Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
Guest Host: Diane Vogel
Government scientists have sometimes complained that their findings are “doctored” in support of — or opposition to — a political position. We explore the ongoing concerns about altering scientific findings for non-scientific reasons and muzzling scientists who want to talk to the press.
- Francesca Grifo Senior Scientist, Director, Scientific Integrity Program, Union of Concerned Scientists
- David Goldston Director of Government Affairs, Natural Resources Defense Council
MS. DIANE VOGELWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington. I'm Diane Vogel, Kojo's managing producer sitting in today. And we're talking about scientific integrity in the government and ensuring that politics stays out of the lab. We've just heard -- we just heard from the Department of Interiors first ever new scientific integrity officer, Ralph Morgenweck. He did a good job explaining to us the policy that came out on February 1st, giving us an idea of how it applies to both scientists and perhaps, more importantly, political appointees who often are above scientists in the ranks and who often make decisions that the bases of which are based on scientific evidence.
MS. DIANE VOGELAnd as you may or may not know, over the years, there have been critics who say that lawmakers or regulators sometimes compromise the science a little bit to get it to match their political agenda. So having listened to Professor Morgenweck, we thought we would turn to two others who keep a close eye on science and public policy and invite them to tell us what's gone on so far and what else needs to be done.
MS. DIANE VOGELIn the studio with us now, our, Francesca Grifo. She's the senior scientist and the director of scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Francesca, thank you for being here.
MS. FRANCESCA GRIFOMy pleasure, thank you.
VOGELAnd David Goldston, you are the director of government affairs at the National Resources Defense Council. And for a long time, you were the chief of staff for the House Committee on science, right? Welcome to "The Kojo Show."
MR. DAVID GOLDSTONThanks for having me.
VOGELWell, thank you both for coming back. I know you've been on the show before and, in fact, I was looking at the fact that three years ago, we had a similar conversation and, in fact, the three -- you were on with another person as well. Three of you sat around for a full hour talking about, at the time, what the administration, which was a different administration, was doing. And what we thought with regard to scientific integrity, how that would have to be embodied into new policies because perhaps there were people who were now in political positions who weren't paying it as much deference.
VOGELGiving science the deference and the respect that perhaps it needed and at the time, of course, making any public policy decision there for maybe even suspect because relying on scientific data that had then gone through the meat grinder of a political appointees office. There might be some questions about how accurate it remained after all of that. I know that the two of you just sat out in our greenroom, listening to Ralph Morgenweck, from the Department of Interior talk. And I'm wondering, please just start, what things did you hear him say?
VOGELWere you happy with what he had to say? Did it worry you? Was he thinking enough like a scientist, not enough like a scientist? Francesca, maybe you want to start.
GRIFOThank you. No. I was very heartened by what I heard him say. I think that he recognizes what a complex and difficult task he has ahead of him to really put the flesh on the bones of what we so far have as this policy. And I just was particularly thrilled to hear him talk about the distinction between, you know, what is a political decision and what is a scientific decision and the need for us to clarify that difference. And I even heard a little passion in his voice so I'm hopeful.
VOGELAnd David Goldston, you as well?
GOLDSTONYes. Pretty much the same reaction. The -- I think it's a major achievement that the Department of Interior has been able to put this together. I think people probably don't realize how much internal negotiation and navigation has to happen before a policy like this is put together. And it really requires someone to say, we're really gonna do this because at any point, people may just say this is not worth all the additional meetings.
GOLDSTONIt's especially important that it happen at the Department of Interior because the Department probably had the most clear-cut egregious examples of political interference with science than the last administration, where there were clear examples where people were actually told to change their results. I would say there are some things that need -- that this policy doesn't cover all the aspects. It's not intended to. There's probably several different aspects of science and policy and this covers some of them.
GOLDSTONThe main one that this covers is someone being actually asked to change their scientific results, which is a pretty clear-cut question of what everyone would consider scientific integrity. There are issues about how advisory committees are used, which the presidential policy gets into a bit, but this one doesn't so much. There are issues about how agencies review the science, including outside science and how that is used in science policy. There are issues that Francesca talked about what's science and what's policy, where that really isn't dealt with here explicitly, except in one place.
