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Department of Energy finally releases new guidelines to protect scientists from political pressure

And not a moment too soon

President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The US Department of Energy has released new rules to protect government scientists from political agendas, and not a moment too early given the troubling relationship President-elect Donald Trump has already developed with scientists.

Outgoing energy secretary Ernest Moniz announced the rules on Wednesday while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The policy could have widespread effects, as the Energy Department is a major funder of scientific research—notably, funding most of the work on nuclear weapons. Because the policy is not an official regulation, it wouldn’t be very difficult to reverse when the Trump administration comes in. But it still has symbolic power, since the immediate reversal of a scientific integrity policy would not paint the new administration in a positive light.

The new policy stipulates that Energy Department officials “should not and will not ask scientists to tailor their work to particular conclusions.” Energy Department scientists, (and scientists working on a contract basis) can state their personal opinions as long as they don’t claim to be speaking for the department itself, and scientists “must get the opportunity to review Department statements about their work.” It also requires the energy secretary — soon to be former Texas governor Rick Perry, who once said he wanted to shut down the department entirely — to appoint an ombudsman for scientific integrity.

It’s important that these new policies have been released before Trump’s inauguration. In the months since the November election, Trump has shown that his administration, like the Bush administration, is unlikely to take science seriously. Trump questioned global warming while on the campaign trail and asked the Energy Department for the names of its climate change workers. Trump later backed down, after they refused to comply with the request. Still, there are loopholes that could let him wage war on scientific expertise, and scientists have been scrambling to save government climate data before he is sworn in.

The policy follows President Obama’s 2009 pledge that science would guide his administration and therefore “political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.” Obama’s pledge itself was a response to political controversy during the Bush administration, including allegations from NASA climate scientist James Hansen that officials had tried to silence his warning about global warming. Rick Perry, at least at first, will need to obey these rules, and that’s one more way that research won’t be hobbled by political winds.