The President's Unfinished Promise: The Federal Government Still Lacks a Meaningful Scientific Integrity Policy

01/20/2016 12:30 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2017

It has been common for scientists, including me, to criticize previous federal administrations for condoning scientific misconduct when it comes to denying climate change or ignoring environmental concerns. So when, in April 2009, President Obama told the National Academy of Sciences "we are restoring science to its rightful place", and "the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over," the scientists in the audience, including me, gave him a standing ovation. The president then instructed his science advisor Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to issue uniform guidelines for a strong federal scientific integrity policy within three months. But nearly seven years later, there is still no meaningful federal scientific integrity policy, and parts of the Obama administration have continued to misuse science to support ideology. The next administration can, and should, do better.

It took OSTP more than 18 months to issue feeble guidelines that gave individual federal agencies complete discretion to develop their own policies. How effective are those individual policies? The answer is that the policies vary from strong to very weak.

For example, at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is a strong policy administered by the Office of Research Integrity. In contrast, as shown here, at the Department of the Interior, there is a weak policy that in practice has so little substance as to be meaningless. The Department of Justice, in defending Interior's decisions, is no better.

Here I present two striking examples. The common theme in both examples is that someone at the top (e.g., the Director of the National Park Service or the Secretary of Interior) made their wishes clearly known about the outcome they desired before their agency embarked on what should have been an unbiased science-driven environmental impact statement (EIS). In both cases, the EIS came to the boss' desired outcome (no surprise), even if it required fabricating, falsifying, or ignoring scientific data. With a weak scientific integrity policy, formal complaints led to cover-ups and meaningless investigations. In spite of the President's lofty words, it has been business as usual at the Departments of Interior and Justice with science taking a back seat to ideology.

The next administration should learn from what has been done right (e.g., HHS) -- and what hasn't (e.g., Interior and Justice).

Example #1: The oyster farm at Drakes Estero

The first example concerns how both the Departments of Interior and Justice dealt with the so-called 'oyster war,' the decade-long battle between the National Park Service (part of Interior) and an 80-year-old oyster farm, which started at Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore and ended on the steps of the Supreme Court. The oyster farm lost, and so did scientific integrity.

The creation of Point Reyes National Seashore along the coast of California in 1962 was a historic collaboration between environmentalists and agriculturalists in what should be a model for the rest of the park system - in which the production of wholesome food can exist in harmony with the protection of the environment.

In recent years, however, the National Park Service, Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations decided that Drakes Estero should be turned into a legally defined wilderness area, and with that change, that the oyster farm should go. That decision was a flip-flop from what the same groups said three decades earlier.

In 1976, when Congress passed laws designating Drakes Estero as "potential wilderness," there was a remarkable consensus among the public - including the Park Service and environmental organizations - that the oyster farm should remain operating under wilderness designation in perpetuity. The Sierra Club, for example, argued that Drakes Estero could be put under the Wilderness Act "even while the oyster culture is continued - it will be a prior existing, non-conforming use." The co-sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Alan Cranston, Sen. John Tunney, and Rep. John Burton, all agreed that the oyster farm should continue. The oyster farm had a lease with the potential to be renewed in 2012.

Once the Park Service, Sierra Club, and others changed their minds and decided they wanted to remove the oyster farm, they presumably needed a justification for their flip-flop - some new information to turn public opinion - and elected officials - against the oyster farm, and thus against the permit renewal. That new information was so-called scientific evidence of environmental harm.

In 2007, National Park Service, led by then West Regional Director Jon Jarvis (who in 2009 under President Obama became NPS Director), announced that the oyster farm was polluting the water, smothering eelgrass, harming fish, and degrading the estero's ecosystem. Most alarmingly, in 2007, a park official who reported to Jarvis said the oyster farm's owners should be prosecuted for committing "environmental felonies" because the farm had allegedly caused an 80 percent decline in the local population of harbor seals, a federally protected marine mammal.

These charges were surprising. Clams, oysters, and other shellfish were an important part of the environment for Drakes Estero, just as they were for San Francisco Bay and other coastal bays and estuaries up and down the California coast, and around the world, before most were fished out or destroyed by pollution. Oysters actually provide environmental benefits by clarifying water, which is why they are being restored in projects around the world.

In 2007, the National Park Service refused to publicly share its data and analysis that led to the 80 percent decline claim. When Senator Dianne Feinstein intervened, the National Park Service reluctantly made the data available, and we learned why the agency had refused to act with transparency. The data did not support the Park's claim.

Harbor seals had indeed declined by 80 percent at one subsite--but that subsite was far from the oyster farm, in what was already a protected wilderness area. The decline correlated with an increase in disturbances from wildlife and human park visitors, not the farm. The seals simply moved to other neighboring sites, some actually closer to the oyster farm, as the overall population remained unchanged. Three years later, in 2010, the Park retracted their 80 percent decline claim.

