Public comments sought for science memo

A surprise Federal Register request for public comment on a scientific integrity presidential memo placated some advocates who are calling for a chance to contribute to recommendations for an open government directive due next month.

The administration took a similar approach to soliciting public input for a regulatory review executive order, noted Gary Bass, executive director at the nonprofit OMB Watch.

"To seek public comments on this is exactly the right approach to take," Bass said.

But, he said, "there is something wrong in a policy shift that calls for open government" that does "not have a rigorous public involvement process," he said of the White House's less-democratic open government plan. "That's not to say that the White House staff have not reached out [to stakeholders] but that's very different than a Federal Register notice that calls for comment from across the country."

A Jan. 21 memo instructed federal agencies to compile recommendations for a forthcoming directive on building a more open, collaborative and participatory government.

The March 9 memo on scientific integrity, characterized by proponents as a poke at President Bush's climate change policies, was issued the same day as an executive order lifting Bush's ban on federal funding for stem cell research. The memo directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy to craft recommendations for ensuring disclosure of scientific information considered in policy decisions. Agency recommendations are due in July. Public comments are due May 13.

It's notable that May 21 is the deadline for agency recommendations on the open government directive. And comments from the general public have yet to be sought.

Still, Bass is happy with Thursday's request for help on scientific integrity. Disclosing data on greenhouse gas emissions and FDA drug research, favorable or unfavorable, is essential, he said.

"It's also not just what data should be put on the Internet, but the process of decision making" should be put online too, Bass added. "The underlying research and process that went into developing something is equally as important as the outcome because it could change the outcome," as was demonstrated when the White House redacted research on climate change, he said.

Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist and director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed, saying, "One of those things you really want to get out there is the dissenting opinions of scientists."

"If you do a study on a drug and it turns out the drug is not effective, that is not published, but if it were it would be very useful," Grifo said. "If we had known everything about the scientists working on those drugs," such as the painkiller Vioxx that was withdrawn from the market due to an increased risk of heart attacks, "and what the FDA had known, we would have saved lives."

But Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in his e-newsletter that agency desires to limit negative publicity may inhibit scientific integrity. The president's memo stated: "Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures ... each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions."

Aftergood said he recommends that the administration reconsider the criteria used for restricting information and buckle down on compliance to ensure proper disclosure of the scientific process.

And that gets back to the issue of disclosure, in general.

Bass said he wonders whether Obama's open government plan is to seek public comment after federal recommendations are due - but before the directive comes out.

"That would be a wonderful process if they chose to do that," Bass said.