Perhaps no federal agency is a bigger hypocrite when it comes to scientific integrity than the Department of Interior, according to a new analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). When the first complaints by whistleblowing scientists were upheld under its Scientific Integrity Policy, the agency completely rewrote that policy – with no public notice and one week before Christmas – to preclude any more such outcomes.
President Biden’s newly convened Scientific Integrity Task Force is charged with determining why the Scientific Integrity Policies adopted under President Obama did not work. PEER is presenting the Task Force with the Interior experience as the epitome of what is wrong with these policies. Among its many rollbacks, the December 2014 Interior rewrite –
- Insulated political appointees, freeing them to censor or alter scientific documents;
- Eliminated penalties for violations and even precluded review panels from recommending discipline for violators; and
- Allowed agency managers to hand-pick who would investigate allegations.
Interior adopted these changes after Review Panels found two Fish & Wildlife Service managers guilty of egregious misconduct. The managers (one of whom was a friend of the agency director) were never punished while the whistleblowing scientists were hit with a total of ten suspensions.
“Interior’s Scientific Integrity Policy works like a rigged casino – the house wins every hand,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, noting that besides the absence of public notice, Interior did not even itemize the many changes honeycombed through its new policy, which went into immediate effect. “Interior was developing one of the stronger policies in federal service, and, overnight, transformed it into one of the weakest.”
In the period since Interior adopted its Scientific Integrity Policy in February 2011 through December 2014, a total of 27 complaints of scientific misconduct were filed and resolved. Almost all those complaints were rejected out-of-hand as not even meriting an investigation. Only two were upheld following investigation by a Review Team – the two Fish & Wildlife Service cases. In the period between 2015 and 2021, the agency reports a total of 37 complaints filed and resolved. Of those, 34 were found to have no merit. Two of the cases found to have merit involved plagiarism, one by a USGS volunteer; none of these cases involved a manager.
“Judging by its official track record of program, Interior has no scientific integrity problems – at least none of any significance has been found,” added Whitehouse. “We hope that the Scientific Integrity Task Force will take notice of what happened in Interior and correct it.”