Scientific Integrity Policies:

Additional Actions Could Strengthen Integrity of Federal Research

GAO-19-265: Published: Apr 4, 2019. Publicly Released: Apr 4, 2019.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John Neumann
(202) 512-6888
neumannj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

How do federal agencies protect the integrity of scientific research?

There is federal guidance on scientific integrity that includes principles that:

Ensure the open exchange of information

Prevent the distortion of research findings for political or other reasons

The 9 agencies we reviewed have policies based on those principles. Most of them have taken some action in terms of educating staff, providing oversight, and monitoring and evaluating policy-related activities. Some have taken little or no action on some principles.

We made 10 recommendations to 6 agencies to help them ensure that their policies are protecting scientific integrity.

 

Scientist using a microscope.

Scientist using a microscope.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John Neumann
(202) 512-6888
neumannj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The nine selected agencies GAO reviewed have taken various actions to help achieve the objectives of their scientific integrity policies in three areas:

  • Educating staff. Seven of the nine agencies have taken some actions to educate and communicate to staff about their policies, consistent with the 2007 America COMPETES Act. However, the Office of Fossil Energy (FE), which follows the Department of Energy's (DOE) policy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have not taken action.

  • Providing oversight. Eight of the nine agencies have a designated official, or the equivalent, to oversee implementation of their scientific integrity policies. However, FE does not have such an official because DOE has not appointed one and currently has no plans or timeframe to do so, although DOE policy states that DOE will appoint an official for oversight.

  • Monitoring and evaluating implementation. Four of the nine agencies have monitored and evaluated implementation of their scientific integrity policies, consistent with federal standards that call for such control activities. However, FE, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NIST, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have not undertaken such activities.

Seven of the nine agencies have specific, documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of their scientific integrity policies. Although the details of agencies' procedures vary, they generally include the steps shown below. However, two agencies—FE, following DOE's policy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—do not have documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations. A 2009 presidential memo on scientific integrity states that agencies should have procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised. Without procedures, FE and NASA do not have assurance that their staff understand how to report allegations and that investigations are conducted consistently.

General Procedure for Identifying and Addressing Alleged Violations of Agencies' Scientific Integrity Policies

General Procedure for Identifying and Addressing Alleged Violations of Agencies' Scientific Integrity Policies

Note: The seven agencies that have procedures similar to this figure are the Agricultural Research Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2007, the America COMPETES Act required the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to take actions to enhance the integrity of federal scientific research. In 2010, OSTP provided guidance to federal agencies on developing scientific integrity policies. The guidance states that, among other things, agencies are to ensure that political appointees should not suppress or alter scientific findings.

GAO was asked to review agencies' scientific integrity policies and actions taken to implement them. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which selected agencies (1) have taken actions to achieve the objectives of their scientific integrity policies and (2) have procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of their scientific integrity policies. GAO selected the following nine agencies for review: Agricultural Research Service, Environmental Protection Agency, FAA, FE, National Institutes of Health, NASA, NIST, NOAA, and USGS. GAO analyzed the selected agencies' scientific integrity policies and interviewed agency officials, among other things.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 10 recommendations to six agencies to address specific issues related to educating staff, providing oversight, monitoring and evaluating policy implementation, and developing procedures to identify and address policy violations. The six agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified actions they plan to take to address them.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-6888 or neumannj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2019, DOE provided an update on the status of this recommendation. In that update, DOE said the scientific integrity official will be responsible for leading and coordinating with other elements of the Department in the development of measures to educate and communicate DOE's scientific integrity policies to staff. DOE estimated it would complete these actions by the end of June 2020.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should take action to educate and communicate the agency's scientific integrity polices to staff through, for example, regular training. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In Commerce's written comments, NIST identified ways it plans to provide training to its staff.

    Recommendation: The Director of NIST should take action to educate and communicate the agency's scientific integrity polices to staff through, for example, regular training. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2019, DOE provided an update on the status of this recommendation. In that update, DOE said that it concurs with the recommendation and estimated that it would establish steps and a time frame for designating a scientific integrity official by the end of December 2019.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should establish steps and a time frame for designating a scientific integrity official to oversee the department's scientific integrity activities. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2019, DOE provided an update on the status of this recommendation. In that update, DOE stated that the Department's scientific integrity official will have the responsibility to lead and coordinate with other elements of the Department in developing procedures to monitor and evaluate the implementation of DOE's scientific integrity policy, including mechanisms to remediate identified deficiencies and make improvements where necessary.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should develop mechanisms to regularly monitor and evaluate implementation of the department's scientific integrity policy, including mechanisms to remediate identified deficiencies and make improvements where necessary. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2019, the Department of Transportation provided an update on the status of this recommendation. According to officials, the department will implement several mechanisms to address the recommendation in 2020, including conducting annual reviews of the scientific integrity policy and making the policy available to all relevant employees. DOE estimated it would complete these actions by the end of June 2020.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should develop mechanisms to regularly monitor and evaluate implementation of the department's scientific integrity policy, including mechanisms to remediate identified deficiencies and make improvements where necessary. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In Commerce's written comments, NIST stated that, beginning in fiscal year 2019, the agency will review implementation of its policy at least annually and make recommendations to the Director of NIST as to whether any improvements are needed.

    Recommendation: The Director of NIST should develop mechanisms to regularly monitor and evaluate implementation of the agency's scientific integrity policy, including mechanisms to remediate identified deficiencies and make improvements where necessary. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: In Commerce's written comments, NOAA stated that it will identify additional metrics for monitoring and evaluating its policy.

    Recommendation: The NOAA Administrator should develop mechanisms to regularly monitor and evaluate implementation of the agency's scientific integrity policy, including mechanisms to remediate identified deficiencies and make improvements where necessary. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of the Interior's written comments stated that the department plans to implement a biennial scientific integrity survey of USGS employees, beginning in 2020, to gauge scientific integrity policy awareness and effectiveness at USGS, among other things.

    Recommendation: The Director of USGS should develop mechanisms to regularly monitor and evaluate implementation of the agency's scientific integrity policy, including mechanisms to remediate identified deficiencies and make improvements where necessary. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: U.S. Geological Survey

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2019, DOE provided an update on the status of this recommendation. In that update, DOE stated that the department's scientific integrity official will be responsible for leading and coordinating with other elements of the Department in developing procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of DOE's scientific integrity policy. DOE estimated that it would complete these actions by the end of June 2020.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should develop documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of its scientific integrity policy. (Recommendation 9)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: In written comments from NASA, the agency stated that it will develop documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of its policy and estimated completion by October 2020.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should develop documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of its scientific integrity policy. (Recommendation 10)

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 16, 2019

Jul 17, 2019

Jun 12, 2019

May 23, 2019

Mar 27, 2019

Dec 21, 2018

Looking for more? Browse all our products here