GOLDSTONAnd then, right now, there are also issues about who's gonna make decisions about science-based policy on regulations, the administration or the Congress, which is another area which certainly this policy can't get into. So there's a whole range of issues on the science and policy intersection that this deals with one piece of it -- one important piece.
VOGELYeah. Well, let's talk a little bit specifically about the few things you think are missing from this policy here and then we'll move onto that bigger picture about Congress because I have to admit, as I was doing the research for this show, I was shocked to learn of some of the proposals that, you know, Congress has to approve the science of certain things. And I thought to myself, oh, that's what we need. Yes. Congress ever known for clarifying science, you know.
VOGELSo I would like to get there. But let's start with a few of the things that you see as particularly missing from the scientific integrity rules as you see them. And if you would, while you're doing that, you did mention that Department of Interior had some of the most egregious problems in the last administration. Without going back and reiterating a whole thing, if you can, give us a couple of the reference points for that.
VOGELBecause we might remember, for instance, when I mentioned to Mr. Grifo -- to Mr. Morgenweck, the arsenic in the water debate, that one I remembered. I had forgotten it was EPA. But sometimes we just need a little thing to trigger our memory remembering that a NASA scientist was asked to change something or so on. So Francesca, if you'd start, what is lacking from this policy? What are the good? What are the bad?
GRIFOWell, I mean, I think one of the great things about it is that it does apply to career employees, political appointees and contractors. And previously, we had ethics rules at the Department of Interior that were only, you know, for career and that seemed really punitive. So this is great. It's equal opportunity. I think it really does a great job of encouraging full participation for scientists in the scientific community.
GRIFOAnd I think it, you know, it reaffirms peer review. It does a lot of things. What's missing to me, in a nutshell, is additional aspects of transparency. I mean, transparency equals accountability and if we can't see what's going on inside of an agency, while the current folks are for the most part very well intentioned, we don't know who's coming next. We don't know who else is in there that isn't so well intentioned.
GRIFOSo transparency is really the only way or one of the most important ways to get to that. You can't outlaw bad science because what was bad science this month could have been great science six months ago.
GRIFOSo that gets very dicey. So in terms of the transparency, I know you asked him about the media policy. I was very glad to hear him talk about the difference between a personal view and a policy view in speaking for the agency. We need that down on paper. We need some assurance that scientists will be able to have the last review of summary documents that use their research because, again, in that translation, things can get changed.
GOLDSTONWe need him to, you know, really affirm, and maybe this is, you know, Secretary Salazar, that public affairs officials are gate -- are not gatekeepers, but are, in fact, facilitators of getting information out. That's so important. Things like no preapproval, but that, you know, when a scientist does an interview, they do have the obligation to give notice when they can and come back and recap that for the public affairs folks.
GRIFOBut this gatekeeper having minders on the phone, it really was a big problem in the last administration. So I think those are all transparency pieces. Visitor logs - it would be lovely and important to know who these folks are meeting with. Publication policy - Fish and Wildlife Service has a gold standard publication policy. It would be awesome to see that extended to all of Department of Interior and also as a model across many agencies.
GRIFOAnd there are issues with where this policy doesn't quite give us the details that we need in terms of advisory committees and what is a conflict of interest. The last one I'll touch on quickly, because I think it's very important, is this notion of the science that is the, you know, basis for a policy decision. There is no reason why that cannot be shared publicly. Now, what the policymakers want to do with that, that's predecisional, that's all complicated.
GRIFOBut for us to have that science in the public's, you know, in a public place, really prevents interference with that science when another agency reviews, or when (word?) reviews and so on. So those are the big pieces.
VOGELUm-hum. And are there some that Francesca may have left out...
VOGEL...David Goldston, or are we...
GOLDSTONNo. I think that was a pretty comprehensive list.
VOGELI think so, too.
GOLDSTONI would -- the one I'd emphasize, which Francesca eluded to, about transparency is the documents if -- under this policy, if a scientist raises a complaint and it does get to a review, the record to that is totally closed to the public. And there's obviously understandable reasons for that, but there probably ought to be some way for there to be some sense for the outside -- a log that such cases occurred without names. Maybe something that would at least give some indication to the public about what was going on.
