February 27, 2017 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Government scientists play essential roles in our country’s top public health achievements. From food-safety improvements to tobacco cessation, we rely on them to warn us of health risks, identify solutions, and create standards that promote public health. The Trump administration puts our health at risk when it instructs science-based agencies to halt communications; requires political-appointee review of EPA science; gives attention to people who make dangerous and uniformed statements about vaccines; and selects an EPA administrator who ignores decades of evidence on climate change.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), joined by 26 of his colleagues, has introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (S 338), which notes, “independent, impartial science and the scientific process should inform and guide public policy decisions on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, and protection of national security.” The bill would require agencies that conduct or fund scientific research to develop principles to ensure open communication, and to develop and enforce scientific integrity policies. It would also allow for the National Academy of Public Administration to study the effectiveness of these policies and recommend improvements.

Scientific integrity policies aren’t a new idea. Following widespread concerns about suppression of science in the George W. Bush administration, President Obama issued a memorandum directing federal agencies to develop sceintific integrity policies, under the guidance of the White House Office of Scientific and Technology Policy (OSTP). The Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been a leading force in the push for scientific integrity, followed agencies’ progress in developing these policies. They evaluated several specific policy components — peer review policies, media policies, procedures for dealing with differing scientific opinions, etc. — as well as the administration’s overall progress on promoting independent science, increasing government transparency, and enhancing public participation. UCS’s 2017 report Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking both assesses that progress and offers recommendations to President Trump for carrying it forward.

I imagine the Scientific Integrity Act attempts to put scientific integrity into statute because the sponsoring Sentaors aren’t confident the administration will protect it otherwise. UCS’s Gretchen Goldman comments on the bill’s provision to address political tampering:

Another provision of the bill requires agencies to develop procedures that “identify, evaluate the merits of, and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.” This is an important inclusion since to date, not all scientific integrity policies at federal agencies have detailed procedures for assessing the validity of and addressing allegations of scientific integrity abuses.

This lack of clarity in current agency policies has had damaging impacts on scientists who raise, or are accused of, scientific integrity violations. A scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, appeared to have lost his job over publishing a paper that the Department of Energy didn’t like. When a scientist at the US Department of Agriculture was accused of violating the scientific integrity policy, he was subjected to a long review process that may not have included an independent assessment of the claims. Thankfully, both the DOE and USDA have revised their scientific integrity policies to strengthen the allegation evaluation procedures.  A law requiring all science agencies to make allegation procedures clearer would improve evaluation of scientific integrity violations across the government and give federal scientists fairer assessments.

It’s easy to forget about the essential work government scientists do, but we will suffer if it’s compromised. Science-based federal agencies didn’t get everything right under President Obama, but they made important improvements in scientific integrity. If the Trump administration makes it harder for federal scientists to fulfill their agencies’ missions, we’ll see the negative impacts in our air, water, food, drugs, and disease risk. I’m glad Senator Nelson and his colleagues are acknowledging the importance of government science in public health with the Scientific Integrity Act.

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