By Eugenie Samuel Reich

Four pages in 648 days. At that rate it would have taken Leo Tolstoy centuries to write War and Peace. But to get to this point, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, may have battled through the bureaucratic equivalent of the Napoleonic Wars.

On 17 December, Holdren finally released a long-promised set of guidelines for scientific integrity in US government departments and agencies. On the White House website Holdren wrote that the document includes "a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency". He also wrote that department and agency heads would have 120 days to demonstrate progress towards implementing the new rules.

Watchdog groups who campaign for sound science in government decision-making gave the guidelines a cautious reception. "We will just have to wait and see what the agencies do with it," says Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The jury is still out."

The document is the product of an initiative that began soon after President Barack Obama took office. In March 2009, Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity that forbade the distortion of science for political ends. The move seemed to signal a clear departure from practices adopted during the administration of President George W. Bush, which faced accusations of weakening the role of science in regulatory agencies and of muzzling scientists whose views were at odds with those of the White House.

But the road to implementing Obama's vision has been tortuous. The guidelines, expected in July 2009, became mired in unwieldy discussion as Holdren struggled to get all relevant departments and agencies to accept a common set of principles. The US Department of the Interior issued a draft policy earlier this year, only to backtrack after advocacy groups slammed it as incomplete and ambiguous. Following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in summer 2010, the Obama administration was itself accused of suppressing scientific information to put a better gloss on the situation.

The White House document lays out goals for science in government but says little about how they should be achieved. It directs agencies to "ensure that the data and research used to support policy decisions undergo independent peer review", to adopt protection for whistleblowers and to "facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information".

Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado, Boulder, whose research focuses on the intersection of public policy with science, questions why it has taken so long to issue such a limited document. "It sets forth discussion questions about scientific integrity in government, but I don't think it resolves them," he says. Pielke says that given how long it took to create the document, there may not be time for much progress before the end of Obama's term of office in 2012. He adds that even if it had been issued earlier it would not have prevented the issues around scientific integrity that arose during the oil spill.

Some advocates agree that the document is a disappointment. "It was a very long wait for four pages," says Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), based in Washington DC, which has represented several scientist whistleblowers. "We feel frustrated that this process is horribly off schedule." Ruch says that several sentences have the potential to make things worse, rather than better, for government scientists. For example, the guidelines say that researchers can speak to the media, provided there has been "appropriate coordination" with public-affairs offices, but they fail to define what is appropriate. They also allow scientists to speak publicly about their "official work" but fail to offer protection for scientists who are judged to have spoken up in their private capacity. "Scientists are free to speak, except when they're not," says Ruch.

Grifo says that her organization is a little more positive than PEER. She points to sections that unambiguously allow government scientists to serve on the boards of scientific societies and journals, to present findings at scientific conferences and to accept awards and honours for the science they do. These are major issues, she adds, because the UCS has heard from government scientists who have been prevented from doing these things in the past because of a perceived conflict of interest.

But she agrees with Ruch that the media policy lacks specificity, and also argues that the guidelines should have taken a stronger position against scientists with financial conflicts of interest serving as advisers to the government.

James Hansen, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who became well known for speaking out publicly about censorship of his scientific work by NASA press offices during the Bush administration, says that the new policy does not change either of what he sees as two central problems; the use of political appointees to run public-affairs offices, and the requirement that the White House screen testimonies that scientists make to Congress. "A democracy cannot function well with the present approach," he says.