As a result of the park's shenanigans, in 2007 the oyster farm owner asked Interior's Inspector General (IG) to investigate potential misconduct. In 2008, the IG released its report. It found that the National Park Service "had misrepresented research" and wrote that while the park scientist "denied any intentional misrepresentation," their investigation revealed the park scientist was privy to information contrary to her characterization and did nothing to correct the misinformation. The IG also determined that Interior lacked a scientific integrity policy.

Around the same time in 2007, Feinstein asked the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the park's claims and independently evaluate the data. In 2009, the Academy released its report. While asserting that it would not comment on potential misconduct (i.e., whether misrepresentations were intentional or not), the Academy found the National Park Service had "selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misinterpreted" the available data, and concluded that, at Drakes Estero, "there is a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects."

By 2010, the National Park Service had retracted most of the claims it had made against the oyster farm in 2006 and 2007. In early 2011, the Solicitor's Office of the Department of the Interior concluded that park officials and scientists had shown "bias," "advocacy," a "troubling mind-set," and that five employees had "violated [the National Park Service] Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct."

With the retraction of the false claims and rebukes by the National Academy of Sciences, Interior's Inspector General, and Interior's own lawyers, there was reason to hope that the park would end its misuse of science. However, with the renewal of the oyster farm's operating permit coming up in 2012, the NPS embarked on preparing an environmental impact statement to help guide the Secretary's decision of whether to renew the farm's permit. While preparing the EIS, the National Park Service doubled down, putting out still more claims of environmental harm. The main evidence for the renewed hardline policy was, again, harbor seals.

In 2007, the National Park Service initiated a secret program, with cameras hidden in dense brush, to gather digital photographs of seals and oyster boats, every minute of the day during pupping season for more than three years--for a total of more than 300,000 photographs. The Academy had asked NPS for all of its data, and even went so far as to write that resolving the controversy "... would require a data collection system that could be independently verified, such as time and date stamped photographs," yet park officials and scientist failed to disclose the existence of their ongoing data collection and analysis.

The secret cameras and the park's analysis of the photographs were uncovered in 2010, based on a leaked government document, followed by a Freedom of Information Act request. The detailed National Park Service logs of those photos revealed no disturbances to the seals by the oyster farm.

But the National Park Service was determined to find disturbances in those photos, so in 2012, as it was preparing its final EIS, and with the help of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, another branch of Interior), it asked one of the world's foremost marine mammal behavior experts, Dr. Brent Stewart of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, to re-analyze the enormous cache of photographs. In Stewart's May 2012 report, he found "no evidence of disturbance" of seals by oyster boats. This should have finally put the issue to rest. But it didn't.

In November 2012, the National Park Service released its environmental impact statement on the oyster farm. It concluded that the oyster farm had a significant "adverse impact" on harbor seals. Stewart's finding of "no evidence of disturbance" was doctored into a false finding of causation of disturbances, a clear case of scientific misconduct. Stewart protested to Interior that he was misquoted, but Interior refused to change its report.

A week later, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ruled against the oyster farm's permit renewal, citing, in part, the conclusions about environmental harm in the environmental impact statement. (He also cited the false claim that the Wilderness Act required the oyster farm to go.)

The Department of the Interior implemented a scientific integrity policy in 2011 in response to the President's promise. Interior's policy - if it had teeth - should have prevented this whole mess, but it did not: Interior officials and scientists knew the conclusion that NPS Director Jarvis wanted from the EIS in order to convince the Secretary to remove the oyster farm, and they appeared willing to change Stewart's findings to achieve that outcome.

Emails obtained by FOIA revealed the importance of Stewart's analysis to what NPS wanted to present to Salazar for his decision. For example, a USGS official wrote in February 2012: "the NPS needs this analysis done by the end of March to brief Secretary Salazar who needs to make a decision on Wilderness Status for the park." "This is a high profile project." Shortly before Stewart submitted his analysis in early May 2012, another USGS official wrote to him: "NPS is chomping at the bit (they've got deadlines for deciding on the permit)" and then again a few days later "NPS will be breathing down my neck this week, when do you think you'll be able to transmit something?"

My own involvement in this issue began back in 2007 when the President of the county board of supervisors contacted me and asked for my help in evaluating the National Park Service science vs. their claims. The county official knew me as a local resident, University of California Berkeley biology professor, elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, and someone who had been involved at the interface of science and public policy (i.e., in my prior role as Chair of the National Research Council's Board on Life Sciences). I was distressed by what I uncovered - a repeated pattern of dishonest science used by the National Park Service against the oyster farm. As a result of that discovery, I have been at the center of many of the investigations of false science. For example, I was the person who discovered the secret cameras, photos, and logs, and the person who discovered that Interior had altered Stewart's findings.

