Washington, DC — NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has decided that it does not need new scientific integrity rules despite a White House directive to all agencies. How the White House handles this NASA stance may foretell whether its vaunted scientific integrity effort will collapse as other agencies declare their current policies to be sufficient, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In March 2009, President Obama ordered all agencies to adopt rules to “address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised” and to “adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes…”
On the August 5, 2011, deadline for submitting draft policies, NASA instead issued a 10-page memo defending its current policies as fully meeting the Obama directive. While NASA has more advanced scientific integrity procedures than many agencies, one key missing ingredient is that NASA has no enforceable mechanism to police against political suppression or manipulation of scientific data or findings – the heart of the President’s directive.
Under NASA regulations research misconduct “means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” In other words, under the NASA rules the primary targets are scientists and not managers who may withhold or skew findings.
“NASA apparently believes that its managers fall outside the scope of critical scrutiny and that the likely impediment to quality science is its scientists,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the White House Office of Scientific Technology and Policy (OSTP), which is overseeing implementation of the policy, stated in a blog post that NASA “plans to make modest changes by fall” but does not hint what those changes will be. “At this rate, we will see only partial compliance, with some agencies reining in political control over scientific information and others not.”
Moreover, NASA will offer no whistleblower protection for scientists who often fall outside civil service Whistleblower Protection Act coverage. Similarly, the NASA media policy urges agency pre-approval or the presence of an official “minder” for all interviews—whether with the media or the public:
“When doing so employees shall notify their immediate supervisor and coordinate with their public affairs office in advance of interviews whenever possible, or immediately thereafter, and are encouraged, to the maximum extent practicable, to have a Public Affairs Officer present during interviews.”The fundamental weakness, PEER contends, is that the OSTP guidance to agencies was so vague that agencies are free to do what they want and call it compliance. Thus, some agencies, such as Interior and NOAA, are adopting relatively strong policies, while other agencies, such as EPA, are adopting very weak, partial policies. In addition, as the OSTP blog admits, it originally worked with 30 agencies, but only 19 are now participating, and even that number may dwindle.
“As on this issue, the White House often acts as a Committee-Chairman-in-Chief who seeks agency buy-in as opposed to a Commander-in-Chief who expects orders to be followed,” added Ruch. “If this scientific integrity initiative implodes the only reason will be the quality of White House leadership.”