|DOE appropriates billions each year for research in labs like this one in Oak Ridge National Laboratory.|
By DANA LIEBELSON
Late last week, POGO submitted a letter to the Department of Energy (DOE), urging the Department to strengthen its scientific integrity policies, make documents relating to allegations of scientific misconduct available to the public, and improve oversight of contractors' investigations of alleged misconduct by establishing an Office of Research Integrity (ORI).
A 2009 memorandum issued by President Obama asked government agencies and departments to come up with recommendations to improve “transparency in the preparation, identification and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking,” and submit them to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In a follow-up announcement on October 3, agencies and departments were asked to submit their final draft policies by December 17 for review by OSTP.
On December 16, DOE submitted its “draft final” plan on scientific integrity to OSTP. DOE told POGO it will now go through another round of revisions. While DOE did share its preliminary response to OSTP with POGO, which is essentially an inventory of their current scientific integrity policies, they have thus far not made the draft final plan public.
POGO joins the Union of Concerned Scientists in urging DOE and all other agencies to make their plans public, following the example of a handful of other departments and agencies. One of the areas in which POGO strongly recommends strengthening scientific integrity at DOE—and other departments and agencies—is in the oversight of contractors’ investigations of alleged research misconduct. In its letter, POGO pressed DOE to strengthen its oversight and make the process more transparent.
In fiscal year 2011, the DOE appropriated $10.2 billion for research and development and related programs at 17 national laboratories and for extramural research elsewhere. This money went mostly to contracts or financial assistance agreements, as most DOE scientific research is done by non-federal institutions. What is troubling is that allegations of research misconduct are often investigated internally by the contractor, with little to no oversight by DOE. When contractors investigate their own misconduct allegations, this creates a conflict of interest that can hurt the integrity of the research.
Take for instance, the case where an anonymous peer reviewer accused a prominent scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) of fabricating data in a paper submitted in 2006 to Nature Physics. ORNL initiated its own investigation into the matter, and concluded that data simply had errors.
But there is substantial evidence that this investigation—which was of course, funded by taxpayers—was never even reviewed carefully by DOE. Even more troublesome, when journalist Eugenie Reich attempted to investigate the matter through a FOIA request for the report of the ORNL investigation, her request was denied. A judge agreed with the position taken by DOE and found that the report was not a government record, and therefore not subject to FOIA.
Because of cases like these, POGO urges DOE to specifically address the need for independent, federally conducted investigations of allegations of research misconduct by DOE contractors and grantees. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is an excellent model. The ORI at HHS has a budget of over $9 million, oversees investigations, makes their findings of wrongdoing public, and reviews all actions by the institution. DOE should establish a similar ORI that reports directly to the Secretary of Energy. In addition, all documentation relating to investigations should be deemed government records and made available to the public.
POGO has made other recommendations, a full list of which can be found in the letter. We are also asking the DOE to consider our previous recommendations for strengthening scientific integrity, as well as those made by advocates such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for DOE to set an example of strengthening the integrity of taxpayer-funded science conducted by contractors and grantees,” said Angela Canterbury, POGO’s Director of Public Policy. “If the lax oversight of contractor scientists isn’t reformed, DOE’s implementation of the President’s Memorandum will simply not be credible.”
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Image via oakridgelabnews.