July 13, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

On July 17, the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and Subcommittee on Research and Technology will hold a hearing on “Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies.” This will be a great opportunity to hear more about the Scientific Integrity Act and ways to protect science from political interference.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Ken Kimmell (president of the Union of Concerned Scientists) and Christine Todd Whitman (co-chair of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, and former EPA administrator in the GW Bush administration) remind us why this is such a pressing issue:

Federal scientists often face political pressure that undermines their research and their ability to share it with the public. Political leaders have buried critical reports, keeping the public in the dark about real threats. They have prevented scientists from publishing their research or attending scientific conferences. They have disciplined scientists for talking about their findings to journalists.

The Scientific Integrity Act prohibits federal employees and contractors involved with science from engaging in this kind of damaging behavior; specifically, it states that they shall not:

(1) engage in dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, or other scientific or research misconduct;
(2) suppress, alter, interfere with, or otherwise impede the timely release and communication of, scientific or technical findings;
(3) intimidate or coerce an individual to alter or censor, or retaliate against an individual for failure to alter or censor, scientific or technical findings; or
(4) implement institutional barriers to co-operation and the timely communication of scientific or technical findings.

It codifies several rights for federal employees and contractors, including participating in scientific conferences and publishing in peer-reviewed journals; holding leadership roles in the scientific community; reviewing statements about their work before an agency makes them public; and responding to media requests for interviews about their research findings. (For more details on these provisions, see my earlier post on the bill; for more on why we need them, see this report.)

Scientific integrity policies

To implement all of this, the bill requires each agency that funds, conducts, or oversees scientific research to “develop, adopt, and enforce” a scientific integrity policy. Each agency must appoint a Scientific Integrity Officer to direct processes for resolving scientific integrity disputes, and must implement a training program and adopt a scientific integrity training program for employees and contractors.

Scientific integrity policies aren’t a new concept. President Obama issued a memorandum directing agencies to develop them, but this legislation would enshrine that requirement into law and create standards that the policies would have to meet.

At Wednesday’s hearing, witness John Neumann, Managing Director of Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics for the Government Accountability Office, will likely be testifying about the recent GAO analysis of scientific integrity policies. The report focused on nine agencies: USDA’s Agricultural Research Service; EPA; the Federal Aviation Administration; the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Engergy; NIH; NASA; National Institute of Standards and Technology; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the Department of Interior’s US Geological Survey.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has also conducted research on existing scientific integrity policies; in 2017, they concluded that policies from two dozen agencies “vary greatly in strength, scope, and completeness.” Michael Halpern, Deputy Director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, will also testify at the hearing.

The benefits of safeguarding science

“Independent, rigorous scientific research is one of the most powerful tools we have for advancing the public interest and keeping the American people safe,” said Representative Paul Tonko when he and Senator Brian Schatz introduced the Scientific Integrity Act. In their op-ed, Kimmell and Whitman write:

It’s not just scientists who stand to benefit from this law. We all do. With strong scientific integrity protections in place, federal researchers will be less likely to self-censor or avoid potentially contentious areas of research. When there’s scientific evidence that matters to our health and safety, the researchers who understand it best can share it with the public, without political gatekeepers picking and choosing what information we get to see. We can be more confident that the evidence informing policies is reliable and honest, which will lead to stronger, smarter rules.

To tackle the climate crisis and other urgent public health priorities, we must have access to current evidence from our federal agencies — and be able to trust what they tell us. The Scientific Integrity Act, and the strong scientific integrity policies it requires, can help us get there.

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