President Obama's memo on scientific integrity.

The full text of the memorandum is here. Let's look at some of the details.

Within 120 days from the date of this memorandum [March 9, 2009], the Director [of the Office of Science and Technology Policy] shall develop recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch, based on the following principles:

(a) The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate's knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity;

You'll notice that there's no mention here of political party, which is a serious step in the right direction. I am hopeful that the credentials and experience of candidates will be well scrutinized for potential conflicts of interest (like industry ties, or ties to "think tanks" that have better track-records of message control than of attending to scientific data and good explanations for those data).

Judging the candidate's integrity may actually be an interesting task. We tend to assume the integrity of scientists unless they've been caught being dishonest or unfair. Will the integrity-check go deeper than verifying the details of CVs, transcripts, and letters of recommendation?

(b) Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency;

This means scientific integrity matters whether we're talking about biomedical research, big physics projects, drug safety research, NASA, NOAA, Fish & Wildlife -- wherever there's science, it needs to be honest science, and there need to be policies in place to respond effectively to problems.

(c) When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards;

Policy that takes account of science, in other words, will be as grounded in possible in what the scientific community knows, based on the best available evidence. It doesn't matter what policy makers wish or hope the science shows, but what (as far as can be established as policy is being made) the science actually shows.

The reality-based community, in other words, has a seat at the table.

(d) Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions;

To me, this is a welcome move, both from the point of view of giving the public access to the knowledge that their tax dollars have paid to build, but also as a step away from paternalism. Rather than asking us to trust them that policy decisions are being grounded in sound scientific knowledge, federal agencies will be showing us the scientific findings that inform their decisions.

(e) Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised; and

This strikes me as a partner to (b). It isn't enough to have rules in place for when things go wrong or when people mess up; the agencies also need to be pro-active in anticipating ways things could go wrong, and to work to prevent problems before they happen.

(f) Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares.

Especially in the aftermath of the last administration, where we heard reports of government scientists being silenced, underlining that telling the truth is a good thing is pretty important. Science, after all, is in the business of giving us reliable information about the world.

I like this memorandum a lot. I am hopeful that it won't lose anything in the implementation.

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Will the integrity-check go deeper than verifying the details of CVs, transcripts, and letters of recommendation?

Given some recent problems with a few of Obama's nominees, I suspect they'll be checking to see whether folks have paid their taxes. I'd also hope they'd check to see whether people have properly acknowledged any potential conflicts of interest in their published work.

So long as "integrity" is understood to not mean political or "moral" integrity (ie: no Alan Turings being given the boot on account of being gay).

Also: it's ok for an administration to act in ways that science doesn't like - but that administration must admit that such decisions are expressly political/economic/governmental, and not use phony science to defend them.

Also: when scientists are speaking about matters of fact about the natural world, they are being scientists (that includes evaluating the effects of human activity). When they are campaigning for science (eg, science in schools, more funding for project X), then they are bureaurocrats or citizens. And that's ok.