In December 2012, I alerted then-USGS Director Dr. Marcia McNutt (currently Editor of Science Magazine and soon-to-be President of the National Academy of Sciences) to the misrepresentation of Stewart's report since it involved USGS officials. She agreed the misrepresentation was serious, and said she would instruct her Scientific Integrity Officer to open an investigation. After many months, and with no response to repeated emails to McNutt or her Scientific Integrity Officer, I filed a formal scientific misconduct complaint in May 2013 with the Secretary of the Interior.

Pro bono lawyers representing the oyster farm filed suit in December 2012 asking a federal court to reverse the Salazar's decision to close down the farm, claiming the decision had been informed by false science. The Department of Justice represented the Department of Interior in court.

Justice has its own Scientific Integrity Policy. The policy states that Justice is "entrusted with awesome responsibilities and ... must pursue, rely upon and present evidence that is well-founded in fact and veracity." The policy requires that "When science ... forms the basis for the Department's [position], it is vital that the information relied upon be credible."

Department of Justice lawyers violated these lofty principles in court while defending the Interior secretary's decision. Even though they had been alerted by my court filings that the environmental impact statement misrepresented Stewart's finding, government lawyers continued to cite its claim that the farm causes adverse impacts on harbor seals. Both agencies - Interior and Justice - continued to cite the environmental impact statement as if it were fact, right up to the steps of the Supreme Court.

In June 2014, the Supreme Court denied the oyster farm's petition for a hearing. Months later, the oyster farm was gone.

What happened to the year-old scientific misconduct complaint that I formally filed with Interior in May 2013? It took Interior over eight months to interview the key witness, Dr. Stewart, as to whether his scientific report and conclusions had been altered by USGS and NPS officials (Stewart was never asked the key question). In November 2014, five months after the Department of the Interior won the court battle, the USGS Scientific Integrity Officer, Alan Thornhill, sent me a two-sentence dismissal to my 164-page misconduct complaint. He wrote: "... we did not find misconduct or a loss of scientific integrity and the case is dismissed." In Thornhill's very brief decision posted on Interior's web site, he concluded that USGS and NPS officials were following "standard practices," as if to say it is not misconduct to intentionally misrepresent scientific reports since Interior officials do it all the time (you'll see Interior use this defense in #2 below).

In dismissing the case, Thornhill never denied that USGS and NPS officials misrepresented Stewart's report. Moreover, he never acknowledged that he had indeed interviewed Stewart in writing, and that Stewart had not contradicted anything I had written in my complaint.

Thornhill also ignored Interior's definition of scientific misconduct involving "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" misrepresenting the facts. USGS and NPS officials remained silent on the misrepresentation of Stewart's analysis, did not correct their errors, and did not stop Justice from repeating the errors in federal court.

In January 2015, Michael Ames published a story in Newsweek that included the first public interview with Stewart on this issue. Ames wrote: "On May 3, 2012, Stewart filed his reports, determining there were no disturbances attributable to the oyster farm's boats. But when the USGS published its final report that November, Stewart discovered that his findings had been altered and that the study reached conclusions his research directly contradicted. 'It's clear that what I provided to them and what they produced were different conclusions and different values,' says Stewart. 'In science, you shouldn't do that.'"

But NPS and USGS officials and scientists did just that, and they got away with it.

Example #2: The Klamath River dams

Water use in the Klamath Basin in Oregon and California has been a source of conflict between tribes, farmers, environmentalists, a power company, and the governments for decades. In 2002, many blamed a massive Chinook salmon kill on an allegedly politically motivated decision by Interior and then Vice President Dick Cheney to divert water to farmers rather than to in-stream flows. A 2004 National Academy of Sciences report complicated the picture by concluding that poor water quality, rather than low in-stream flows, was the main risk to threatened and endangered species.

When the Obama administration came into office, it began considering a billion-dollar project to remove four dams on the Klamath River. There was never much doubt about the outcome: in 2009, Interior Secretary Salazar said that the proposal to remove the dams "will not fail."

In April 2011, the Bureau of Reclamation (an agency within Interior) hired Dr. Paul Houser as its Science Advisor and Scientific Integrity Officer--a position created after Interior released its scientific integrity policy in January 2011 (Houser is today professor of hydrometeorology at George Mason University).

In September 2011, Interior released a draft EIS for the dam removal project. Houser complained to his superiors that the draft EIS and its accompanying press release misrepresented the science panel report on the dam removal project, emphasizing the positive benefits without the uncertainties or negatives.

In February 2012, just one month before Interior Secretary Salazar was scheduled to formally make his decision, Dr. Houser was terminated. He believed this was retaliatory and intended to prevent him from investigating whether the final EIS was also tainted by scientific misconduct. In response, he filed a whistleblower complaint with Interior's Inspector General as well as a scientific misconduct complaint with Interior's Scientific Integrity Officer.

