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New Interior Department guidelines seek to protect integrity of science, researchers from political interference

The U.S. Interior Department announced Tuesday new protections for scientific researchers, and the work they produce, from political pressure and manipulation.

The Washington Post has the details:

The new scientific-integrity policy applies to the department’s 67,000 employees as well as its contractors, grant recipients and volunteers when they analyze or share scientific information with reporters and the public or use the department’s information to make policy or regulatory decisions, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The hiring and promotion of officials should be based on “knowledge, credentials and experience relevant to the responsibility of the position,” according to the new policy, which also requires the public distribution of scientific and scholarly work not protected by government secrecy laws.

The new policy “sets forth clear expectations for all employees – political and career – to uphold the principles of scientific integrity, and establishes a process for impartial review of alleged breaches of those principles,” Salazar said in a statement.

In addition, the new policy aims to shield government whistleblowers from scrutiny.

The rules detail new whistle-blower protections and say workers may share their findings with reporters without manipulation by public affairs officials. Department employees are encouraged to work with professional organizations and societies, as long as they don’t create conflicts of interest.

Allegations of scientific or scholarly misconduct will be investigated within 60 days, and officials will work to ensure that unfounded allegations don’t negatively affect an employee’s reputation, the department said.

A multitude of evidence shows the George W. Bush administration tampered with scientific study for political means. A 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (PDF) found “manipulation, suppression, and misrepresentation of science” for political gain to be “unprecedented” during the first term of the Bush administration. The report documented various violations, including “a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies”; “a wide- ranging effort to manipulate the government’s scientific advisory system to prevent the appear- ance of advice that might run counter to the administration’s political agenda”; and “evidence that the administration often imposes restrictions on what government scientists can say or write about “sensitive” topics.”

While installing these safeguards, the Obama administration has not been immune to its own stretching of scientific findings. The administration received wide criticism last August — and again when the national oil spill commission issued a report — when the president’s environmental policy adviser Carol Browner suggested the “vast majority” of oil in the Gulf of Mexico was gone.

Study on climate change has been the most glaring issue involving the politicization of science. For example, The Texas Independent reported late last year on allegations from scientists that the staff of Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas highly influenced a study that refuted another report on climate change’s impact on Earth.

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