Striving for Scientific Integrity

obama science advisors

President Barack Obama talks with Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the Oval Office.

It is far too easy to alter and dismiss scientific findings because of political pressure. US policy continues to struggle with the integration of scientific integrity within national issues. A dedication to accurate reporting of findings, along with a promise of policy guided by science, is crucial to repairing a flawed system. At the Science Debate 2012, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to scientific integrity as part of his second term’s scientific agenda, thus assuring continuing efforts to bolster science-guided policies. Despite President Obama’s ambitious efforts at the beginning of his first term to remedy this problem, he has faced numerous roadblocks.

In March of 2009, President Barack Obama started his first term in office by inviting scientists to the White House to witness him sign his integrity directive, including numerous orders on scientific integrity, stating,

“The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.  Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.” 1

Such a commitment to science was unprecedented in a presidential administration. With this declaration, the scientific community finally felt that their work would not be warped with political agendas. However, it took close to two years for Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, to issue integrity guidelines to agencies, even though it was only supposed to take 120 days.2

With the initiative moving at a slower pace than expected, the Obama administration has encountered numerous cases in which questionable scientific integrity was used. Notably, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 drew controversy when the scientific community found that the estimates of the oil spill were ten times higher than the estimated 5,000 gallons per day.3 This gaffe displays what happens with most scientific data when presented with political motive, or without proper review. In an email released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Dr. Marcia McNutt, director of the US Geologic Survey and head of the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group, cited that pressure from the White House was why the numbers were underestimated.4 The suspected alteration of data challenges the credibility for BP and their scientists, which ultimately leads the public to question the word of the company at large. The combination of faulty research, White House pressure, and the skewing of reported figures that leads to the question: How can we trust the science when it is not verifiable?

Additionally, in December 2011 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that the morning-after contraceptive pill, Plan B, should be available to girls under the age of 17 without a prescription. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of Health and Human Services (HHS) overruled the FDA’s decision, on the basis that underage girls would not be able to safely use the medication. This is the first time in history that the HHS has vetoed an FDA decision.

This overruling was against the scientific data found by researchers at the FDA, and many saw the decision as a socially conservative decision made by a single person, which the Obama administration then defended.5 The FDA had evidence that supported the fact that younger teenagers were, in fact, able to use the medication correctly. In the study, nearly 90% of the girls were able to successfully use the medication.6 This clear disregard for scientific findings again leads the public to question important decisions. If scientific integrity is not being held up to standard on such issues, we cannot expect effective laws to be made with the guidance of critical scientific findings.

These types of large-scale controversies still occur to date, showing how difficult Obama’s task of managing scientific integrity has become. On January 7, seven federal scientists at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation filed a complaint, stating that “coercive threats” were used to censor their research at the Klamath Basin in Oregon.

The Klamath Basin has been the center of fierce political struggle over scare water supply between threatened fish populations and a federal irrigation project with hydroelectric dams.7 It is speculated that the dams contribute to the dwindling survival rate of the endangered species. The complaint filed states that the Klamath Basin area office manager Jason Philips violated scientific integrity policy.8

Philips threatened to eliminate the scientist’s positions because he believed their research was biased for the bureau, made to undermine previous findings that said it was the federally altered flows which hindered the fish survival.8 Additionally, he censored the reporting of their scientific findings by blocking the publication of their findings. This blatant neglect of scientific integrity, not to mention the outrageous abuse of power, is deplorable. The scientists working at the basin are examples of the few brave people to step up and inform the public of what is truly happening behind the scenes. Despite the danger of being a scientific whistleblower, they are doing what they know is right.

obama nas

Obama at the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.

This public declaration of censorship highlights the ongoing issue of scientific integrity during the last two weeks of Obama’s first term. Although there has been lagging effect in scientific integrity, momentum for the merging to scientific findings and policy is gaining momentum. In November 2012 the National Institute of Health (NIH) published their policies in regard to scientific research integrity. The NIH is the nations largest funder of biomedical research.9 The NIHs’ thorough dedication to scientific integrity in comparison between the Klamath Basins’ shows the large discrepancies between the agencies’ efforts.

Merely days before President Obama’s second inauguration, he displayed one of his ever-strong dedications to science guiding policy. Scientific integrity does not only include the validity of data reported, but also the inclusion of science in policy decisions. One of his 23 executive orders in response to gun control and violence includes a memo to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With this order, the CDC is able to review its gun violence research program, which has been restrained and suppressed by Congress since the 1990s. This executive order shows Obama integrating science into a topic that has typically been viewed with merely politicized solutions.

Federal money was forbidden from promoting or advocating gun control, which significantly restricted the CDC’s work. In 2011, this rule grew to include research funded by the NIH.10 However, the Obama administration’s lawyers have declared in the 2013 push on gun control policies that the language in the Congressional budget appropriations legislation does not in fact bar public health research on gun violence. Scientific research can only help in issues that have typically been highly politicized. Unaltered and reliable information only aids in expanding the nation’s understanding of the issue. President Obama has shown strong support to push Congress to include $10 million in the CDC’s 2014 budget to fund gun research.11 This demonstration to the dedication of utilizing science to form policy and legislation shows that the 2009 memorandum is still at work.

Despite the public missteps with the BP oil spill, FDA regulation, and the current Klamath Basin controversy, President Obama still strives to advance science’s contribution to policy. President Obama’s recommitment to scientific integrity could potentially translate into policies protecting scientist whistleblowers, assuring autonomy of scientists’ research from censorship, and strengthening scientific independence in federal decision-making.12

References

  1. Barack Obama, Memorandum For the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, March 2009.
  2. Jeff Tollefson, US Science: The Obama experiment, Nature, Sept 2012.
  3. John McQuaid, Misunderestimating the BP Oil Spill, Forbes, Jan 23, 2012.
  4. Kate Sheppard, Report: White House Pressured Scientists to Underestimate BP Spill Size, Mother Jones, Jan 23, 2012.
  5. Gardiner Harris, Plan to Widen Availability of Morning-After Pill is Rejected, The New York Times, December 2011.
  6. Jennifer Corbett Dooren, Obama Health Chief Blocks FDA on ‘Morning After’ Pill, The Wall Street Journal, December 2011.
  7. Jeff Barnard, Federal scientists claim Klamath Basin research censored, AP, Jan 9, 2013.
  8. Jeff Rush, Complaint of Scientific and Scholarly Misconduct: Coercive threats to intimidate scientists and compromise use of best available science in agency decision-making, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
  9. Sally Rockey, New Resource on Scientific Integrity, National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research, January 2013.
  10. Jared Newman, Obama Wants More Violent Video Game Studies, and That’s Okay, Time Magazine, January 17, 2013.
  11. Stephanie Pappas, Obama Calls for Gun Control and Research, LiveScience, January 13, 2013.
  12. Alden Mayer, What’s next for the president’s science agenda? The Hill, Nov 2012.
  13. Image credit (public domain): Souza, Pete. Untitled image. Flickr, May 7, 2012.
  14. Image credit (Creative Commons): National Academy of Sciences. Untitled image. Flickr, April 27, 2009.

Leslie Sibener is a first year student majoring in neuroscience and writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Articles about President Obama’s science policy have been published through the latter half of January 2013.

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