GOLDSTONAre there more or less of these complaints in one administration or another? That would be useful data. So that's one area. The other is, and Dr. Morgenweck talked about this in terms of what happens if there -- if the problem is with political appointees. There's no way to go outside the department in any of this. So the -- for example, the panels that are set up to investigate a case where there's a problem here are all Interior Department employees.
GOLDSTONSo that might be another thing that requires some looking at. But I think the biggest issues are the ones where this policy purposely hasn't really dealt with those issues yet, like the advisory committee piece.
VOGELUm-hum. Now, there is -- when you guys talk about Fish and Wildlife and having some of the best and some -- Interior having some of the worst examples, I know that there's a case of a former Fish and Wildlife official, Julie McDonald, that some people use as an example of what you don't ever want to see happen again. So David, I don't know if you're the right person to synopsize or Francesca. What -- just give us a synopsis of what happened there and whether or not rules like this might prevent it in the future.
GOLDSTONWell, Francesca can probably deal with the details better than I can, but the basic was that Julie McDonald was a political appointee in the Bush administration who was accused of asking scientists to change their results and their conclusions on matters of whether a certain species should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Eventually, the inspector general raised issues and most of those decisions were actually later reversed, in one case by a court, because it was seen that the science was actually tampered with.
GOLDSTONThat's the most clear-cut kind of example and that's really the kind of interference that this policy is most focused on. Contrast that with the arsenic example you gave with EPA, we certainly supported stronger arsenic rules. But there the issue was, given the particular science, what policy conclusion were you gonna base on it, rather than an issue about how the science itself was used. And most of the science involved in that wasn't done internally to EPA. It was outside studies.
VOGELUm-hum. Well, I -- our time is running is so quickly. I wanted to make sure that we did get our audience back into the conversation. Bob in Dagsboro, Delaware. Bob -- I think he has a question that might be best asked to Francesca, but I'm not sure. It might be something you'll take, David. Go ahead, Bob. You're on the air.
BOBThank you so much for the opportunity to express what happened to me when my authorship of a work for the public health service in cleaning up radium (unintelligible) in the '50s, was plagiarized by three levels above my position as an officer in a public health service to author a scientific paper of the results of the arsenic of a radium clinic operated by -- in Baltimore. And it was -- I refused travel and I made the trip on my own to listen to my most senior office rank of an Admiral give the address to the convention in Chicago, and the co-author was an official from Baltimore when (unintelligible) torched several theories of radium-bearing therapy.
BOBAnd I listened as he gave the talk and then saw questions by other fellow industrial hygienists he couldn't answer, and he then raced off and said, well I have to catch a plane. Bob has the slides, Gallagher why don't you go ahead and give your talk. I left the -- gave it (unintelligible)
BOB(unintelligible) plagiarism and how you have the -- something built in roles that you do verify that the authorship has not been pressured into having either a co-author, or a senior officer as usurp with the authorship.
VOGELOkay. Terrific, Bob, for that question. And I'll say that as somebody who worked a research analyst for, you know, professors and others, I don't think the scientists in the government are the only ones who have their work appropriated by seniors who put their name on it first before they put yours on. But Francesca, go ahead.
GRIFOWell, Bob, I think one of the things that you've brought up is that this is not limited to the Department of the Interior. That this is a problem across...
VOGELAnd it's not a new problem.
GRIFOAnd it's not a new problem. It's across many, many agencies. You know, we hear so often from, you know, drug reviewers at the Food and Drug Administration, and again, across many, many agencies. I think the issues that you're raising are really important, and I think that if we had the details that we want in a publication policy, that would be laid out there. Authorship, clearance in the agency for permission to go to a meeting and present at a meeting, and so on, those are exactly the kind of details that, you know, we are hoping in the next couple of months we will see added to this policy.
VOGELThank you, Bob, for your call. Let's take one more quick call from Michael in Greenbelt. Michael, you're on the air.
VOGELHi. Go ahead. Let's make your call or comment quick, if we can, because we're running down on time.
MICHAELSure, okay. How does policy influence global warming data?
VOGELI think that's a good question. That's a pretty general one. We could probably talk about it for hours. So let me see, Francesca or David, want to take a whack?
GOLDSTONWell, there have been some cases where people have talked about issues that relate to the scientific integrity question, and Francesca can probably go through those. I would say the -- in the case of global warming, it -- the debate isn't -- hasn't been so much about the kinds of scientific integrity or plagiarism issues, but politicians just saying, we just don't accept the results period.
