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Guest Host: Diane Vogel
Shortly after taking office, President Obama called on federal agencies to address concerns that government science is sometimes tailored for political ends. The Interior Department’s first Science Integrity Officer joins us to explain his new job, and the department’s new integrity policy.
- Ralph Morgenweck Science Integrity Officer, Department of the Interior
MS. DIANE VOGELFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Diane Vogel sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, over the years you've no doubt read stories about government scientists complaining that their findings are sometimes well doctored, doctored to fit somebody else's political agenda. Maybe they complain they haven't been able to talk freely to the press or that there hasn't been enough protection for them once they speak up to their superiors.
MS. DIANE VOGELAllegations of scientific manipulations gained steam a lot over the past decade during the Bush administration and President Obama, in March 2009, called early in his administration for new rules governing the integrity of government science. The areas of greatest concern are usually environmental protection and drug approvals, but there are others, too many of which rely heavily on science to back up far-reaching policy decisions.
MS. DIANE VOGELWell, now here we are 18 months after the president -- or 20 months after the president first made that announcement and the Department of the Interior is the first executive agency to step forward, not only with a new set of rules, but with a new scientific integrity officer. And being first usually means being closely watched. Policy makers and science advocates are paying close attention as the Interior Department rolls out its new rules. Joining us today to talk about the new rules are the Department of Interior's first scientific integrity officer, Ralph Morgenweck.
MS. DIANE VOGELMr. Morgenweck is joining us by phone from Colorado, I believe. Mr. Morgenweck, are you there?
MR. RALPH MORGENWECKI am indeed.
VOGELExcellent. Good to have you here, sir. Thank you so much for joining us.
MORGENWECKThank you for inviting me. I appreciate it.
VOGELMost definitely, this is a conversation that I know is of interest to our audience, to anyone who thinks that it's important that science not get overwhelmed by policy or politics. But I was curious because when I looked at your background, I realized that you'd been with the Department of Interior for several decades and it seems to me that you probably were there and you've heard or seen allegations or complaints of government manipulation or political manipulation of government science. So I'm wondering where were you in March of 2009 when you heard about the president's government memorandum on scientific integrity and what were your first thoughts when you heard about it? What position were you in? What were you thinking?
MORGENWECKWell, I was the senior science advisor to the Fish and Wildlife Service at the time of the memorandum from the president and I was heartened by the memorandum because I think that it lays out the right kind of atmosphere, if you will, for scientific integrity in the federal government and I certainly support that.
VOGELUm-hum. And when you say you were the scientific advisor at the Fish and Wildlife Service, for those of us who don't think a lot about how the government does their work, can you break down a little bit for us the types of work government scientists within either the Fish and Wildlife Service specifically or within the Department of Interior, the kind of work that government scientists are doing?
MORGENWECKWell, they do a wide variety of things depending on the bureau that they work for. So, for example, the U.S. Geological Survey is a world-renown research institution that does work on geology, does work on biology, hydrology, oil and gas, a wide, wide variety of topic areas.
MORGENWECKOther bureaus, such as the Bureau of Reclamation, do a lot of work on water, water modeling, water management in the Western part of the United States. Fish and Wildlife Service does a lot of work on fish culture and on endangered species. The Parks Service does a lot of work on cultural resources and on historical locations, historical buildings, that kind of thing. So the Department of Interior has this broad portfolio that has scientific applications threaded all through it.
VOGELNow it is a massive organization and one that I think most Americans probably don't realize when they're coming into contact with pieces of it, whether it's a USGS satellite map that, you know, is helping them do something or a way in which somebody is deciding how much. I don't know if the arsenic in groundwater was one of yours or if that was another department, but I remember that conversation of whether -- in the last administration whether we should treat, you know, 50 milligrams of arsenic in the water as something important -- and I'm getting the number wrong.
MORGENWECKBut yeah, and I think a lot of that, the water quality standards, are the purview largely of EPA, but certain bureaus in the Department of Interior would also be interested in that information as it relates to, say, fish toxicity for example...
MORGENWECK...and the impact of people eating those fish. So while we may not be the ones setting the standards, we're certainly involved and certainly interested in what that work is.
