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AIBS Comments on Department of the Interior Scientific Integrity Policy

September 17, 2010

The Honorable Ken Salazar
United States Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
Via E-mail: DOI_Science_Integrity@ios.doi.gov

Re: Proposed Scientific Integrity Policy of the Department of the Interior

Dear Mr. Secretary:

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed scientific integrity policy of the Department of the Interior (DOI). AIBS strongly supports the development of a DOI-wide scientific integrity policy. A strong scientific integrity policy could increase public trust in DOI decision making. Unfortunately, the proposed policy published in the Federal Register on August 31, 2010, is inadequate. The policy fails to create a system that would protect DOI scientists and scientific findings from political interference or manipulation in service of a policy agenda.

The proposed DOI policy is confusing and vague. Additionally, the policy lacks appropriate employee protections and guidance, fails to provide timelines for implementation, and fails to cover the actions of decision makers. The department should consider the USGS scientific integrity policy, particularly the process for reviewing and investigating claims of misconduct, as a model for the DOI policy.

AIBS is a nonprofit scientific association dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. AIBS is sustained by a robust membership of individual biologists and nearly 200 professional societies and scientific organizations with a combined individual membership exceeding 250,000.

A number of significant concerns and recommendations are described in the following sections.

Coverage

As proposed in Section 3.2 of the DOI scientific integrity policy, only employees who "engage in scientific activities" would be covered by the policy. "Decision makers" are specifically exempted from this policy. Thus, an agency official characterized as a decision maker could misrepresent, alter, or prevent the release of scientific information as part of an effort to support a specific agency action. In fact, as the DOI Inspector General reported in 2008, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks had demonstrated a "zeal to advance her agenda" that caused harm to the integrity and reputation of the Fish and Wildlife Service and potentially to endangered species. Inappropriately, the selective use of science or the manipulation of science by DOI officials would not be prohibited by the proposed policy.

Decision makers are not the only employees inappropriately exempted from coverage under the proposed policy. As drafted, the policy fails to govern the actions of employees or contractors who communicate science to the news media, policymakers, or the general public. The public would have greater trust in DOI's presentation of scientific information if it had confidence that all employees, not just scientists, communicate accurate information. This, too, would help ensure that all available and appropriate science is utilized in decision making.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Manual Section 500.25 on scientific integrity applies to all USGS employees and volunteers, not just scientists. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) policy on scientific integrity (212 FWS 7.3(B)) also applies to "all our employees when they engage in, supervise or manage, or apply the information resulting from scientific activities." Thus, at least two DOI bureaus provide precedent for applying a scientific integrity policy to all employees.

Release of Scientific Information

The proposed policy would permit decision makers to "edit" scientific documents for "clarification of major points to aid in decision making." In recent years, the news media and various government investigations have identified situations where non-scientists at various levels of the government have "edited" scientific documents. The result has often been the misrepresentation of scientific information in an attempt to advance a personal or policy agenda. This provision of the proposed policy does nothing to discourage or prevent these situations from happening at DOI.

The proposed policy allows for the delay of release of scientific information for political purposes. The Appendix, Part D, states that the hindering of scientific information will not be tolerated, with one exception: "reasonable judgments to delay public access depend upon individual circumstances when premature release would compromise validity or decision-making ability." This standard, at best, is vague.

Reporting and Investigating Misconduct

The proposed policy fails to establish a uniform and consistent DOI-wide policy for reporting potential scientific misconduct. On one hand, DOI argues that the proposed policy applies to all bureaus and offices. However, the policy fails to provide guidance or uniform standards for the various bureaus and offices within the department. Section 3.5 of the policy should provide for clear reporting channels as well as protections for individuals who appropriately report suspected violations of the scientific integrity policy. These processes should not be left to each office or bureau; DOI should standardize and implement these processes. The USGS scientific integrity policy has strong provisions for the reporting and investigation of misconduct. The USGS policy should be used as the model for DOI.

Given that political interests have in recent years sought to discredit scientists and scientific findings for what are often found to be human mistakes, it is of great concern that the proposed DOI policy fails to differentiate mistakes and misconduct or fraud. The public expects federal scientists to press forward the frontiers of knowledge and to conduct research that solves pressing and complicated problems. Federal scientists need to be confident that a simple mistake will not be used to attack their professional credibility or derail their research; especially when the research may be unpopular or counter to DOI policy objectives.

Legitimate evidence of scientific misconduct must be reported to and addressed by DOI. Toward this end, it is important that DOI provide protections from reprisal to employees who report suspected misconduct. The USGS Manual specifically provides this protection. The USGS policy states that the bureau is "committed to ensuring that employees and volunteers who have a reasonable belief that a violation of the USGS Code of Scientific Conduct and/or the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct has occurred and who report such violation in accordance with this Survey Manual chapter will not be subject to reprisal." This protection should be included in the DOI policy.

Importantly, the proposed policy does not provide guidelines for how allegations of misconduct will be investigated. Once again, precedent within DOI exists. The USGS sets forth a clear protocol for reporting and investigating suspected scientific misconduct. Moreover, the USGS has established a bureau-wide panel of scientists to investigate suspected misconduct. This panel, whose members are appointed for a term of service, is able to develop consistency and expertise in investigating claims. Moreover, a panel of scientists is better able to ascertain whether scientific misconduct has occurred than human resource personnel or supervisors who may have limited or no scientific training. A comparable DOI-wide process should be established.

A uniform DOI-wide integrity policy might provide employees with a sense of confidence that claims they bring or that may be brought against them will be fairly investigated by individuals with appropriate scientific training and expertise. Additionally, the public might have greater confidence in the outcome of investigations if it is clear to all that a formal and fair process is used to investigate claims of misconduct. It may also be appropriate to harmonize the new DOI procedures for timely and fair review of complaints with the procedures and guidelines set forth by the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct.

A concern with Section 3.8 of the proposed policy is the fact that volunteers, temporary employees, probationary employees, and contractors are denied the right to appeal a finding against them. A misconduct finding against a seasonal, temporary or contract worker is likely to impact their scientific career in the same way as a finding against a federal employee, and given that these individuals are hired to provide a service for the federal government, it is fair and appropriate that these individuals have an opportunity to appeal a misconduct finding. This right appears to be consistent with existing USGS policy.

Of note, Section 3.8 currently requires that a supervisor must find that an employee has committed a "notable" departure from accepted practices of the scientific community for maintaining the integrity of the scientific or research record. The Federal Policy on Research Misconduct requires a finding of a "significant" departure. For consistency and clarity, it may be wise for DOI to harmonize terminology and/or definitions with other federal research integrity and misconduct policy.

Additionally, according to an April 2010 report from the DOI Inspector General, bureaus and offices should be directed in this policy to develop appropriate recordkeeping procedures to track the number of allegations of scientific misconduct and the outcomes of cases. These processes should include information about disciplinary action taken, an appropriate public record explaining the nature and significance of the misconduct, and any DOI remedies for the misconduct.

Conclusion

AIBS supports the development of a strong DOI scientific integrity policy. However, the current policy requires significant modification. The Department should consider the USGS scientific integrity policy, particularly the process for reviewing and investigating claims of misconduct, as a model for a DOI-wide policy.

Once again, thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed scientific integrity policy. AIBS welcomes the opportunity to continue working with DOI to develop a scientific integrity policy that will serve science, scientists, and the public. Please contact AIBS Director of Public Policy Dr. Robert Gropp if we may be of further assistance.

Sincerely,
Richard T. O'Grady, Ph.D.
Executive Director

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