Scientific integrity guidelines for federal agencies issued December 17, 2010, by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, ostensibly endorse open communication between journalists and scientists. But the available documentary evidence, including disclosures forced by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, strongly suggests that the White House Office of Management and Budget has impeded the drive for scientific integrity and openness.  Has OMB dictated a policy that will allow agencies to keep scientists from talking freely with reporters and to continue keeping politically inconvenient scientific findings in the shadows?  This first of a four-part series by environmental journalist Joseph A. Davis provides an overview.

Text of Scientific Integrity Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, from John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, December 17, 2010

The following is the first in a four-part series of posts on the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines memorandum issued December 17, 2010.

Also see:

Part 2: Can Federal Scientists Speak Freely With Journalists?

Part 3: OMB as a Force for Secrecy

Part 4: Sources, Documents, Further Information

Scientific “Openness” Run as Black Op

from OMB’s Secret White House Lair; Integrity Suffers

By Joseph A. Davis

Part 1: OMB’s Secret ‘Openness’ Policy

President Obama’s drive for scientific integrity and openness has largely been blocked by a highly secretive White House budget office.  Instead of guaranteeing that federal scientists can freely publish and discuss their research, newly published guidelines potentially enshrine and legitimize some of the worst secrecy practices of the Bush years.

Federal agency regulations on drug safety, toxic pollution, greenhouse emissions, water purity, wholesome food, and other issues key to public well-being are by law supposed to be based on the best available scientific assessment of risks. One way of guaranteeing that the fairest and most accurate science goes into regulations is for the science to be transparent and open to both scientists and the public.

Obama took office vowing to reverse Bush-era junk science policies and practices. Instead, his open-science advocates were sandbagged by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an agency with a decades-long history of overruling scientific assessments of risk in secret and dictating regulations to the order of big corporate campaign contributors.

Administration-wide “scientific integrity” guidelines were issued December 17, 2010, over the signature of John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the guidelines were probably drastically changed from those originally proposed by Holdren or an interagency panel he convened. They came out only after they had been blocked for more than a year by OMB, while Holdren’s office negotiated changes in the text primarily with OMB.

Fresh disclosures forced by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit show OMB’s dominant role in blocking, revising, and approving the guidelines. They also show an unusually high degree of secrecy about its efforts to do so. The disclosures came in documents released December 22, 2010 — but most of the documents requested (which focused on how the White House “integrity” policy was arrived at) were almost completely blacked out or not supplied at all. But they still tell a tale.

Reactions to the “integrity” policy itself were cautious and mixed. From a scientist’s perspective, there were some general guidelines issued that could result in better behavior by agency heads. But much of it suffered from some vagueness and generality — leaving final and specific policies to the agencies to determine. The guidelines were just that — guidelines, not orders. There were no provisions for enforcing the guidelines. No deadlines for implementing them. No consequences for not implementing them.

From a journalist’s perspective, President Obama’s new “scientific integrity” policy is a huge disappointment. Ostensibly, it endorses open communication between journalists and scientists. But agencies that read the fine print could use it to prevent journalists from interviewing scientists whose findings and conclusions are politically inconvenient to the administration.

The big issue for a lot of journalists was “minders and permissions.” That is: requiring press office permission for a journalist to interview a federal scientist and requiring press office chaperones to attend the interview.

The Society of Environmental Journalists has joined other journalism organizations, including the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in objecting to these practices. The objections were lodged in February 2010 letters to White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

The language of the administration’s December 2010 guidelines on press access was especially fuzzy and general — and that left the question of whether minders and permissions were required — or outlawed — unresolved. It meant the agencies could do whatever they wanted. While political appointees, under the guidelines, were not supposed to actually falsify or suppress science, they could spin it, distort it, downplay it, and apparently choose whether a scientist was allowed to talk to reporters. There was nothing in the policy that forbade retaliation against scientists if they said something that displeased the administration. And nothing that offered redress for scientists who had suffered retaliation.

There was plenty in the policy that agencies could use to justify substituting a press office flack or political appointee for the particular scientist a journalist asks to interview. And nothing forbidding an agency from substituting a policy-friendly scientist for one with politically inconvenient views. Implicit in the policy was the assumption that agencies could decide for themselves whether a scientist was allowed to be interviewed by a journalist at all.

On December 22, 2010, the activist group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a batch of highly redacted documents reluctantly supplied by the White House in response to a FOIA lawsuit PEER had filed October 19, 2010. The White House responded to only a fraction of PEER’s original August 11, 2010, request. The vast majority of the  text in the documents released by the White House is blacked out — a de facto claim of exemption from FOIA. What little information there is in the documents reinforces the impression that an openness drive once spearheaded by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was effectively sandbagged by secrecy-oriented agencies like OMB and the Defense Department.

Although the Obama administration is claiming credit for openness, news media continue to report instances where executive agencies have suppressed or distorted science. One example is the administration’s handling of information about estimates of the severity of the BP Gulf oil spill.  A report from the President’s independent oil spill commission accuses OMB of playing a key role in suppressing accurate information on the spill.  Some scientists are reporting that they have been forbidden to publish their work in peer-reviewed science journals during the Obama administration.

Another example of OMB’s role in negating scientific truth to serve corporate profits is coal ash regulation. After the Dec. 22, 2008, spill of coal ash near the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, incoming Obama EPA head Lisa P. Jackson vowed to regulate coal ash. There was little scientific dispute that the ash contained toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, and that these could contaminate people’s drinking water. But when EPA sent its proposed regulation to OMB for review, OMB met secretly with lobbyists from coal-burning electric utilities and revised EPA’s proposal to discount science-based public health concerns. The result: EPA to date has issued no regulation protecting public health from coal ash contamination.

One of the most notorious incidents of OMB suppression of science came arose over climate change during the Bush administration. The Supreme Court had affirmed that the Clean Air Act gave EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases — and in fact was required to do so if it found that climate change threatened human health. While Bush was still president, EPA came up with a scientific “endangerment finding” that would have triggered regulation. But the Bush administration was heavily indebted to the coal industry, which had helped win the key state of West Virginia in 2000. Consequently, the Bush OMB decreed EPA’s endangerment finding to be a government secret and refused to disclose it. This story is told in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ WatchDog newsletters of January 14, 2009; July 30, 2008; and October 21, 2009.

Industry has historically tried to skew science to maximize its own profits — witness the tobacco industry’s solemn assertions that smoking did not cause cancer. For that reason, science done by federal agencies or submitted as evidence in federal rulemaking is supposed to be open and on the record. By contrast, OMB’s meetings with industry lobbyists challenging agency science are held in secret: public and press are not told the substance of these discussions.

The public interest and government accountability are best served when science is open, and openness requires that scientists can communicate freely and without fear about their findings to other scientists, news media, and the public.

The available documentary evidence strongly suggests that OMB has dictated a government-wide scientific integrity policy that will allow agencies to keep scientists from talking to reporters and to continue keeping in the shadows scientific findings that are politically inconvenient to the administration.

To be continued in:

Part 2: Can Scientists Speak Freely With Journalists?

Part 3: OMB as a Force for Secrecy

Part 4: Sources, Documents, Further Information