VOGELUm-hum. Now tell me the steps that have happened since March of 2009 when the government -- when the president issued this government memorandum. You were in a different position. How did you now become the top science integrity officer at the Department of Interior and what is this process? Because the new rules that you've issued, it's my understanding they're not final rules yet, right? They're a work in progress?
MORGENWECKWell, while we have them out as the rules under which we are currently operating, we recognize that we didn't hit a homerun, to use a baseball analogy. I think we probably got a good solid double out of it and we know that there's going to be some work, some additional modifications as we gain experience with these new policies and these new rules. So we know that there's more work to be done, but we need to put this in place.
MORGENWECKWe need to start using it. We need to get experience with it and we need to be listening to critics, both inside as well as outside the Department of Interior, who are saying to us, well, you know, here's an area that you might consider for improvement or here's something maybe you didn't think about enough. And so that's the process that we're in right now.
MORGENWECKAs a matter of fact, the group that developed the departmental manual chapter, which is our policy, that group is staying together for at least six months because we will be gathering these kinds of inputs and be looking at making modifications to the policy down the road.
VOGELAnd if I can respectfully ask you or let you know that we're going to have some critics after we finish our conversation with you in about 15 minutes. We will hear from some advocates about the positives and negatives that they see in these new rules and where they think it will go with other agencies. So I respectfully ask you that when we're done with this, I know that you have a lot to do, but we're going to drop a CD in the mail to you. We'll help you along the way as much as we can.
MORGENWECKWell, that would be good. And you know, I'll admit right now that we've heard several things that are already -- that are intriguing. One criticism has been that a lot of the background information that we used to formulate this policy was really oriented to the research community, that community of people who are out collecting basic data or data on a particular species or a particular river system or what have you. And so they are more research oriented when, in fact, many of the difficulties that have been alleged in the Department of Interior were in the use of science particularly by political figures and so maybe we need to be more robust in dealing with that political equation than we currently are.
MORGENWECKAnd certainly we are open to thinking through that and if there are ways that we can improve that, certainly we're going to try to do that so we are aware of some of those kinds of criticisms. And the other criticism that we've also heard is, okay, what you've done so far is pretty good, but now you've got to go and apply them. And what happens when you have to apply them as it relates to an allegation against a political appointee, then that may be the proof whether or not these things are really going to work.
MORGENWECKAnd of course, we haven't had that situation yet. These have only been out eight days. But that is a legitimate concern so, again, we have heard these -- we have heard some of these things. We are aware of them and we're going to do our very best to react in a positive way to them.
VOGELThank you. You are listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," on WAMU 88.5. I'm Diane Vogel, managing producer of the show sitting in for Kojo. Our guest today is Ralph Morgenweck. He's the Department of Interior's first ever science integrity officer and we're talking about ensuring scientific integrity throughout the federal government, making sure that political or partisan decisions don't infiltrate the lab or that political or partisan interpretations don't misstate what scientific findings have come before. We know that scientists tend to be pretty precise people and I imagine there's no surprise that they get pretty upset when their work is misrepresented. Is this an experience you ever had because you, sir, are a scientist?
MORGENWECKI have not had the experience where any of my results have been tampered with. I've been involved in issues where there were political disagreements, the conclusions that we were reaching in our decision-making process and so, you know, I've had some experience along that line and it can be a very difficult one.
VOGELWe're talking scientific integrity within the federal government and making sure that the science that government decisions are based on are not unduly influenced in the wrong way. You can join this conversation with Ralph Morgenweck, the Department of Interior science integrity officer, at 1-800-433-8850. You can send e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with us through Facebook or a tweet at kojoshow.
VOGELNow before we go any further, Mr. Morgenweck, we should probably stop and say what the rules are. So if you can give us a synopsis of the -- I think, if I remember correctly, maybe six rules or I don't remember the exact number. But if you can walk through the basics with us of the rules, I'd appreciate it.
MORGENWECKSure. The policy lays out what we call a code of scientific and scholarly conduct and this code covers all departmental employees, including political appointees, all volunteers, contractors, cooperators, partners, permittees, lessees and grantees when they are involved in scientific and scholarly activities. So in other words, if they're involved in that scientific part of what we do, then this code of conduct applies to them.
MORGENWECKAnd there's a series of I will statements, you know. I'll give you an example. I will act in the interest of the advancement of science and scholarship for sound decision-making. I will adhere to the laws and policies related to the protection of natural and cultural resources. And there are ten of those statements that cover all employees. Now, if you're a scientist or a scholar, there are an additional six I will statements. For example, I will welcome constructive criticism of my scientific and scholarly activities and will be responsive to their peer review.
