Obama Administration issues memorandum on principles of scientific integrity

Author: Ubaka Ogbogu, 01/04/11

In March 2009, in his remarks at the signing of an Executive Order to reverse the Bush-era stem cell research funding restrictions, President Obama directed John P. Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to “develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making” by ensuring that science policy is shaped through the involvement of scientific advisors appointed based on their qualifications and on the soundest scientific evidence, transparency and public engagement. A year and nine months later, on December 17, Mr. Holdren issued a memo to provide guidance on implementation of the principles of scientific integrity stressed by the President in his remarks. The four-page document is definitely worth a read, but I have distilled the main points below.

  • Foundations of scientific integrity in government: scientific data and analyses should be shielded from political interference; selection of candidates for science positions in government should be based on “scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity”; science policy should be based on peer-reviewed science; government departments should adopt clear conflict of interest guidelines and whistleblower protections, encourage and facilitate open access to scientific information, and inform the public about science, making sure to include “optimistic and pessimistic projections” and “best-case and worst-case scenarios where appropriate.”
  • Public communications: objective, nonpartisan science communication; federal scientists should be allowed to communicate their findings directly with the media and public and cannot be asked by public affairs officers to alter their findings; mechanisms to be put in place to resolve science communication disputes.
  • Federal Advisory Committees (FAC): policies to be established to ensure that transparent recruitment of FAC members; selection of members should be based primarily on qualifications and experience, but availability, diversity, ability to serve, and fair balance of views can also be considered as recruitment factors; conflict of interest waivers should be made public; FAC findings and recommendations not subject to government review.
  • Professional development: policies to be established to encourage and facilitate professional development of government scientists through peer-reviewed publications, conference presentations, serving in editorial capacities in professional and scholarly publications, full participation in professional, scholarly, advisory and specialized bodies (including as officers), and removing barriers to professional recognition and awards with the goal of minimizing achievement disparities between private and public sector scientists.
  • Implementation: agencies to report back in about four months on “distinct” steps taken to implement the principles outlined in the memo.

Much of what the memo directs is quite logical and self-evident and will not surprise anyone who has paid any attention to the relationship between science and the state in recent years (everything from the climate wars to stem cell research and environmental disasters). While the principles covered in the memo are especially warranted in the US context, particularly as a result of political interference with science and the increasing lack of public knowledge and understanding of science, there is no reason not to consider adopting similar rules here in Canada, whether as a matter of acting proactively, or to correct recent examples of perceived politicization of science.

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Ubaka Ogbogu

Ubaka Ogbogu is an Assistant Professor and the Katz Group Research Fellow in Health Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Alberta. His teaching and research interests include health law, law and biotechnology, law and bioethics, science and regulation, and legal history. Ubaka is a former SCN trainee and a recipient of the SCN Canadian Alumni Award. He has done extensive research work on the ethical, legal and social issues associated with stem cell research, and continues to research and publish in this area. Ubaka holds law degrees at the bachelors and masters levels from the University of Benin in Nigeria and the University of Alberta, and is currently in the process of completing a doctorate in law at the University of Toronto. His doctoral work focuses on the legal history of early health care and biotechnology policies in Canada, particularly in relation to smallpox vaccination and infectious diseases.
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