Last year, AAAS Fellow Francesca Grifo became the first scientific integrity officer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Tasked with a 2009 directive from the president, she is driving out the engrained political pressure that has seeped into the agency's scientific endeavors, an issue spotlighted during the George W. Bush administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists alleged the president's administration sought out and exploited uncertainties in climate change science, while altering EPA reports and excluding scientists from environmental policy decisions.
Passed two years ago, the EPA's Scientific Integrity Policy establishes a framework for goals like transparency, peer review, avoiding conflicts of interest and reporting integrity breaches. "It's kind of a toddler," says Grifo, who is translating the goals into a tangible strategy. "There's still a lot of things we are continuing to write procedures for...and a lot of things that we're just trying to do in terms of increasing the visibility of the policy and helping people to understand what it means for them and their work."
Grifo's job safeguards the scientific processes, she says, from the point when a researcher has an idea to when the results are applied to a complex policy question like regulating global warming emissions.
Grifo admits she's got her work cut out for her. "Deeply embedding scientific integrity into the culture of an agency takes time," she says. "I've got years of work ahead of me."
While Grifo is still completing her first year at the EPA, the new role is not a far leap from her posting as senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she spent eight years aggressively advocating for scientific transparency at the EPA, leading to her testifying on the subject in front of Congress, while co-authoring reports on political interference and pressure on climate scientists.
Her passion for defending science is rooted in her early work as a tropical botanist-turned-conservationist. Fresh from college, Grifo was teaching at a private school in the U.S. Virgin Islands when her burgeoning interest in ornithology led her to a species of quail dove there. She realized no scientist knew what plants the birds ate. "'Wow. This is a whole new frontier,'" she remembers thinking. "There was nothing to help me identify these plants. And that's how I got drawn into tropical botany."
She traveled throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America for her doctoral degree in botany, traversing the once remote areas where plant samples had been taken, some hundreds of years earlier, in hopes of gathering more material to better study the plants with modern techniques. "What I found was that many, many of those places, if not more than a majority of them, were gone. There were no trees. There were parking lots," she says. "I realized that was a huge problem, that we were losing these species at an incredible rate."
A desire to raise awareness brought Grifo to Washington, D.C., as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the Office of Research for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "I got there just as people were beginning to talk about biodiversity as a new-coined term," she says, explaining how she developed a rich portfolio of research on the subject. Grifo calls the fellowship "eye-opening and significant for me in so many ways," saying it allowed her to carve her own career path, rather than replicate that of her advising professor. "It was really through the fellowship that I was able to see this whole other world of career possibilities and leap into them."
As with her transition from tropical botany to biodiversity conservation, Grifo had to do something more applied about the problem of politics compromising the science she and other researchers had worked so hard to establish. Though she's still in the early stages with progressing scientific integrity at the EPA, Grifo admires the impact that decades of fellowship programs like that of AAAS have had in bringing so many scientists like her to the nation's capital to offer a balanced hand to government initiatives. "I think the federal agencies get something out of it in the short term through the fellows that they have," she says. "But the big contribution is the long-term presence of all these scientists in Washington because of that fellowship program."