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US EPA releases scientific integrity policy

FishbowlA day after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became the fourth US agency to release a draft policy on scientific integrity, advocates for the cause are already raising concerns about it, ahead of a White House status review.

A policy posted on 5 August by EPA seeks to establish a framework for ensuring integrity, including through the creation of a committee of scientific integrity officials. But today watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in Washington DC slammed the draft policy, calling it “by far the weakest scientific integrity rules of any agency” and “a big step backward.”

Among PEER’s concerns is the requirement, in the policy, that scientists and engineers should ensure their work is free of political interference, without any clear mechanism for how they are supposed to do so. PEER also objects to managers and public affairs staff being allowed to screen and approve the release of scientific information.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but its policy claims to continue the agency’s “fishbowl” tradition in which former EPA administrator Williams Ruckelshaus promised, back in 1983, to operate the agency with total transparency. Of 30 government agencies, EPA now joins the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Department of Interior (DOI) in having released policies on scientific integrity. In February, DOI introduced a final policy that was welcomed by watchdog groups, and NOAA’s draft has also been praised. The US National Science Foundation also released a draft policy on 4 August.

The introduction of policies on scientific integrity began with President Barack Obama’s initiative in March 2009. Progress was slow for the next 18 months, but the last 9 months have seen several milestones set by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the most recent of which was a deadline for all agencies to submit draft policies by 5 August. The documents are not expected to be publicly released unless, like EPA, individual agencies choose to do so.

As of initial posting time, no information was available from OSTP as to how many agencies have complied with its deadline but a spokesman said the office was busy looking at submitted drafts.

Update 3.50pm: The EPA comments that its draft policy was written by a group of EPA scientists and officials who formed an “integrity workgroup” and that the agency welcomes feedback. The draft policy is open for public comment until 6 September.

Image: JayDolan via Flickr under Creative Commons


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