To say that most US scientists were relieved that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election would understate the depth of their feelings. “It feels very much like the four-year war on science has come to an end,” University of Maine ecologist Jacquelyn Gill told BuzzFeed.
On social media, science supporters gleefully shared something that should be unremarkable: The first bullet point in the Biden-Harris plan to beat COVID-19 is “Listen to science.” Public health experts have applauded the team’s swift formation of a COVID-19 advisory board that Nature’s Nidhi Subbaraman describes as “stacked with infectious-disease researchers and former public-health advisers who will help them to craft a pandemic plan as they transition into office.”
While COVID-19 is obviously one of the most pressing areas where we need evidence-based leadership, the Trump administration has damaged scientific work across the executive branch. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Attacks on Science database lists more than 150 instances of suppression, distortion, and misrepresentation. Undark’s Starre Vartan and Jenny Morber note that more than 1,600 government scientists left their jobs in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and scientific advisory boards have been disbanded or restructured in problematic ways.
In Scientific American, Lauren Kurtz of Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and Gretchen Goldman of Union of Concerned Scientists offer “10 Steps That Can Restore Scientific Integrity in Government.” At the top of the list is “Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship”—problems that have been all too common over the past four years. “To ensure that scientists can do their job protecting the public in the next crisis, whether it be a pandemic, an earthquake or the climate crisis, we can and must ensure scientists’ voices and work are shielded from political forces,” Kurtz and Goldman write. “Our lives and the nation’s future depend on it.”
I’ve written before about the scientific integrity recommendations that a range of public interest organizations put forward in Restoring Science, Protecting the Public: 43 Steps for the Next Presidential Term (whose recommendations span the executive branch) and Restoring Science, Protecting the Public: Recommendations for Federal Agencies in the Next Presidential Term (whose recommendations are tailored for specific agencies). But just as important as whether the new administration follows such specific recommendations is whether they have an appropriate respect for science and scientists. John Holdren, who led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama administration and is now at Harvard, told the Harvard Gazette’s Alvin Powell:
That is going to be the hallmark of what Biden and Harris do in office: They are going to appoint competent people. They are going to listen to them. They are going to interact closely with them. Their science and technology experts are going to be in the room and at the table for the many policy discussions where science and technology are germane.
It’s ridiculous that operating in this way represents such a sea change, but at the moment it feels like cause for celebration.