due to outside factors or other office priorities taking precedent, I can’t be sure. But it’s a black mark on the office.
To my Canadian readers, I hope this level of failure helps explain why I don’t think U.S. policies on scientific integrity are such a great example to address the troubles Canadian federal scientists are going through.