Last week, the Scientific Integrity Act passed out of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and got one step closer to safeguarding scientific work at federal agencies. Following a markup in which Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) offered an amendment and bill author Rep. Paul Tonko (D-New York) accepted it, the legislation received votes from 19 Democrats and six Republicans (six Republicans also voted against it). Such bipartisanship marks a recognition of what the bills supporters have been pointing out for months: that scientific integrity is not a partisan issue, and that abuses of it have happened under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Michael Halpern, who testified at a recent hearing on scientific integrity, explains what the Scientific Integrity Act would do and why it matters:
The legislation makes it illegal for anyone to manipulate, suppress, or distort scientific research. It requires agencies to establish policies for approval of scientific papers written by agency scientists. It empowers scientists to participate in scientific meetings and serve in leadership positions within scientific associations.
It stops agency officials from delaying the release of scientific findings for non-scientific reasons. It requires agencies to train employees on proper conduct. And it requires agencies to report out their progress in implementing their policies.
In real life? If the bill is signed into law, political appointees can’t hold up analysis on formaldehyde because it’s politically inconvenient. They can’t order scientists to change testing procedures to hide the presence of toxic lead in children’s lunch boxes. The can’t misrepresent research on drinking water and fracking. They can’t politically restrict the types of scientific methods that scientists can use to understand environmental threats.
In her opening statement, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) noted that the bill’s provisions “are about protecting federal science and scientists from undue political influence and ensuring that the public can trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. … This is important regardless of which party is in the White House.”
The change that garnered Republican support was not a minor one: removing the provision that codifies agency scientists’ right to discuss their work with journalists. Science’s Jeff Mervis details the back-and-forth:
The original bill, which had attracted 226 Democratic co-sponsors and not a single Republican, would have given government scientists the right to say yes to media requests, without prior clearance from agency officials. After conversations with numerous outside groups that had raised concerns, Tonko offered a revised version this morning that removed that direct media access and instead would have required agencies to set guidelines for how scientists may respond to media requests. Those guidelines, the new version added, “shall not delay or impede without scientific merit the communication of scientific or technical findings.”
But that change wasn’t enough for Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK), the top Republican on the panel. He asked the committee to drop the language completely in return for winning Republican support for the bill.
“The initial bill took a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a scalpel,” Lucas said in explaining why he objected to the Democrats’ latest version. “The bill was also prescriptive in that it got into the weeds on how agency scientists manage their media requests.”
Lucas offered an amendment that deleted those provisions, saying it was better to leave it “up to the agencies and administrations to manage their own media policies. … Every administration deserves the opportunity to shape policy and message. That’s why we hold elections. … With the adoption of my amendment, I will support passage of the bill and encourage all my colleagues to do so.”
Some agencies have already adopted scientific integrity policies that state scientists may speak with the media about their work, and I hope others will follow suit — and then develop the kinds of enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure scientists can truly enjoy the rights the policies enumerate. Even with this provision stripped out, the Scientific Integrity Act would still represent a major step forward and help us better address the many public health challenges we face.
Rep. Tonko, who authored the bill with Senator Brian Schatz and has done extensive work to build support for it, commented:
At its heart, science doesn’t serve political power—it just tries to tell us the truth. In contrast, when we allow political power to interfere with our public science, the result is 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. These are the consequences that scientific integrity policies exist to prevent. I have long believed there should be room for bipartisan action that strengthens these public standards, and I am pleased to say that our Science Committee proved me right today.
The Scientific Integrity Act now awaits a vote by the full House of Representatives. If it passes, it will then move on to the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority and will no doubt be paying attention to the how much Republican support the legislation garnered in the House.