GOLDSTONNot telling the scientists not to do the research, not interfering with the way they're doing the research, but just absolutely rejecting, often without any real data other than ideological cause, the results of that research. And that's a big problem obviously. And then there's also related to that the policy debate about what we do in response to global warming. So on that one, I'd say there's a piece of it that has -- that's related to the kinds of problems that this policy has been -- that is designed to attack.
GOLDSTONMost of those haven't been within the Department of Interior, but the bigger issue is just people saying, I don't care what the scientists say, I don't believe this.
GRIFOBut I think we also saw, in the last administration, a lot of uncertainty and sowing of doubt inserted into what was, you know, fairly well accepted, if not, you know, consensus science. And that was a problem. We also saw a lot of muzzling of scientists. Jim Hanson at NASA, who was famous and high enough up at NASA to be able to go public with it, but we certainly know that many of his colleagues and others were certainly suppressed.
GRIFOAnd I think, you know, any place that we see regulation -- a regulatory agency where the science bumps up against a regulation, that's where we see, you know, the real temptation, and the real actual implementation of this interference.
VOGELThanks, Michael for your call. And David, let's move on for a moment to the political discussion here because I think as we talk about the last administration, a lot of people might say, oh, this is just a bunch of, you know, pro-Obama Democrats or people who want to make this happen for this administration. We heard, of course, from Bob, the example that went back to the 1950s so we know that political interference has gone on over the years in many places.
VOGELMany administrations, both sides of the aisle, perhaps. But I understand that you used to be, as I said, a former chief of staff for the House Committee on Science. You can tell us what years those were and who were your, you know, whether that was a majority Republican House or majority Democrat House at the time. But I understand that up on Capitol Hill, scientific integrity is getting a lot of attention these days as well.
GOLDSTONYes. So I was chief of staff from 2001 through 2006, although I was on the House staff longer than that. And the chair then was Congress Sherwood Boehlert, who was a Republican from New York.
GOLDSTONThe issue right now is this question of -- that I listed earlier, which is who the administration or the Congress should be the final arbiter of new regulations, new safeguards that come out. And the most significant proposal is one called the Reins Act, R-E-I-N-S, that would require Congress to specifically approve within 70 days any major regulation that -- before it can go into effect. This really shifts in a radical way that hasn't been the case for a hundred years, the notion of who's going to decide how these laws are actually implemented.
GOLDSTONThe laws themselves, and the policies, absolutely are the purview of Congress and they set them, but then these individual decisions, we've tried to make more scientific, more technical, and even when there's a policy question, less explicitly political. And so Congress has wisely delegated over the years these decisions to agencies that can make these decisions in a thoughtful, judicious, and science-based way. That's true of what drugs get regulated, what's the safe level of a pollutant, all those kinds of issues.
GOLDSTONWhat an endangered species is. Congress can always come back in if it wants and have the last word, but the process has been Congress gives the general policy guidelines, then experts who are somewhat insulated from politics get to make the decision on regulations. This would reverse all that and mean every decision would be an explicitly political decision.
VOGELAnd that would seem to me that what it really is, too, is it's changing again checks and balances in that that's -- all those agencies are executive branch agencies, which also opens a new can of worms, I would imagine.
GOLDSTONIt definitely would be a major shift of authority between the executive branch and the legislative branch. And again, that didn't happen just because people were interested in power or were too lazy to make a decision. It happened because the feeling was, to get these decisions right for the American public, the more likely place to have that would be these executives in the executive branch with Congress able to come in if something seemed egregiously out of whack, rather than having a political fight and a test of wills where immediate political power might be what makes the decision each time a new regulation comes out.
VOGELWell, I'm gonna have to let that be the last word and that's breaking my heart because there's so much more to talk about. What I am going to say is at least three months from now or so, I'm preempting the offer to invite you both back. Good thing about being managing producer is I can say that for sure. I will have you guys back in about three months. We'll do an update on what other agencies have come out with scientific integrity data or rules.
VOGELFrancesca Grifo is a senior scientist, director of scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists. David Goldston is the director of government affairs with the National Resources Defense Council. I'm Diane Vogel sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. You've been listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks so much for listening.
GOLDSTONThanks for having us.
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