February 20, 2021 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

A week after taking the oath of office, President Biden signed a sweeping presidential memorandum that takes several welcome steps to ensure government scientists can do their jobs without political interference. A week after that, Representative Paul Tonko reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would enshrine into law many of the safeguards that Biden’s memorandum specifies. Together, these actions can help prevent the kinds of rampant attacks on science that we saw throughout the Trump administration.

Biden’s “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking” begins by explaining why scientific integrity in the federal government is so important:

Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists or other scientists who support the work of the Federal Government and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the Nation, contributes to systemic inequities and injustices, and violates the trust that the public places in government to best serve its collective interests.

The memorandum’s key elements include the following:

  • Scientific integrity policies: The OSTP director shall ensure that agencies adopt and enforce scientific integrity policies that “ban improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and in the collection of scientific or technological data, and that prevent the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results.”
  • Review of existing scientific integrity policies: The OSTP director shall convene an interagency task force of the National Science and Technology Council to review the effectiveness of existing scientific integrity policies, including an analysis of effective practices and instances in which agencies didn’t follow or enforce their policies. The review is to be completed within 120 days and include stakeholder input. Within another 120 days, the Task Force shall develop a framework to inform and support assessment and improvement of scientific integrity policies and practices.
  • Revising scientific integrity policies: Within 180 days of the task force report’s publication, the heads of agencies with existing scientific integrity policies shall submit updated policies to the OSTP director; agencies without existing policies shall submit new draft policies. The director “shall notify agencies of any deficiencies in the scientific-integrity policies and collaborate with agencies to expeditiously correct those deficiencies.”
  • Implementing scientific integrity policies: Agency heads shall develop and publish procedures for implementing their policies. On an annual basis, they shall publish reports on their websites that enumerate investigations and appeals related to alleged deviations from their policies.
  • Review of Trump-era materials: Agency heads shall review agency materials published since January 20, 2017 for inconsistency with the principles set forth in this memorandum. Where updates are needed, they shall update website content within 60 days and reports, data, etc. within 300 days.
  • Chief science officers: Within 120 days, the heads of agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research shall designate a senior agency employee for the role of chief science officer, science advisor, or chief scientist. This person will serve as the agency’s principal advisor on scientific issues, ensure the agency’s research programs are conducted with integrity, and oversee the implementation and improvement of policies affecting scientists and research integrity.
  • Scientific integrity officials: Within 120 days, the heads of all agencies shall designate a senior career employee as the agency’s lead scientific integrity official. This person will oversee implementation and improvement of scientific integrity policies and processes, including implementation of administrative and dispute resolution processes.
  • Advisory committees: Within 90 days, agencies shall review their needs for advisory committees, including which should be rechartered or recreated. (This might include restoring some eliminated under a Trump executive order.) The review shall “ensure that members and future nominees reflect the diversity of America in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and other characteristics; represent a variety of backgrounds, areas of expertise, and experiences; provide well-rounded and expert advice to agencies; and are selected based on their scientific and technological knowledge, skills, experience, and integrity, including prioritization of experience with evidence-based, equitable, inclusive, and participatory practices and structures for the conduct of scientific research and the communication of scientific results.”

It’s wonderful to see a presidential memorandum that implements so many of the recommendations that groups committed to scientific integrity (including my organization, the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health) put forward in Restoring Science, Protecting the Public: 43 Steps for the Next Presidential Term and Restoring Science, Protecting the Public: Recommendations for Federal Agencies in the Next Presidential Term.

While I’m thrilled to see the Biden administration taking these steps, the memorandum’s many references to President Obama’s memorandum that first instructed agencies to establish scientific integrity policies is a reminder that memoranda have limited influence once the presidents who issue them leave office. During the Trump administration, defenders of scientific integrity raised alarms about violations of existing scientific integrity policies, but agency leadership didn’t seem to care. To give scientific integrity policies staying power and teeth, we need legislation.

Like Biden’s memorandum, the Scientific Integrity Act would require agencies to develop and enforce strong scientific integrity policies and to appoint a scientific integrity official responsible for implementation. In the previous Congress, the Act passed the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology with votes from 19 Democrats and six Republicans. In the current Congress, one of the Act’s 162 cosponsors is a Republican: Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.

Representative Tonko (D-NY)—who was joined in reintroducing the Act by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Representatives Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA)—highlighted the high stakes of failing to protect scientific integrity:

Allowing politics and private interests to interfere with public science erodes public trust and has dire consequences. We have seen firsthand the devastation caused when politics gets in the way of science with the previous Administration’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the numerous environmental rollbacks that threaten the safety of our air and water.

And Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists commented:

The Scientific Integrity Act would protect federal science from political interference and make sure that the public can hear directly from scientists about the work they do. It will help us make sure that the decisions made by our leaders will be based on the best available evidence—not the whims of ideologues or powerful lobby groups.

I hope Congress will pass the Scientific Integrity Act and help our government make the best possible use of science.

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