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Guidelines to protect the integrity of government scientists could be released as early as today. President Obama ordered the guidelines to prevent government research from being altered or suppressed for political purposes. The guidelines are nearly a year and a half overdue. During that time, the administration has drawn criticism for its own scientific missteps. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama had been in office less than two months when he ordered his science advisors to draw up the guidelines. He told government researchers gathered in the White House East Room he wanted to protect their work from political interference.
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 guidelines were supposed to be finished in four months. Instead, it's been 21. As in other areas where the administration's had trouble delivering on its lofty early promises, ardent supporters have been disappointed. Some government scientists have complained they're still being muzzled by mid-level managers. Roger Pielke, Junior, is a professor at the University of Colorado, who writes about the intersection of science and public policy.
Professor ROGER PIELKE, JR (University of Colorado): In recent weeks and months there have been complaints and allegations that some of the same practices that people complained about during the Bush Administration really haven't changed in the federal agencies. So I think every day that goes by that they're not out there, the people are looking for them, and want to see that things are different.
Congressman PAUL BROUN (Republican, Georgia): I'm eager to see the recommendations, but I'm not holding my breath.
HORSLEY: Georgia Congressman Paul Broun is the ranking Republican on the science oversight subcommittee. He's complained about the administration's delay in issuing the guidelines, and about some of the scientific pronouncements coming from the White House itself.
Congressman BROUN: I'm a physician. As a scientist, I'm concerned that we have scientific integrity, that we don't censor scientists, that we have good peer review.
Broun complains, during the Gulf Coast oil spill, the administration stuck with a low-ball estimate of how much oil was leaking from the well, initially dismissing more accurate forecasts from independent scientists, including those contacted by NPR.
Later, White House officials offered an overly optimistic estimate of how much oil had disappeared. The pattern frustrates Jeff Ruch, who runs a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Mr. JEFF RUCH (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility): If these are examples of the Obama administration practicing science-based decision-making, they have a long, long way to go.
HORSLEY: Ruch's group sued to find out why it's taken so long for the integrity guidelines to be made public.
Mr. RUCH: You know, apparently, they've had draft rules that they've been sharing with the Office of Management and Budget and others. And we're at a loss as to why policy on transparency has to be developed in secret.
HORSLEY: At a scientific meeting in San Francisco this week, where White House science advisor John Holdren was speaking, the Union of Concerned Scientists passed out stickers, saying Hey Mr. President, we're ready for scientific integrity. Holdren repeated his promise that the guidelines would be ready by year's end, adding the process had been more challenging than expected.
Pielke, the University of Colorado professor, suspects that's probably true.
Prof. PIELKE: My guess as to one reason why putting these guidelines out has taken so long, it probably has less to do with anything nefarious going on but just the sheer complexity of the issue and the realization that you can't simply mandate how science is to be governed through one policy, or set of policies.
HORSLEY: Still, Pielke says it's important that the White House finally deliver the promised guidelines, to protect public confidence in what scientists have to say.
Prof. PIELKE: If you don't protect that process, you could very easily get to a situation where you have Republican science and Democratic science. And when you do that, you're throwing away what's most valuable and what's most important about science - which has nothing to do with partisanship, but this ability to resolve empirical claims.
HORSLEY: Pielke adds: given the wide range of agencies covered by the guidelines, a lot of the details will probably have to be filled in later. He expects when the guidelines are finally released, a lot of people will be asking, we waited a year and a half for this?
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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