National Science Board finds lack of consistent policy for exchange of government research
By Ted Agres | June 6, 2006
The U.S. government risks jeopardizing the "quality and credibility" of Federally sponsored scientific research by failing to encourage the open exchange of scientific information, according to the National Science Board (NSB), which recommends the administration establish a consistent policy for exchange of government research.
The NSB, an independent panel that provides advice to the president and Congress on science policy issues, surveyed nine Federal agencies that conduct or support research, and found "no consistent Federal policy regarding the dissemination of research results by Federal employees."
"An overarching set of principles for the communication of scientific information by government scientists, policy makers, and managers should be developed and issued by the Administration," the NSB reported in a letter last month to Federal government agencies and to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had requested the NSB study in February.
"A clear distinction should be made between communicating professional research results and data versus the interpretation of data and results in a context that seeks to influence, through the injection of personal viewpoints, public opinion or the formulation of public policy," the board said, echoing some of its earlier recommendations. "Restrictions on openness should be approached as exceptions rather than norms. Any restrictions government or other institutions impose on the free flow of information must meet high standards of proof of their necessity," the board stated in a 1988 report.
The Bush administration for years has been stung by criticism that it has censored government scientists, manipulated research results, and conducted political "litmus tests" of prospective scientific advisory board members.
The NSB surveyed policies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others. NASA and NOAA, in particular, have come under recent scrutiny following reports that senior officials had barred agency scientists from discussing climate change with reporters or from presenting scientific papers without prior approval. NASA has since developed new policies on scientific openness.
The report "sets the stage for either Congress, the administration, or other bodies to deal with [the issue] more in depth," said NSB Executive Director Michael Crosby. "Overall, the conclusion is fairly clear and is actionable, if parties care to take action on it," he told The Scientist.
Benjamin Fallon, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), did not respond to requests for comment. Last month, after receiving the NSB letter, McCain, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, inserted an amendment to a Senate bill that would require the Bush administration to formulate an "overarching set of principles" to foster open exchange of data and research results. The bill, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S 2802), was approved by the full committee on May 18 but has not yet been sent to the Senate floor for a vote. McCain spokesperson Andrea Jones did not provide further information.
Having a consistent Federal policy on dissemination of Federal research results "would be incredibly helpful and a real positive step," said Francesca T. Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The problem is that both the National Science Board and McCain's amendment ask that this be developed and issued by the administration, and this gives us pause. This administration does not have a track record that's very positive on scientific openness," Grifo told The Scientist.
Last month, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), ranking minority member of the Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards, requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate allegations of Bush Administration scientific manipulation and censorship. "Sound science should never take a back seat to ideology," Wu said in a statement. "Such behavior prevents our research agencies from carrying out sound public policy."
Links within this article
National Science Board
Letter to Sen. John McCain, May 10, 2006
National Science Board, "Report of the NSB Committee on Openness of Scientific Communications," NSB-88-215. 1988.
T. Agres, "NAS probes politics, science,' The Scientist, July 22, 2004.
T. Agres, "Science, policy and partisan politics," The Scientist, August 13, 2003.
T. Agres, "Politicizing research or responsible oversight?" The Scientist, July 14, 2003.
T. Agres, "NAS: Don't politicize science," The Scientist, November 18, 2004.
A.McCook, "James Hansen speaks -- and maybe says too much," The Scientist blog, February 13, 2006.
NASA Principles and Policies on Scientific Openness
"American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006," S. 2802
Union of Concerned Scientists
Rep. David Wu GAO request