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Federal Agency Encourages Its Scientists to Speak Out

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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eagleSAN FRANCISCO—The public at times questions scientific results produced by government agencies, thinking that the findings may be meant to support particular political policies or positions or to deflect criticism of those policies. Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a formal scientific integrity policy yesterday that is intended to combat that cynicism. Speaking at a press conference at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting, she said the policy “firmly supports our scientists and their scientific activities, protects the use of scientific findings and thus advances the public trust in NOAA science.”

NOAA scientists work on a number of issues that have become politicized or that have serious public repercussions. Chief among those is the extent of climate change, which some critics still claim doesn’t exist; environmental accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; severe weather forecasts (the National Weather Service is part of NOAA); and long-term drought and sea level rise predictions, which can have a major influence on business and public policy.

Perhaps the most striking provision of the integrity policy is an unequivocal statement that NOAA scientists are free to speak with the media and the public about their work without permission from anyone at NOAA—even without informing the agency’s public affairs offices. Lubchenco added that NOAA employees are free to present their opinions on matters beyond their work as long as they make it clear that they are not communicating official agency positions .

Lubchenco noted that the policy is the culmination of a directive made by President Barack Obama early in his administration to “restore science to its rightful place” in decision making. To achieve that goal, NOAA devised the policy “to protect scientific findings from being suppressed, distorted or altered, to strengthen science and to encourage a culture of transparency.”

Transparency is key, Lubchenco asserted. Under the policy, NOAA will release information about investigations into scientific misconduct, and it will protect whistleblowers from being pressured to stay quiet and from any subsequent reprisals from supervisors or anyone else in the agency.

Lubchenco said she believes her agency’s policy goes further to promote open science than any other federal policy. NOAA had opened a draft of the policy for scrutiny and received 17,000 comments from the public and its own employees. She believes the final document now serves as a model for such government policies, and said other federal agencies have already been looking at it to help form their own. She added that she hopes that outside agencies, companies and research institutions that collaborate with NOAA scientists “will follow suit” and adopt similar scientific integrity policies, to extend openness and discourage misuse of science in the wider world.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. drchiptravis 2:17 pm 12/9/2011

    This a is good idea to promote free speech, supposedly protected by the Bill of Rights. It would be great if all federal agencies, especially the FDA were directed and enforced to this openess of views of those in the know.

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  2. 2. tapped 2:22 pm 12/9/2011

    This is great news. Looks like NOAA wants to put the ugliness of the 2000′s, when scientists who held views contrary to the W Bush party line were deterred or barred from speaking to the press, behind them.

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  3. 3. Postman1 2:46 pm 12/9/2011

    Editor, unless you intend this to be another ugly, political, name calling forum, I would suggest you remove comment number two by ‘tapped’.

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