MORGENWECKAnd lastly, for decision makers, there are three additional ones in addition to that 10 that cover all employees. And so for decision makers, here's an example. I will do my best to support the scientific and scholarly activities of others and will not engage in dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship or other misconduct that alters the content, veracity or meaning or that may affect a planning conduct reporting or application of scientific and scholarly activities. And there are three statements, something like that, specifically aimed at the decision maker. So these are -- this is kind of a summary of the basic rules.
VOGELSure. Well, not to sound self-serving, but one of my, you know, my ears perked up when I saw the rules that applied about talking to the media. Because certainly when we've seen allegations, whether -- you know, in past administrations or in previous decades about whether somebody at NASA had misstated something or the EPA or anywhere else, whether science had been maybe mal-appropriated to support a political position, the thing we often hear is that we can only, as the media, talk to the political appointee or talk to a department head.
VOGELWe very often will be turned down if we ask to talk to the scientist involved. Now, I know that your rules do address some sort of media policy, but they are not very specific. Tell me about your thoughts with regard to the media policy.
MORGENWECKWell, first of all, we are not forbidding our scientists from speaking to the media. I think what's important is the -- that scientists have to identify when they're speaking on behalf of their agency they work for or when they're speaking as a private citizen, in other words, they're having their -- they're expressing their personal opinion. But I think that one thing that we have to work on clarifying is where that line is and how do -- how does a scientist -- how does a biologist or a hydrologist or whatever, how do they recognize that kind of delimiting marker between, okay, what I'm going to say now represents the position of my agency versus, hey, this is the way I personally think this system is operating or this species is fairing. That kind of thing.
VOGELWell, it was helpful. I have some questions for you, callers on the line. I know that we have you until about 12:00, 1:30 so I'm going to ask you if we can take a short break and then we'll come back to you and continue this conversation. All right, sir?
VOGELGreat. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." We're talking about scientific integrity in the federal government. I'm Diane Vogel, managing producer of the show. You can join us with your questions at 800-433-8850 and we'll be right back after this short break.
VOGELWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Diane Vogel, "Kojo Show" managing producer, sitting in for Kojo. And we're talking today with Ralph Morgenweck, the Department of the Interiors first ever science integrity officer, and we're talking about new rules. The Department of Interior is the first agency to act on President Obama's directive and set up rules for insuring scientific integrity in the government. Not that there hasn't been before, but there has always been a concern that political influence might help, you know, change or scientists might feel pressured by a political agenda.
VOGELThe idea here is to ensure that science is science and that the integrity stays and that politics is kept out of the lab. Mr. Morgenweck, I wanted to go to the phones right away if I might. We have one or two calls, I think, that we have time for, all right?
MORGENWECKSounds good, sure.
VOGELAll right. Jane in Bethesda, I'm going to you first. Jane, you're on the air.
JANEHi, Diane, thanks for having me on...
JANE...the show and greetings to Mr. Morgenweck. I appreciate you being a spokesman for the honesty of science in the Department of Interior. I'm just wondering. I used to be the chief economist in the old endangered species office during the time of James Watt, where species were not being listed because of political reasons. And one of the problems was the law was written such that the balancing act of whether you should protect a species because of economic or social considerations was really placed in the lap of the scientists.
JANEAnd the law was changed so that species would just be identified based on their biological merit, that -- some of that was thrown into the critical habitat round. So I'm just wondering, Ralph, is there a way that you are building in a feedback mechanism from the scientists back to the policy makers and Congress to say, you know, we should revise this law so we can be more honest about our information? And then, the whole policy part of it can be left up to decision makers and not that burden placed on the scientist.
MORGENWECKYou're talking about the -- specifically, the endangered species act?
JANEWell, and any law, too, where scientists might be afraid or they're asked to change data. And I've certainly been in situations where policy makers have asked me to change data and I've had to say no and be in danger and be, you know, threatened with my job and things like that. But that scientists can put forward sound information for the public and then that information can be taken by policy makers and make a decision about what they want to do. But if we're basing decisions based on data that's been manipulated, then we're not getting the best information to policy makers.
