By Eugenie Samuel Reich of Nature magazine
Microbiologist David Lewis knew he might upset the biosolids industry with his research, which suggested that the spreading of sewage sludge on land could make people sick. But he didn't expect his employer, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), not to back him up.
Following complaints from a biosolids company, an EPA official used agency letterhead to spread allegations of research misconduct against Lewis, a situation that Lewis says led to him being forced out in 2003. A judge in 2007 dismissed Lewis's claims that he was fired illegally, but the EPA cleared Lewis of misconduct and reprimanded the official. With his science career nevertheless over, Lewis now works at the National Whistleblowers Center in Washington DC.
Lewis's fate is the kind that a scientific-integrity policy released by the EPA on 5 August seems intended to prevent. The agency is one of 19 that have submitted policies to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), although the policies are not all complete. At least six have been released publicly. Developed after a 2009 memo in which US President Barack Obama sought to distinguish his administration's use of science from its alleged political abuse under his predecessor George W. Bush, the policies are meant to put sound science at the centre of government policy-making.
Many scientists endorse the goal, but Lewis is among those who are cynical about what they have seen so far. "There's nothing in EPA's draft policy that even hints at dealing with things done to scientists like me to shut us up," he says. He adds that the agency needs new people with good records in scientific integrity, not new policies.
An EPA spokeswoman declined to comment on Lewis's views, but notes that the policy is a draft, open for public comment and subject to revision. One agency, the Department of the Interior, has made public a final policy, and NASA says it will revise existing policies rather than offer a new one. The Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services (which includes the National Institutes of Health) have yet to publish drafts.
Some scientists say that the new policies will be beneficial. Michael McPhaden, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and president of the American Geophysical Union, likes the fact that the NOAA policy encourages media interviews. "The agency is now encouraging you to speak publicly about your research instead of putting roadblocks in your way," he says.
But critics worry that some policies lack specificity. The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, based in Washington DC, praises the policies of NOAA and the Department of the Interior, which explicitly ban politically motivated alteration of technical documents, but it notes that such a clause is missing from the EPA draft (see table). Neal Lane, former director of both the OSTP and the National Science Foundation, is also concerned about an opaque reference to "clearance procedures" in the EPA draft. Although all of the policies released so far allow employees to speak publicly, the EPA's phrase suggests that there can still be scope for scientists to be muzzled, says Lane, a physicist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Roger Pielke Jr, a science-policy expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says that differences in the policies are inevitable because the agencies have different missions and scientific integrity is a vague concept. OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss says the office intentionally allowed agencies to respond to the effort in different ways. The OSTP expects to work with agencies to finalize the policies by this autumn.
Lane says that, whatever their flaws, the policies are a step forward. "Having these policies on the books will make managers think twice before interfering with a scientist," he says.
This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on August 16, 2011.