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AIBS Comments on NOAA's Draft Scientific Integrity Policy

August 19, 2011

Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere
Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
1401 Constitution Avenue, NW
Room 5128
Washington, DC 20230

Re: Draft Scientific Integrity Policy

Dear Dr. Lubchenco,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) draft scientific integrity policy. The comprehensive policy proposed by NOAA upholds the ideals of scientific integrity. Indeed, NOAA's draft policy should be used as a model by other federal departments and agencies.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (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.

Applicability to Employees

We strongly support the agency's decision to apply the policy to all NOAA employees, appointees, and contractors who engage in, supervise, or manage scientific activities; analyze or communicate scientific information; or use such information to make decisions. Universal coverage is essential to ensuring that the policy is effective. It is vital that decision-makers are subject to the policy, otherwise the potential exists for decision-makers to misrepresent, alter, or suppress scientific information, as has happened at other science agencies in recent years. The inclusion of communications staff is key to sustaining the public trust in NOAA and the information the agency communicates to the public.

Despite the broad coverage established in Section 2.01, the bulk of the draft policy appears to be applicable only to a subset of NOAA employees. Section 5.01 states that "NOAA scientists, science managers, and supervisors shall uphold the fundamental Principles of Scientific Integrity, the Code of Scientific Conduct, and the Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management outlined in the following sections of this Order." Given that these three elements constitute a majority of the substance of the policy, Section 5.01 appears to nullify the coverage established in Section 2.01. The Code of Scientific Conduct (Section 6.01) adds further confusion by stating that it is applicable to the personnel defined in Section 2.01.

In order to clarify the intensions of the policy, NOAA should revise Section 5.01 to state:

"All NOAA employees and contractors identified in Section 2.01 shall uphold the fundamental Principles of Scientific Integrity, the Code of Scientific Conduct, and the Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management outlined in the following sections of this Order."

Scientific Societies and Professional Development

We strongly support the policy's encouragement of NOAA scientists to serve in the leadership of professional and scientific societies, publish their results in peer-reviewed journals, present their research at scientific meetings, actively participate in professional societies, serve on review panels, and participate in science assessment bodies. As is noted in the draft policy, "scientific leadership is a key component of advancing the mission of government agencies." The engagement of federal scientists in scientific societies is key for the professional development of these researchers and for the advancement of science.

Communications with the Media and Public

The agency is commended for allowing scientists to speak freely with the media and the public, however, the draft policy's guidelines for such communications do not provide sufficient detail to inform employees of their rights and limitations under the policy.

The policy states that "NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work" (Section 4.03). As currently written, this section does not make clear that NOAA researchers must submit "all written and audiovisual materials that are, or are prepared in connection with, a Fundamental Research Communication" to the head of their operating unit for approval before the information can be publically released (Department of Commerce Administrative Order 219-1 Section 7.01). NOAA should revise Section 4.03 of the policy to make this distinction clear.

NOAA is encouraged to provide information to its employees regarding the use of email to communicate science to the media. Per the June 15, 2011 memorandum from Mr. Cameron F. Kerry, General Counsel for the Department of Commerce: "Electronic communications with the media related to fundamental research that are the equivalent of dialogue are considered to be oral communications; thus, prior approval is not required for a scientist to engage in online discussions or email with the media about fundamental research."

The agency's plan for a NOAA-wide framework for review of written and audiovisual science communications, including time limits for review and approval, and procedures for redress if the deadlines are not met, is laudable. Such time frames are important to ensuring that no manager or supervisor can suppress science by refusing to review a document for public release.

Scientific Misconduct

It is commendable that the draft policy offers protection to employees who uncover and report allegations of scientific misconduct, as well as privacy protection to employees accused of misconduct. The agency's commitment to tracking and annually reporting allegations and findings of scientific misconduct is also admirable. Indeed, this concept was recommended by the Inspector General for the Department of the Interior for the bureaus under its jurisdiction.

NOAA should also be applauded for developing a draft procedural handbook for dealing with allegations of scientific misconduct, and for releasing the handbook with the draft scientific integrity policy. The draft handbook outlines a detailed process for investigating allegations of research misconduct. It is particularly helpful that the process includes the maximum allowable time frame for each step of the process.

Several additional suggestions are offered below that may strengthen the procedures outlined in the draft handbook:

  • The timeframe for securing evidence, including all original research records and materials relevant to the allegation, should be considerably shorter than is currently proposed. As written, the draft procedures would result in evidence being collected as late as 120 days after the alleged misconduct is discovered. Earlier steps need to be taken to ensure that evidence is collected and secured in order to allow for an accurate and complete investigation.
  • Allegations of scientific misconduct that involve alleged fraud, waste, abuse, or criminal law violations should be referred to the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) handles such incidents in this manner.
  • Guidance, including qualifications and selection criteria, should be added to clarify who can serve as Determining Official when the Deputy Under Secretary for Operations does not fill the role. Given the powerful role this individual could play in the procedures, it is important that an appropriately qualified person is selected.
  • The Federal Research Misconduct Policy outlines several criteria to guide appropriate administrative actions to respond to research misconduct, including "the degree to which the misconduct was knowing, intentional, or reckless; was an isolated event or part of a pattern; or had significant impact on the research record, research subjects, other researchers, institutions, or the public welfare." Section 5.04 (a) should be revised to reflect these criteria.
  • Section 3.02, which outlines how to report allegations of misconduct, should be revised to include a list of the information that is required to be submitted to the Deputy Under Secretary for Operations. The USGS scientific integrity policy could serve as a good model in this regard (see USGS Survey Manual 500.25.8.A.1).
  • The handbook does not currently address how the review panel will reach a decision. NOAA might consider the model used by the USGS. For the USGS, a Scientific Misconduct Review Panel is directed to "arrive at consensus decision, if possible.... The Panel will take the time necessary to address all of the relevant issues associated with the allegation in order to reach a consensus finding. If, after all efforts are exhausted, the Panel is still unable to reach consensus about whether or not misconduct has occurred, then a majority decision will be made" (USGS Survey Manual 500.25.8.C.4-5). Panel members then write majority and minority reports to record their differences.

Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management

The policy outlines a comprehensive code of ethics for those who supervise and manage scientific activities. The inclusion of such a code is an important feature, one that we hope that other federal agencies will include in their respective scientific integrity policies.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of these comments. If AIBS may be of further assistance to you on this or any other matter, please contact Dr. Robert Gropp, AIBS Director of Public Policy at 202-628-1500.

Sincerely,

Richard O'Grady, Ph.D.
Executive Director

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