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Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Politicizing Science at the US Dept. of Energy

How does encouraging scientists to criticize government policy enhance scientific integrity?

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The US Department of Energy (DOE) describes itself as the “largest federal sponsor of basic research in physical sciences.” It consumes $32 billion in federal spending annually, funding numerous projects connected to climate change and renewable energy.

Earlier this month, the DOE decided its scientific integrity policy, last updated in 2014, was wholly inadequate. With nine days remaining in the Obama administration, energy Secretary Ernest Moniz unveiled a brand new policy at the National Press Club.

The old policy was three pages long. The new one runs to seven pages, and represents a dramatic departure from what had been the status quo.

Under the old policy, DOE-affiliated scientists were only permitted to speak about scientific matters to the media or at public events after they’d received permission from “their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office.” By referencing “proposed interviews” that didn’t happen, the policy made it clear such permission wasn’t always forthcoming.

The new policy sweeps away these roadblocks. Specific categories of research involving classified or sensitive topics are exempted, but the main thrust is to declare that all “scientists, engineers, or others supported by DOE,” are now “free.” To talk to whomever they want, whenever and as frequently as they desire.

And not just about their own research. Bizarrely, these individuals are also being urged to express personal opinions about government policy. In the space of half a page, the new document says scientists

are free and encouraged to share their scientific findings and views

…personnel are also free to share their personal views and opinions on scientific or technical related policy matters, provided they do not attribute these views to the U.S. Government…

…personnel are free and encouraged to discuss their scientific work and research openly, whether in a scientific or a public forum or with the media…”

…personnel are free to discuss their personal opinions on scientific and technical related policies…. [italics added]

Instead of seeking permission, DOE personnel must now merely notify their manager “and appropriate DOE communications and public affairs offices” regarding their “interactions with the news media.” Gone is the requirement to tell anyone about events that involve the public. Also gone is any mention of a timeframe.

In other words, if a government-funded scientist chooses to voice controversial personal opinions – say, as a panelist at a public event – that scientist isn’t required to warn his or her department’s PR personnel beforehand. It’s perfectly OK if those PR folks are caught entirely off guard by a pack of journalists seeking an official comment late on a Sunday evening.

Last month you would have been in big trouble if you spoke to a journalist or delivered a speech prior to receiving the blessing of your boss and the communications department. This month the gates have been flung wide. You’re being encouraged – that is precisely the word used five times in this document – to talk to all and sundry. You’re also being explicitly invited to share your opinions on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and so forth. (Using “digital media” to express yourself is now recognized as a “right.”)

Nowhere in these seven pages is there any acknowledgment that science is one thing and public policy is another. We wouldn’t ask a policy analyst to carry out scientific research, so why are scientists being incited to talk about matters well beyond their area of professional expertise? Why are personal opinions mentioned repeatedly in a document that purports to be about scientific integrity?

The old, three-page policy said DOE scientists could only publish their research in scholarly journals with “prior approval by their supervisor.” The new policy says they’re free to publish government funded research, conducted at government funded institutions, at their own discretion. They merely need to let their supervisor know about it.

The old policy said DOE personnel could only participate in scientific meetings, professional and scholarly societies, task forces, and so forth with “prior written approval by their supervisor.” According to the new policy, they’re now at liberty to engage in any of these activities without even alerting their supervisor.

I’ve explained previously that, after promising to lead the most transparent government in history, the Barack Obama administration prosecuted whistleblowers and leakers more aggressively than any other in history. In that context, the new paragraph about protecting whistleblowers is a grotesque joke. (The 2014 policy contained a single, vague sentence.)

I’m a journalist. From my perspective, the fact that thousands of federal scientists may now speak fully and publicly is a welcome development. But I’m also a journalist who is appalled by activist scientists – by individuals who habitually make authoritative-sounding statements about matters miles beyond their own narrow area of expertise. Being an expert in one thing does not make you an expert in everything.

Liberating scientists to talk about their research is sensible. Emboldening them to express personal opinions about government policy (to behave, in other words, in an overtly political manner) is not. It’s no secret that most scientists vote Democrat. Since a Republican is currently occupying the White House, what do we expect these thousands of newly unleashed scientists to say when, for example, President Donald Trump extricates his country from the pointless, expensive, and regressive Paris climate agreement?

During President Obama’s eight years in power, DOE-affiliated scientists were required to live by particular rules. If those rules were such an affront to scientific integrity why did they remain in place until the last minute?

The obvious answer is that, under the guise of championing sound science, something else is going on here. Following the event at the National Press Club, the Washington Post ran a story under the headline: “On eve of Trump, Obama’s Energy Department announces new policy to protect scientists.” It points out that any attempt by the Trump administration to reverse this policy will “invite controversy.” In other words, the entire exercise is a trap, a set-up, a crass political attempt to sabotage a political rival.

The Obama administration went to extreme and unprecedented lengths to control and manage the media narrative. This new policy renders that nearly impossible. Every dawning day now includes the possibility that a politically-motivated scientist has said something salacious to a journalist somewhere, with the potential of generating headlines and damaging the government.

Public debate may be enlivened over the next few years, but it’s unclear how urging scientists to get out there and express their personal opinions will promote scientific integrity. The DOE seems not to have considered the possibility that, if the public concludes that scientists are just another interest group pushing their own agenda, enthusiasm for spending those of tens of billions annually might decline precipitously.

The bottom line is that we’re looking at two dramatically different sets of rules: The rules the Obama administration was prepared to live by – and the rules it sneakily imposed on President Trump on its way out the door.

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