In March 2013, Interior released a report on Houser's scientific integrity complaint. The report was written by an outside consultant whose main client is Interior. The consultant was not asked to investigate Houser's actual complaint, but rather was given a set of questions written by Interior, and not allowed to interview witnesses. The report dismissed the charge of "misconduct" as "normal practice," and Interior's Scientific Integrity Officer, who reports to the Secretary of Interior, agreed.

In May 2013, the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources released a report on Interior's Inspector General, highlighting the Klamath River scientific integrity complaint because of what the Committee concluded were failures of both Interior and Interior's Inspector General.

The House Committee reported that an IG investigator thought it likely that Houser was terminated because Interior disagreed with his scientific analysis. The investigators thought the reasons cited by Interior for termination were "trivial." Still, Houser was not reinstated, and his whistleblower and misconduct complaints were quietly dismissed.

In 2012, Kate Sheppard published a story on Houser's case in Mother Jones. Sheppard wrote: "Advocates for transparency and good science within government agencies point out the apparent irony in firing a guy hired to enforce scientific integrity for his attempts to do just that. "I have to say, this doesn't smell right," said Francesca T. Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group that has been following the implementation of scientific integrity policy closely. "Interior is struggling to figure out what this policy means," she added, and has had difficulty implementing it. "[That] leaves giant holes that politics can drive through."

Conclusions

These two examples show that despite the President's promise to restore science to its rightful place, it has been business as usual in parts of his administration, with certain Federal agencies misusing science to support their ideology.

What have we learned about the scientific integrity policies in different federal agencies? Certain agencies, such as HHS, have a strong policy, whereas others, such as Interior, have a very weak one. First, Interior's policy provides no transparency, timeliness, and truly independent review. Second, it fails to deal with agency conflicts of interest. Third, it has no requirement to correct egregious errors. And fourth, it provides no accountability - no way to appeal decisions either administratively or in the courts.

Our country needs a single uniform scientific misconduct policy that applies to all federal agencies, not a series of individual policies that allow some agencies to continue to misuse science. Here are some key elements of what should be included.

• Create a uniform policy. The White House should issue a single uniform policy. The policy should be in the form of an Executive Order, binding on all federal agencies. The scientific community has waited patiently for over thirty years: it is time for a unified federal policy with some teeth.

• Don't allow exemptions. The federal policy should apply to all branches of government. For example, Inspector General offices believe the policy does not apply to them. No agency should be exempted from being held accountable for scientific misconduct.

• Conduct truly independent investigations. Allegations of scientific misconduct should be investigated by an office or agency that is truly independent of the agency accused of the misconduct. Independent investigators should be charged with investigating the allegations no matter where it takes them, who they need to interview, or what documents they need to demand. The results of investigations should be publicly released with a complete analysis.

If investigations are not independent, then conflicts of interest can develop. So long as (i) high-ranking officials pressing predetermined agendas have power over the investigators, (ii) outside consultants overseeing investigations have financial ties with those agencies, or (iii) investigators are controlled by pre-filtered questions, then truly independent review will never be accomplished.

• Pursue cases in a timely fashion. Investigations should be conducted in a timely manner, with the goal that each case should be resolved within six months. The current situation, in which an agency can stonewall for more than a year simply deciding whether to conduct an investigation, is unacceptable.

• Implement true whistleblower protections. Whistleblowers need actual protection. As Jeff Ruch, Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility commented on Houser's case (i.e., the Klamath River dams) as published in Greenwire in 2013: "If Interior's own Scientific Integrity Officers are not shielded from reprisal for doing their jobs, how in heaven's name could one expect a staff scientist to push back against political shenanigans?"

• Admit and correct errors. When egregious scientific errors are discovered, agencies should be required to correct them, including retracting papers and reports. The days of agency directors refusing to correct false science, or government lawyers presenting false science in federal court as if it is fact, has to come to an end.

• Ensure accountability. Persons responsible for violating the scientific integrity policy--or encouraging such violations--should be held accountable. Good science is too important to our democracy for misconduct to be rewarded with promotions. Investigators who find misconduct should recommend appropriate actions to inform the public and remediate any injuries caused by the misconduct.

President Obama is in his final year, and he still has time to get this right. But whatever happens this year, the scientific community, led by the National Academy of Sciences, should demand that the next President issue a government-wide policy that assures that all federal agencies have a scientific integrity policy as good as HHS and NIH.

About the Author

Dr. Corey Goodman is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, biotech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and retired University of California at Berkeley biology professor. Over the past several decades, he has played a variety of key roles at the federal and state level at the interface of science and public policy.