Energy/Environment Climate Science

New Energy Dept. guidelines: Changing culture or political ploy?

Scientists can now speak freely to the media and publish in scientific journals. The guidelines may set the course for the upcoming confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary – and the department's next four years.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 26. On Wednesday, Secretary Moniz announced new guidelines intended to ensure scientific impartiality.
Ronald Zak/AP | Caption

Where science meets policy, the results aren’t always pretty – and over the years, countless scientists have faced pressure not to discuss their findings. But new US Energy Department guidelines may just have given scientific integrity a boost.

The guidelines, released Wednesday, give scientists expanded freedom to share their views with the press and publish in peer-reviewed journals. Scientists can review documents about their findings, and even correct errors in released documents if they don’t feel that DOE documents accurately represent the science. The guidelines also have an expanded reach: unlike the last scientific integrity policy, released in 2012, they apply not only to employees but also to contractors and grant recipients.

The new guidelines may be a sign of changing government attitudes toward science: seeing science as a tool to guide policy rather than as something that can be manipulated to justify policy. But though the guidelines themselves are intended to encourage impartiality, some have suggested that the timing of the release has political implications for the next administration.

The first insights into how the new directives may carry – or not – into the next administration are likely to come during Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of Energy, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, suggests Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Senators have the opportunity to ask Governor Perry for specifics on how he plans to implement this scientific integrity policy,” says Mr. Halpern in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Following criticism of the way in which the Bush administration handled scientific information – a period during which, Mr. Halpern explains, “there were hundreds and hundreds of scientists who said they had faced ... inappropriate political pressures to change results or not speak,” – the Obama administration came into office determined to encourage scientific integrity. In March 2009, President Obama issued a memo calling for all federal agencies to develop policies to support “the integrity of the scientific process.”

Though the pressure has not disappeared entirely, the policies have “made science in government more resilient to political pressure,” Halpern says, drawing on surveys of government scientists conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists between 2005 and 2015.

But will this trend toward political openness endure under the next administration? Within the Energy Department, concerns about protecting scientists from political interference were fueled in December, when Donald Trump’s transition team requested a list of scientists who had worked on climate change issues.

The new Energy Department guidelines are by no means directed against Mr. Trump or the Republican Party, Halpern tells the Monitor.

“This was not something that was hastily put together,” he says, explaining that the Union of Concerned Scientists has been working with the Energy Department to enhance its scientific integrity policy since 2014, when a government contractor was controversially fired over an article he published “on his own time” in an academic journal. The new guidelines include provisions to protect contractors like that scientist. What has taken all the time, Halpern suggests, is getting laboratory heads and Energy Department officials – who are spread across the country – to sign off on the new rules.

Since the rules are not binding, there’s no requirement for the next administration to implement them. But they will give policymakers a framework for questioning Perry at his confirmation hearing, which may help ensure that the values contained in the guidelines are upheld over the next four years.

Certainly, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are aware of the need for sound scientific knowledge.

“They realize how many people depend on independent scientific information to make all kinds of decisions,” Halpern explains.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who announced the guidelines on Wednesday, told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., about his own experience working with government labs while negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.

“I certainly needed correct answers, stated clearly, as opposed to anything that somebody may have thought was the answer I wanted. That would not be helpful,” he said, The Washington Post reported.

Any efforts to infringe on scientific impartiality will be closely watched by scientists, Halpern says, perhaps making it more difficult for the Trump administration to roll back these guidelines.

There is “less concern about policies being eliminated and more about them being rendered ineffective,” he explains.