August 6, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

Since Representative Paul Tonko and Senator Brian Schatz introduced the Scientific Integrity Act in March, it has gathered endorsements from a wide range of supporters on and off Capitol Hill. The House bill, H.R. 1709, has more than 200 cosponsors, but so far all of them are Democrats. A recent hearing, though, suggested the possibility of bipartisan support for scientific integrity legislation.

The hearing, “Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies,” was a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology and the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Statements, testimony, and questions focused largely on the Scientific Integrity Act, which would prohibit federal agency personnel from misrepresenting or suppressing scientific findings and codify agency scientists’ rights to publish their work, respond to media requests, and review agency statements about their work before such statements are made public (see this post for more details). As directed by an Obama administration memorandum, two dozen agencies have already adopted scientific integrity policies, but these vary greatly in completeness and lack the force of law.

Four witnesses testified: John Neumann of the Government Accountability Office; Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado; and Joel Clement of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Clement previously held a senior executive position at the Department of the Interior, where he helped endangered Alaska communities prepare for and adapt to a changing climate—until he was abruptly reassigned to the auditing office that collects and disperses royalty income from oil, gas, and mining companies. He filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration, stating that he believed he was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities, and later resigned from a position that was no match for his background.

Noticeably absent from the witness table was Francesca Grifo, EPA’s Scientific Integrity Official. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said in her opening statement that EPA’s scientific integrity policy is among the most robust, and Grifo arguably the most experienced official. The agency, however, “refused to make Dr. Grifo available” to testify and offered instead to send the Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science, who has never served as a scientific integrity official and did not help draft EPA’s policy.

Statements, discussion, and letters submitted for the record demonstrated that scientific integrity is a topic that affects a wide range of issue areas. Tonko entered into the record a letter supporting the Scientific Integrity Act signed by more than 60 organizations, a list that “includes scientists but also government accountability groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, women’s health organizations such as the National Partnership for Women & Families, and unions such as SEIU.” Tonko also entered a letter from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility; Representative Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) entered one from the Iternational Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW); Representative Mikie Sherrill (D-New Jersey) entered one from Climate Science Legal Defense Fund; and Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-Virginia) entered one from my organization, the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health.

 

Scientific integrity is a bipartisan issue

“This is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” stressed Stevens, the Subcommittee on Research and Technology Chair, when she opened the hearing. “It’s not about one Administration or another. It is about ensuring public trust in the conduct, dissemination, and use of scientific research in the Federal government.”

Representative James Baird (R-Indiana), Subcommittee on Research and Technology Ranking Member, also emphasized the importance of integrity and trust—and his background as a scientist gave extra weight to his remarks. “In science, carrying out our work with integrity is the bedrock principle,” he stated, and urged that the public must be able to trust scientists and institutions.

Other committee members and witnesses echoed Stevens’s note of bipartisanship. “Scientific integrity is a longstanding concern that transcends any one party or political administration,” said Tonko, who also has a STEM background. He noted that he began working on the Scientific Integrity Act in the summer of 2016, when we had a Democratic administration and he expected the next administration to be Democratic – but “whether a Democrat or a Republican sits in the Speaker’s chair or the Oval Office, we need strong scientific integrity policies.”

Political interference with science is a problem whether it comes from the left or right, Representative Don Beyer (D-Virginia) remarked, noting that the Obama administration ignored scientists’ advice when placing age limits on over-the-counter access to emergency contraception. He invited every Republican on the committee to sign on to the Scientific Integrity Act—or to state the objections they had to it so those could be discussed.

Republican witness Roger Pielke, Jr. spoke in support of scientific integrity legislation and stated, “If there’s one area where bipartisanship should thrive, it’s scientific integrity.”

“There is not Democratic or Republican science – there is just science,” Michael Halpern told the committee. Over the course of the hearing, he gave examples of political interference with science from multiple administrations, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission under the GW Bush administration manipulating testing procedures to produce misleading results on the lead content in children’s lunch boxes; the Obama administration EPA misrepresenting scientists’ conclusions about hydrofracking’s negative impacts on drinking water; and the Trump administration’s suppression of a draft toxicological profile of PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, a class of hazardous chemicals found in water supplies near several military bases and other contaminated sites). Halpern noted that the bipartisan Congressional response to the PFAS report suppression was heartening.

 

Scientific integrity problems have consequences for public health

“Every time government scientific reports are delayed, distorted or hidden, the American people pay the price in the form of lost rights and freedoms, lost wages to medical bills, burned or flooded homes, lost years from our lives and the irreplaceable loss of loves ones,” Tonko said in his opening statement. “Allowing political power or special interests to manipulate or suppress federal science hurts all of us. It leads to dirtier air, unsafe water, toxic products on our shelves and chemicals in our homes and environment. And it has driven federal inaction in response to the growing climate crisis.”

Witnesses and committee members gave examples that demonstrated the range of issue areas where disregard for science harms public health. Clement emphasized the importance of addressing the climate crisis, but his experience offers a reminder that federal employees can face harsh repercussions when they try to address climate impacts. He also noted that DOI abruptly halted studies on protecting the health and safety of oil rig workers and the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Halpern pointed to the Department of Labor’s suppression of information about the projected impacts of its proposal to make tips the property of employers rather than workers, and the Office of Management and Budget weakening of FDA language on risks posed by tobacco products.

Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) also raised a worker health and safety example in EPA’s decision not to ban asbestos. “They disregarded advice of their scientists,” she said. “There’s no excuse for disregarding that science and the health of the American people.”

Wexton exhibited similar outrage when describing how the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies misrepresented the substantial evidence on the relationship between access to contraception and unintended pregnancy in the interim final rule rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. She referenced a comment submitted on that rule by the Union of Concerned Scientists, National Partnership for Women and Families, and the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, which criticized the agencies for claiming “complexity and uncertainty in the relationship between contraceptive access, contraceptive use, and unintended pregnancy.” (As our readers are likely aware, there is extensive evidence—much of it from HHS surveys—that access to and use of contraception reduces unintended pregnancies.) That misrepresentation “is astonishing to me,” she said. “I hope we can all agree that’s ridiculous.”

How can agencies get away with ignoring scientific evidence and advice? One tactic is to make employees fear consequences of speaking up. “This culture of fear, censorship, and suppression is keeping incredibly capable federal scientists from sharing important information with the public or participating as professionals in their field,” Clement testified. He noted that his own reassignment came a week after he spoke at the United Nations about the need to build resilience in the face of climate change. The abrupt action sent a message to others to keep their heads down.

Halpern told committee members that many federal scientists who responded to a recent UCS survey reported either censorship or self-censorship, particularly in the area of climate change. In response to a question from Beyer about the impact on the future workforce, both Clement and Halpern replied that current conditions harm recruitment and retention—at a time when we need the best and brightest minds to address the climate crisis and other public health priorities.

 

Current policies are insufficient, and the Scientific Integrity Act would be a big step forward

Neumann explained that GAO identified 24 agency scientific integrity policies and focused on nine of them for their recent report, which analyzed the content of the policies, actions taken to implement them, and the presence of procedures for addressing alleged violations. They found wide variability, and identified that several agencies were lacking in the areas of oversight, monitoring and evaluation, and/or communication of policies to staff. Neumann recommended that agencies need consistent and transparent processes so that staff can feel comfortable reporting alleged violations. Policies that look good on paper aren’t very useful if staff and contractors don’t feel that raising concerns will prompt an appropriate response.

Clement told the committee that when he was fighting back against his reassignment, he didn’t look to DOI’s scientific integrity policy—but if it had been in statute, he could have used it in his whistleblower complaint. The fact that there have been few scientific integrity complaints at the agency isn’t because there aren’t scientific integrity problems, he suggested, but is due to hostile leadership. Halpern noted that Deborah Swackhamer, who testified before the committee the previous day about threats to EPA federal advisory committees, had led a scientific advisory board and faced pressure to change her Congressional testimony on the Trump administration’s decision to not reappoint half the board’s members. She complained to the agency’s inspector general, and was told that office wouldn’t pursue it because no law had been broken, Halpern said.

Codifying scientific integrity policies into law doesn’t just make it easier for individuals to file strong complaints against violations; it also protects the policies from being weakened or eliminated. Today, Halpern explained, agencies’ policies are vulnerable to being repealed or cut back at any moment. And the Scientific Integrity Act also requires agencies to have enforcement mechanisms and report on complaints—an improvement over today’s circumstances, when it’s generally not clear what recourse is available to those reporting violations, or what (if any) public reporting is required.

Establishing and strengthening scientific integrity infrastructure isn’t just helpful in cases where staff or contractors bring formal complaints about scientific integrity abuses, though; it can also address concerns early and help prevent them from becoming crises, Halpern noted. At a recent EPA Scientific Integrity Stakeholder Meeting, participants learned that much the scientific integrity office’s work involves informal consultations that aim to resolve concerns.

Clement described the Scientific Integrity Act as “necessary but not sufficient,” and told the committee it would serve agency staff by creating a stronger process for addressing scientific integrity violations than is present under current policy. Pielke stated that scientific integrity legislation is “important and necessary” and that HR 1709 is “a good start but not quite there yet.” He and Halpern both included specific recommendations in their written testimony.

When Tonko asked Halpern whether the Scientific Integrity Act would help prevent suppression of things like the PFAS draft toxicological report, Halpern responded that it would. He pointed out that while the PFAS draft report is now public, we’re still waiting for EPA to publish a long-delayed report on cancer risks associated with formaldehyde.

Some of the discussion addressed what we need from scientists, and the limits on what we should expect from them. In his testimony, Pielke distinguished between science advice—“the application of the tools and techniques of science to answer questions relevant to (or perceived to be relevant to) policy”—and policy advice, which “seeks to answer the question: What might or should we do?” Halpern emphasized that the Scientific Integrity Act isn’t dictating policy decisions, but protecting the science that informs them. Johnson also addressed that distinction in her opening statement, saying, “The meaning of science-based decision-making is being informed by the best possible science and deciding what to do.”

Of all the hearings I’ve watched from the 116thCongress, this one seemed to have the most common ground between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides appear to agree that scientific integrity is important and worth protecting. I hope we’ll see passage of strong scientific integrity legislation, because the public’s health depends on it.

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