Science Integrity Rules On Hold

When he took office, President Obama promised to put scientists back in charge of science, and said new rules governing scientific integrity would be issued within six months. That time frame has more than doubled as the guidelines appear hung up in the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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The White House is defending its handling of scientific information during the Gulf Coast oil spill. A draft report released yesterday by the staff of a presidential commission said the government mishandled information about how much oil spilled from the broken BP well and about what happened to that oil. Staffers say the missteps left the impression that the government was either not fully competent or not fully candid.

The report is a black eye for an administration that's promised to base its actions on sound science, rather than politics.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, President Obama has been slow to deliver on that promise.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama had been in office just six weeks when he ordered a new strategy to restore scientific integrity to the federal government's decision-making.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's about letting scientists, like those who are here today, do their jobs free from manipulation or coercion and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient, especially when it's inconvenient.

HORSLEY: The president's pledge has turned out to be inconvenient for the White House, which is now 15 months overdue in publishing its scientific integrity guidelines.

That's been frustrating for watchdogs like Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She had high hopes Mr. Obama would reverse what she saw as a damaging downgrade of science under the previous administration.

Dr. FRANCESCA GRIFO (Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists): The point is that you don't want to have political appointees using science as a cover and changing the science so that it appears that what they're doing is science-based when it's not. And that's certainly what we had eight years of. And we really were hoping, with this administration, that that was not what we're going to see.

HORSLEY: Grifo wants the guidelines to do a number of things such as safeguarding scientific whistle-blowers, shining sunlight on the people scientists meet with, and allowing scientists to discuss their findings with reporters without being muzzled by public relations people.

Grifo acknowledges that's a tall order for political leaders who run the risk of diluting their own power. But Mr. Obama insisted when he ordered the new guidelines, he wanted to protect open scientific inquiry.

Pres. OBAMA: To ensure that in this new administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisers based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.

HORSLEY: This week's draft report from staffers of the presidential commission raise questions about just how open and honest the administration was in talking about the oil spill. The report notes that scientists outside of government, including some contacted by NPR, were able to provide much more accurate information, while for weeks the administration publicly low-balled the amount of oil flowing from the well and later provided unduly rosy estimates of how much of that oil had disappeared.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insists this was not a case of politicians or press secretaries withholding scientific data.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): When we had information, we gave it to the public. That has always been our charge. Throughout this process, we got better information.

HORSLEY: One of the most damning charges in the draft report is that the Office of Management and Budget prevented government scientists from releasing some of their forecasts about how much damage the oil spill might cause.

Gibbs says OMB simply wanted to make sure the forecast incorporated the government's cleanup efforts. OMB will also play a role in vetting the new scientific integrity guidelines.

Those guidelines were originally supposed to be finished by July of last year. John Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told a group of advisers last month they should be finished by December.

Dr. JOHN HOLDREN (Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy): I can't comment on all the details of internal deliberations in the administration, but we are very close.

HORSLEY: Holdren says the administration is already living by the principles of scientific integrity. But he adds, even when the guidelines are finally published, putting them in practice will be a challenge.

Scott Horsley, NPR news, the White House.

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