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US energy agency strengthens protections for scientists

Revised scientific-integrity policy gives researchers more leeway to speak to the press and publish their findings.

US energy secretary Ernest Moniz has eased restrictions on department scientists. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has released new guidelines to protect researchers from political interference — a move that many say is long overdue.

“DOE officials should not and will not ask scientists to tailor their work to any particular conclusion,” said energy secretary Ernest Moniz, who announced the guidelines on 11 January.

The plan allows scientists to publicly state their opinions on science and policy, as long as they make clear that they are not speaking for the government. It requires researchers to notify their supervisors if they speak to the media or publish their findings, but does not require them to seek approval for such activities.

“It makes it absolutely clear that notification is the only thing required,” says Wendy Wagner, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The tenor of the entire policy seems to be full bore about giving scientists and technical people the complete freedom to speak about their research and how it intersects with policy.”

The plan — which applies to DOE employees, contractors and grant recipients — also calls for the department to appoint an independent ombudsperson to handle complaints.

That is a major shift from the DOE’s previous scientific-integrity policy, issued in 2012. That policy applied only to DOE employees, and required them to coordinate with their supervisors before talking to the media and to receive approval before publishing their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

Climate of fear

“The old policy was extremely vague, bare bones and had no structure for implementation,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “When rights are not explicit, scientists that share personal opinions can be retaliated against.”

The revised guidelines come amid concerns that president-elect Donald Trump’s administration will seek to limit federal support for science, including climate-change research. In December, Trump’s team asked the DOE for the names of employees who have worked on climate-change issues; the department refused and Trump staffers later disavowed the request.

Moniz says the new policy is not a response to that incident or to Trump’s election, and has been in the works for a while.

But Wagner thinks that the timing is significant. “The DOE might feel that if they don’t get this policy out now, it won’t be implemented,” she says.

But implementing the full plan is likely to fall to the administration of Trump, who takes office on 20 January. His pick for energy secretary — former Texas governor Rick Perry — could soon be confirmed by the Senate.

“The Senate really needs to get details from Governor Perry, when they go through the confirmation process, about the specific implementation plans he has to ensure that this becomes a reality,” Halpern says.

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DOE scientific integrity policy: 2016 version

DOE scientific integrity policy: 2012 version

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Ross, E. US energy agency strengthens protections for scientists. Nature 541, 272 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2017.21290

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