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US oceans and atmosphere agency releases scientific integrity policy

noaa_logo_small.pngIt has been a long time in the making, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finally released its scientific integrity policy, which prohibits agency employees from distorting science and protects the rights of NOAA scientists to speak openly about their work and to report wrongdoing. The policy applies to thousands of NOAA employees who conduct research on climate, ocean oil spills, marine mammals, and other sometimes controversial topics.

Jane Lubchenco, who directs the agency, announced the policy on 7 Dec. at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. She said the policy is designed to “protect scientific findings from being suppressed, distorted or altered, to strengthen science and to encourage a culture of transparency.”

When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and his administration moved to quickly develop scientific integrity policies for each agency, but the process stalled and the administration has published final policies for just a few agencies.

NOAA’s new policy gets high marks from Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has reviewed the draft policies issued by federal agencies. NOAA’s is “the best that I’ve seen,” says Grifo. One highlight is that NOAA has committed to publically release statistics regarding the number of allegations and investigations on scientific integrity issues, something that will allow watchdog groups to track how such problems are being handled.

She still has some concerns about the protections in place for NOAA employees, especially whistelblowers. Although the new NOAA policy prohibits managers or others from punishing whistleblowers, the policy on its own will not offer true protection because court cases have weakened federal protections for whistleblowers, she says. It will ultimately require broader action by Congress and the administration to get stronger protections in place, says Grifo.

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