MORGENWECKI agree. And I think that one of the objectives of our new policy is that we are trying to provide the unvarnished science to the decision maker. Now, what decisions that decision maker ultimately chooses to make is really up to them. But we want them to see the science as it really is, not manipulated, not changed and then if they choose to make a decision that is perhaps in opposition or not supported by the science, they're certainly free to do that. But at least the science -- the records of the science is going to stand.
MORGENWECKAnd that is -- that's a very important point of credibility that the department has to rebuild. Because the department and my own agency, The Fish and Wildlife Services, suffered greatly in losing the trust of a lot of people because of these stories, these allegations and where this sort of manipulation occurred. So, you know, I think that this absolutely a critical point and it is heartening for me and for all of the people, I think, who have been working on this to see not only the President, but the -- our Secretary also making very strong statements about the need for integrity in the science.
MORGENWECKAnd again, it doesn't tie the hands of the decision maker, but the decision maker, if they make a decision that's not supported by the science, they have to explain their reasoning for why they made the choice that they did, which I think is fair.
VOGELWell, thank you so much, Jane, for that call. And Mr. Morgenweck, I know you have to go shortly. I wanted to say, when you were speaking about Secretary Salazar, you -- I was reading a quote of his from a press release here. "Because robust high quality science and scholarship play such an important role in advancing the department's mission, it's vital that we have strong, clear scientific integrity policies. The policy sets forth clear expectations for all employees, political and career, to uphold principles of scientific integrity and establishes a -- in process for impartial review of alleged breaches."
VOGELOne of the last -- I had two last questions I wanted to ask, if I might, pretty quickly.
VOGELFirst is, one of the things we've heard is that whistle blowers may or may -- whistle blower laws may or may not apply in this case. I've seen, sort of, the rules have a statement that says, we'll make sure that whistle blower information is provided to all of our employees. But does that mean that if a scientist speaks out against, you know, the -- speaks up because some of their work has been perhaps misappropriated at a level above them by a political employee, does it mean that that scientist is, by definition, covered by whistle blower laws? Or their -- is there a lot more to it?
MORGENWECKWell, I think, there's a bit more to it than that. Nothing in this policy changes the laws that govern whistle -- the whistle blowing process. So we have not, in any way, reduced people's whistle blower protections, nor have we necessarily enhanced them because what we have -- basically did in the policy was to acknowledge that the whistle blower laws already exists and that we are -- this policy honors those laws as they exist. And so whatever whistle blower protections are available, are available under this policy.
VOGELAll right. We got an e-mail -- I'll close a quick one with an e-mail from Keith in Silver Springs. He says, "I think politicizing science should be designated a criminal offense." Any thoughts on that? Any thoughts on what should be considered kind of politics as normal or what would be considered steps over the line for you? Do you -- are you able to give us a sentence or two more about that?
MORGENWECKWell, I think that, you know, while I think it would take changes in law to perhaps do what Keith is interested in doing, if it involves waste, fraud and abuse or allegations of violation of existing law, we would refer those to the inspector general for investigation. What we are doing under this policy is basically fact finding, but anything that rises to a more serious level would get referred to the inspector general for their processes that they can avail themselves of.
VOGELWell, thank you very much, sir, for joining us today. We have posted a link to the press release and to the list of scientific integrity rules that the Department of Interior has released. They go in -- get -- they went into effect on February 1st. I don't know, do you have a thought as to why Department of Interior was first out of the gate with this? Or do you expect, you know, did you want to be the first down the line?
MORGENWECKI think we wanted to be the first. There were -- the group of us who worked on this, the secretarial order first and then on the departmental manual, which is the policy, felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to be a part of and so we worked very hard to get it out as quickly as we could, at the same time trying to be as complete and thoughtful as we could be.
VOGELTerrific. Well, thank you so much for joining us. Ralph Morgenweck is the Department of Interiors first ever science integrity officer. We are -- we do thank you for joining us by phone from Colorado. We are going to continue with a related conversation in the next segment. So if you are on the line either e-mailing or listening online, we can continue the conversation. You can stay around and we'll say, thank you very much, sir. We look forward to having you back in a few months after you've gotten some feedback. Perhaps you can tell us, as you say, how to turn the solid double into a homerun.
VOGELAll right. We appreciate it. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." We'll be back after this short break.
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