January 23, 2022 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

During his first week in office, President Joe Biden signed the “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking,” whose many welcome provisions included a process for strengthening scientific integrity policies at federal agencies. After the Trump administration misrepresented, distorted, and suppressed science on topics from climate change to COVID-19, the need for such a process was clear.

Biden’s memorandum tasked the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with convening a Task Force on Scientific Integrity to “conduct a thorough review of the effectiveness of agency scientific-integrity policies” that had been developed in response to President Obama’s 2009 memorandum. The memo directed the task force to gather input from stakeholders and the public; more than 200 organizations and individuals (including my organization, the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health) submitted comments during a 30-day comment period, and 175 participants joined three public listening sessions. Shortly before the one-year anniversary of Biden’s inauguration, OSTP released the task force’s report.

Many of the stakeholders who had submitted comments to OSTP found the report underwhelming. Responses from Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF), Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) identified some strong aspects of the report but raised concerns about inadequate specifics on enforcement and accountability. While I did hope to see more of those specifics, I’m hopeful that they’ll be in the next product that the memorandum directs the task force to prepare: “a framework to inform and support the regular assessment and iterative improvement of agency scientific-integrity policies and practices, to support the Director and OSTP in ensuring that agencies adhere to the principles of scientific integrity.” That framework “shall include assessment criteria that OSTP and agencies can use to inform, review, and improve the design and implementation of agency scientific-integrity policies.”

This initial task force report was supposed to consider whether existing policies are sufficient, and the report acknowledges that they aren’t. It was supposed to identify effective practices, and it does include a lot of helpful suggestions on topics from data integrity to communication of scientific findings. What I found inadequate was the report’s response to this requirement:

The Task Force’s review shall include an analysis of any instances in which existing scientific-integrity policies have not been followed or enforced, including whether such deviations from existing policies have resulted in improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and the collection of scientific or technological data; led to the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results; disproportionately harmed Federal scientists and researchers from groups that are historically underrepresented in science, technology, and related fields; or impeded the equitable delivery of the Federal Government’s programs.

A couple of boxes in the report mention specific instances of political interference with science, such as the “Sharpiegate” incident (in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] contradicted its own National Weather Service scientists in an apparent attempt to smooth over a blatantly inaccurate assertion from President Trump about the path of Hurricane Dorian) and Trump-era CDC COVID-19 guidance that was not grounded in science and not primarily authored by CDC staff.  Many statements about the severe consequences of failing to safeguard scientific indicate that the task force is aware of serious problems that have occurred. But, as the CSLDF statement points out, the report “downplays how awful things really got under the Trump administration.” It doesn’t convey the scope of attacks on science that occurred under Trump appointees or fully acknowledge how devastating they were to agency staff retention and morale. Such an accounting is necessary so that this process can help agencies develop policies and practices to allow them to better withstand future attacks.

An in-depth Nature article by Virginia Gewin does a great job conveying the scope of Trump-era damage to scientific integrity. It tells the stories of several federal employees—Linda Birnbaum at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Peter Corkeron at NOAA, Evi Emmenegger at the US Geological Survey, and Joel Clement at the Department of Interior—who faced reprimands and apparent retaliation after insisting on scientific accuracy, even though their agencies had scientific integrity policies in place at the time. Gewin also highlights the work that nonprofit organizations like CSLDF, PEER, UCS, and the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) are doing to support scientists and monitor scientific integrity violations. I admire and thank the people and organizations Gewin profiles, but we shouldn’t have to rely on federal scientists’ willingness to stand up to abuse and nonprofits’ ability to fill governmental shortcomings.

I hope the next report from OSTP and the Task Force on Scientific Integrity will provide a strong framework with concrete enforcement mechanisms to safeguard scientific integrity at federal agencies. Our nation’s ability to confront the greatest challenges of the 21st century depends on it.

One thought on “One Small Step for Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies

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