March 18, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 3Comment

Last week, Representative Paul Tonko (D-New York) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act in the House and Senate. By codifying safeguards for science at federal agencies, the bill would better position our nation to use science to solve problems from pandemics to climate change.

The bill’s text begins by stating that it is the sense of Congress that “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” and that “Federal agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee research should work to prevent the suppression or distortion of the data and findings.” The bill reads like a response to problematic Trump administration actions to suppress and distort data and findings.


Prohibited conduct

The Scientific Integrity Act would prohibit federal employees and contractors involved with scientific activities from engaging in “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, or other scientific or research misconduct” or “suppress[ing], alter[ing], interfer[ing] with, or otherwise imped[ing] the timely release and communication of, scientific or technical findings.” It also bars them from intimidating or coercing other individuals into altering or censoring findings, or from erecting institutional barriers to their timely communication.

An individual covered by this legislation, or “covered individual,” is defined as a federal employee or contractor who “A) is engaged in, supervises, or manages scientific activities; (B) analyzes or publicly communicates in formation resulting from scientific activities; or (C) uses scientific information or analyses in making bureau, office, or agency policy, management, or regulatory decisions.”


Scientific publications and conferences

The bill would codify the right of federal employees and contractors to disseminate their scientific findings by participating in scientific conferences and publishing in peer-reviewed journals. It specifies that covered agencies – those that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research – may require scientists to submit findings for agency review for technical accuracy and the absence of the kinds of dishonesty described above. If an agency doesn’t complete such a review within 30 days, the scientist can proceed with dissemination.


Leadership in the scientific community

Under the Scientific Integrity Act, scientists have the right to sit on scientific advisory or governing boards, serve as peer reviewers or editors for academic work, “join or hold leadership positions on scientific councils, societies, unions, and other professional organizations,” and generally “participate and engage with the scientific community.” Such activities, the bill notes, are subject to applicable laws on ethics and conflicts of interest.


Public statements on basic or applied research

When a covered agency plans to make a public statement about conclusions of research by one of its scientists, that scientist must have the opportunity to review the statement for technical accuracy. If the scientist finds an inaccuracy, the agency and individual “shall jointly revise the public statement.”


Interview requests and personal statements

The bill specifies that covered individuals may respond to media requests for interviews about their research findings without receiving prior approval from their agency, although the agency may require that the individual report the subject of any such interview. When a member of the media directs an interview request to an agency, that agency must offer the covered individual the option of responding to the interview request directly or “provide a knowledgeable spokesperson who can, in an objective, nonpartisan, and articulate manner, describe and explain the scientific and technical findings.”

This section of the bill also codifies covered individuals’ right to present viewpoints in an interview that go beyond scientific findings, provided they indicate that they’re presenting their individual opinions and disclose conflicts of interest. Individuals presenting such viewpoints may note their affiliation with a covered agency provided it’s one of several biographical details.


Scientific integrity policies

To ensure that agencies uphold the Act’s principles, each agency must “develop, adopt, and enforce” a scientific integrity policy that addresses the items above and includes “enforcement processes consistent for an administrative hearing and an administrative appeal.”

Such policies aren’t a new concept; President Obama issued a memorandum directing agencies to develop them, and the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that the resulting policies, from more than 24 agencies, “vary greatly in strength, scope, and completeness.” The Scientific Integrity Act would put that requirement into law and specify what the policies must address. It states that agencies’ existing policies can fulfill the new law if an agency head makes a written determination that the current policy satisfies the Act’s requirements.


Training and reporting

Within 30 days of the Act’s enactment, each covered agency must appoint a Scientific Integrity Office – a career employee with “substantial technical knowledge and expertise in conducting and overseeing scientific research” – to direct processes for resolving scientific integrity disputes and implement a training program. Employees and contractors must receive regular scientific integrity and ethics trainings and be made fully aware of their rights and responsibilities under their agencies’ scientific integrity policies.

Each scientific integrity officer will also be responsible for posting to their agency’s public website their scientific integrity policy and an annual report that includes ‘‘(1) the number of misconduct cases filed for administrative redress for the year covered by the report; (2) the number of misconduct cases petitioned for administrative appeal for the year covered by the report; and (3) the number of cases still pending from years prior to the year covered by the report, if any.” Officers must also submit policies and reports to the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.


Tough times for federal science

Concerns about scientific integrity at federal agencies are nothing new; the Bush administration faced criticism for its interference in science on topics from sexual and reproductive health to climate change, and journalists denounced the Obama administration for “politically driven suppression of news and information.” But federal science has never been under greater threat than it is today, when we have a president who lies routinely.

While reading the Scientific Integrity Act, I thought about suppressions and distortions of science under the Trump administration that could have been prevented – or at least more easily combatted – if this kind of law had been in place. If agencies had the kinds of scientific integrity policies this bill envisions, we’d have better options for responding when EPA and the White House suppress a toxicological profile of a chemical contaminant; the Department of Health and Human Services mischaracterizes the safety and efficacy of contraception; or National Park Service officials remove references to humans’ role in climate change from a report on impacts of sea-level rise on parks. Scientists told to cancel their conference presentations on the health of the Narragansett Bay or how climate change affects wildfire conditions could respond by noting that they have a right to disseminate their research findings at scientific conferences.

“Independent, rigorous scientific research is one of the most powerful tools we have for advancing the public interest and keeping the American people safe,” Representative Tonko said when introducing the Scientific Integrity Act. To solve problems from antimicrobial resistance to climate change, federal scientists need to be able to conduct and communicate their work without politically motivated interference. This bill would take an important and much-needed step toward a future where we can rely on our federal agencies to uphold scientific integrity.

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