Fast Facts

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.

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Highlights

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.



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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 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)
Open
In July 2020, 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.
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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)
Closed - Implemented
According to Commerce in a September 2020 update, NIST is leveraging NOAA's training module, which includes scientific integrity issues and was made available as of January 2020 on the Commerce Learning Center (CLC) for all NIST employees to access.
Department of Energy 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)
Open
In July 2020, DOE provided an update on the status of this recommendation. In that update, DOE said that it was still in the process of identifying an individual to serve as a scientific integrity official.
Department of Energy 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)
Open
In July 2020, 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.
Department of Transportation 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)
Open
In September 2020, the Department of Transportation provided an update on the status of this recommendation. In that update, officials said that DOT was still working on this action. According to officials, the department will implement several mechanisms to address the recommendation, including conducting annual reviews of the scientific integrity policy and making the policy available to all relevant employees. DOT estimated it would complete these actions by the end of March 2021.
National Institute of Standards and Technology 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)
Open
In Commerce's written comments, NIST had stated that, beginning in fiscal year 2019, the agency would review implementation of its policy at least annually and make recommendations to the Director of NIST as to whether any improvements were needed. In a September 2020 update, NIST provided a memorandum reporting that in fiscal year 2019 the Scientific Integrity Officer and General Counsel had discussed an allegation related to scientific integrity, and that it was determined that programmatic factors, not a lapse in scientific integrity, had occurred. According to NIST, it monitors the effectiveness of the implementation of its documented scientific integrity policy, order, and procedure by means of informal feedback from NIST researchers and supervisors, as documented in the memorandum.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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)
Open
In Commerce's written comments, NOAA stated that it will identify additional metrics for monitoring and evaluating its policy. As of October 2020, we have requested an update from the agency but have not yet received information to evaluate implementation of this recommendation.
Geological Survey 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)
Open
In September 2020, the Department of the Interior provided an update on this recommendation. In that update, officials stated that the expected completion date is the end of November 2022.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should develop documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of its scientific integrity policy. (Recommendation 9)
Open
In July 2020, 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.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration The Administrator of NASA should develop documented procedures for identifying and addressing alleged violations of its scientific integrity policy. (Recommendation 10)
Open
NASA officials stated that the agency is undergoing additional internal and external reviews-with NASA officials working through the National Science and Technology Council's Joint Committee on Research Environments, which supports scientific security, rigor, and integrity-and that completion of the implementation of the recommendation is due October 31, 2020.

Full Report

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