Science in Society Archive

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.

This might seem an odd response, as investigations had shown that no results had been falsified, but the Bush administration was obviously keen to put even more restrictions on scientists. In the end, however, they found they had more pressing demands on their time, like invading Iraq, and the code was never finalised.

The new code

Soon after Obama entered the White House, he directed federal agencies to develop policies for scientific integrity with guidelines to be drawn up by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy [7].

When the Department of the Interior (DOI) published its draft order [8] on 31 August, however, there was a storm of protest from scientists. The DOI had essentially resurrected its 2003 draft, which dealt only with scientific misconduct. It said nothing at all about administrators, politicians or political appointees, even though that is where most of the problems arise. The climate change scandal is one example; another is that in 2007, Julie MacDonald, then deputy assistant secretary of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, resigned after it came to light that she had reversed findings on endangered species such as the sage grouse when editing documents by scientists [9].

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) asked its supporters to submit comments to the DOI. Over ten thousand were received, and, less than a month after the draft appeared, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, announced the new policy [1] quoted at the beginning of this article. Of course, as the UCS stresses, it is only an outline and there is still a lot to be done to turn it into a workable set of rules [10], but it is a very encouraging step forward.

While the new order naturally applies only to staff working for the DOI, it could have a much broader influence. It should serve as a model for other government departments. Furthermore, universities, research institutions and corporations should adopt similar policies, and even if they do not, the order could serve as a model of good practice when there are disputes.

The government should also insist that the code be adhered to by any organisation working for the government or producing something that the government is paying for, such as pharmaceuticals. When whistleblower Cheryl Eckard won US$96 m in damages from GlaxoSmithKline, she filed her lawsuit under the US False Claims Act, which is designed to allow private citizens with knowledge of fraud on the government to sue and share in the proceeds of the recovery [11]. If the government had not been involved, her position would have been much weaker.

The King code

The DOI’s new order is in sharp contrast with the Code of Ethics proposed by Sir David King when he was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government [12]. Like the DOI’s 2003 draft, it was concerned only with misconduct by scientists. It said nothing about the misuse of their work by decision makers.

In particular, the King code required scientists not to disseminate work unless it has been peer reviewed. This would effectively ban whistle blowing, which almost by definition involves the release of information that has not gone through the process of peer review.

The DOI policy might have helped Arpad Pusztai, Nancy Olivieri, Aubrey Blumsohn and the other brave scientists whose struggles we have reported over the years (see for example [13-15] Pusztai Publishes Amidst Fresh Storm of Attack , ISISNews 3; Big Business = Bad Science?, ISISNews 9; Actonel: Drug Company Keeps Data from Collaborating Scientists, SiS 30), . The King code, on the other hand, would have allowed the organisations the scientists were criticising to charge them with a serious breach of scientific ethics regardless of the truth or importance of their claims.

Article first published 15/12/10


  1. US DOI memorandum  (2010) “Ensuring Scientific Integrity within the Department of the Interior”.  
  2. “Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming”. Andrew C Revkin. New York Times, 8 June, 2005.
  3. Wikipedia: entry for Philip Cooney. Accessed 1 November, 2010.
  4. “FDA Scientists Pressured to Exclude, Alter Findings; Scientists fear retaliation for Voicing Concerns” Union of Concerned Scientists Press Release, 20 July, 2006.
  5. 5. “Rare Lynx Hairs found in Forests Exposed as Hoax”. Audrey Hudson. Washington Times, 17 December 2001.
  6. Williams T (2002). Lynx, lies and media hype. Audubon Magazine, May 2002.
  7. White House Press Office, 9 March 2009. Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies.
  8. Department of the Interior (2010). Proposed scientific integrity policy of the Department of the Interior. Federal Register 75 No. 168, 31 August 2010, 53325.
  9. Reich ES (2010). ‘Sound science’ code draws fire. Nature 467. 263. 
  10. Grifo F (2010).  Science Group Praises New Department of Interior Scientific Integrity Policy as a Great First Step; Calls for Department to Furnish Details and Deadlines. Union of Concerned Scientists press release 29 September 2010.
  11. “GlaxoSmithKline whistleblower wins record £61m payout.” Simon Goodley. The Guardian, 28 October, 2010.
  12. Department of Trade and Industry (2006). Rigour, respect and responsibility: A universal ethical code for scientists.
  13. Ho MW and Ryan A. Pusztai publishes amidst fresh storm of attack - the sorry state of ‘sound science’. ISIS News 3, December 1999;
  14. Saunders PT and Ho MW. Big Business=Bad Science? ISIS News 9, July 2001.
  15. Saunders PT.  Actonel: Drug company keeps data from collaborating scientists. Science in Society 30, 48, 2006.

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