[Ip-health] Scientific Integrity in Washington

Riaz K Tayob riaz.tayob at gmail.com
Wed Dec 15 15:35:58 PST 2010

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ISIS Report 15/12/10

Scientific Integrity in Washington

In sharp contrast to his predecessor, President Obama is promoting scientific
integrity in government; others, including scientific organizations and
universities, should follow suit Professor Peter Saunders

On 29 September, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it is
drawing up a Department-wide order to ensure scientific integrity. In the words
of its press release [1]:

“This policy must clearly direct that DOI employees, political and career, must
never suppress or alter, without new scientific or technological evidence,
scientific or technological findings or conclusions. Further, employees will not
be coerced to alter or censure scientific findings, and employees will be
protected if they uncover and report scientific misconduct by career or
political staff. It shall be the duty of each employee, career and political, to
report such misconduct. This policy and a code of ethics on scientific integrity
will guide the conduct of scientists and decision makers in a manner that is
above reproach.”

The details have yet to be worked out, and it will be some time before we can
judge how much difference the new policy will make in practice. But it’s a very
encouraging signal from the Obama administration. In particular, the way the
original draft was modified in response to criticism from scientists gives us
reason to be optimistic.

Science under Bush

Under George W Bush, science was seen not as a source of evidence to be used in
decision making but as support for decisions already taken. If the conclusions
of research did not support the government’s position, then they had to be
altered so that they did. The most notorious example involved Philip Cooney,
chief of staff of Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality, who
watered down reports on global warming [2]. Cooney had previously been the
“climate team leader” at the American Petroleum Institute, a body representing
the interests of the oil industry, and when his tampering with the reports
became known, left the Council for a job with Exxon-Mobil [3]. Scientists in the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been under continuous pressure from
timber, oil and mining companies to remove protection from sensitive areas.

It’s not just the environment that has suffered. In 2006, in response to a
questionnaire sent out by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), 183
scientists working for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that [4] they
had "been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter
technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document.”

In 2001, the Washington Times, a daily newspaper founded by Sun Myung Moon, and
at the time owned and heavily subsidised by his Unification Church, claimed that
some scientists had faked data on studies of populations of the Canadian lynx in
order to fool the government into declaring it an endangered species [5]. The
story was immediately picked up by Associated Press (AP) and spread widely. All
over the country, articles appeared attacking the Forest Service and the Fish
and Wildlife Service. When it became clear that the story was false, there was
no retraction or apology; a spokesman for AP explained this would be “too
difficult” [6]. Instead, the then Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norten,
produced a draft code of conduct aimed at discouraging government scientists
from falsifying their results.

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