DOI’s New ‘Scientific Integrity’ Policy Fools No One

Well, we can all rest assured that the federal government — or at least the scientific activities carried out and overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior — will be free from corruption and outside influence. I’m being cynical, of course.

Perhaps with positive intentions but naïve expectations (in true accordance with the president’s character) the department has established a new policy to “maintain the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities used in departmental decision making.”

It’s a great idea, in theory: regulate the ethics of the government. In fact, Secretary Salazar and his PR team have invented a genius strategy to inflate not only the department’s image, but also that of President Obama and his administration.

Except we all know that law and ethics are not the same. Regulating ethics with a vague and subjective “policy” is like putting a bowl of candy in front of a four year old and telling her not to eat it: You’re stating a rule, but you’re not enforcing it — in fact, by instituting broad guidelines instead of drafting specific laws, you’re actually enabling the behavior.

“Regulating ethics with a vague and subjective ‘policy’ is like putting a bowl of candy in front of a four year old and telling her not to eat it.”

According to a statement from the DOI, the new “Scientific Integrity” policy will “use clear and unambiguous codes of conduct for scientific and scholarly activities to define expectations for those covered by this policy.”

When these “unambiguous codes of conduct” are stated in writing and are actually enforced, please feel free to correct me. But as of right now, the policy remains pretty vague, with goals such as these:

  • Facilitate the free flow of scientific and scholarly information, consistent with privacy and classification standards, and in keeping with the Department’s Open Government Plan;
  • Facilitate the sharing of best administrative and management practices that promote the integrity of the Department’s scientific and scholarly activities; and
  • Encourage the enhancement of scientific and scholarly integrity through appropriate, cooperative engagement with the communities of practice represented by professional societies and organizations.

What I think we all want to know is, will this policy really make a difference in upholding the ethics of the way science is used to formulate and influence policy? Forgive my cynicism, but the answer is no.

Will the agricultural, pharmaceutical and oil behemoths — and their lobbying counterparts — still have control over policymakers’ decisions of whether to enforce scientifically ethical behavior? Unfortunately, yes.

Can we do anything about it? Actually, yes. Despite all the government bureaucracy, people still have the power to effect change — look at the current uprising in Egypt, or any revolution for that matter. We can voice our opinions, air our concerns and urge our representatives to make the right decisions. Hey, if they want to be re-elected, believe me — they’ll listen.

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