March 12, 2023 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

A new survey from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that scientists from six federal agencies surveyed in late 2022 saw improvements in scientific integrity over the past two years, but many still report censorship and inadequate staffing. I was particularly interested in responses from CDC and FDA scientists, given their roles in the COVID-19 pandemic and other aspects of public health. Some of the findings from these agencies were disappointing, but not entirely surprising.

UCS worked with the University of New Hampshire Survey Center to distribute a survey similar to ones they’ve administered to federal scientists periodically since 2004. The more than 46,000 scientists who received this one in September and October 2022 were from CDC, EPA, FDA, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Questions ask about topics such as scientific integrity, workplace morale, staff capacity, and diversity – and COVID-19, a new addition to the survey for 2022. (Disclosure: I do contract work for UCS and provided input on draft survey questions.) A total of 1,828 scientists submitted responses.

It wasn’t a surprise that the 2018 survey found high levels of concern about scientific integrity, given the extensive political interference with scientific work that occurred during the Trump years. Since then, the Biden administration has taken visible, government-wide steps to protect science from political interference, so it’s not surprising that 2022 responses show overall improvement in scientific integrity. Compared to 2018 (and to 2015), more scientists in 2022 reported receiving adequate training on their agencies’ scientific integrity policies (73%) and that they could express concerns about their agencies’ mission-driven work without fear of retaliation. One EPA scientist wrote, “The transition from the Trump to the Biden administration has been remarkable. I feel the difference every day in my work and am beyond grateful to have [a] President that believes in science, climate change and the EPA.”

Censorship Concerns

Overall, the proportion of scientists reporting that they had been asked or told to omit politically contentious words from their scientific work products remained similar from 2018 to 2022. However, that broad trend disguises some differences: At CDC, the percentage of scientists reporting this issue increased from 30% to 36%. And at FDA and NOAA, where smaller proportions of scientists reported word-change pressure in 2018 (14% and 16%, respectively), larger percentages of scientists had experienced such requests or orders in 2022: 25% at FDA and 21% at NOAA. Over the same time period, numbers dropped at EPA, FWS, and USDA.

Other censorship questions asked about being asked or told to avoid work on some science-based topics that could be viewed as political contentious; self-censorship (deciding to avoid politically contentious scientific topics or terms without having been told to do so); and fearing repercussions for exercising their rights to engage in advocacy and self-expression. “Such censorship concerns were most serious at the CDC, which had the highest or second-highest percentages on the survey’s four censorship measures,” note report authors Anita Desikan and Jacob Carter.

The survey’s low response rate (4% overall, and just 2% for FDA) means we shouldn’t assume the percentages reflect the percentages of all employees at these agencies who have these concerns. People who have concerns might be more likely to complete this kind of survey – or they might skip the survey because feel defeated and don’t think their voice can make a difference. But the fact that dozens of employees from any agency have reported censorship-related concerns means this is something agency leadership should address.

Concerns about COVID-19 and a Drug Decision

This survey is the first one UCS has administered to federal scientists since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck. I imagine that if CDC and FDA scientists had completed surveys in late 2020, they’d have reported serious concerns about scientific integrity in the pandemic response. At CDC, scientists would have seen Trump administration officials bury and then release a watered-down version of their agency’s guidelines for reopening public places after COVID-19 closures; halt CDC’s daily COVID-19 briefings; and delay and request changes to the agency’s highly regarded scientific publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. At FDA, those in charge of science-based drug decision-making faced Trump administration pressure to authorize unproven COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine, while those addressing vaccine development had to stand up to White House efforts to block release of a guidance document to improve public and manufacturer understanding of how FDA would evaluate new COVID-19 vaccines.

I had high hopes for the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response, but CDC keeps disappointing me. We aren’t hearing about the kinds of heavy-handed meddling by political appointees that occurred during the Trump administration, so I wonder if self-censorship has taken hold. CDC doesn’t seem to be using evidence appropriately when relaxing guidelines around preventive measures such as masking and post-infection isolation, even as COVID-19 continues to kill thousands of people each month and disable many more. One CDC scientist gave this comment on the survey:

The Biden Administration and the White House continue to interfere with the CDC appropriately communicating the scientific basis of our decision making with the public, particularly for COVID-19 and Monkeypox. We are prevented from communicating with the press or the public at the time of release, holding briefings or tele-briefings when we change scientific recommendations, or otherwise engaging in what in the past (pre-pandemic) had been the routine communications practices of the agency.

I’m not sure I’d agree with decisions CDC is making about what elements to include and how heavily to weight them in the scientific basis of their COVID-19 decisions, and the fact that the agency isn’t engaging in more open communication practices limits opportunities for what could be a productive exchange of information and opinions.

At FDA during the Biden administration, scientific integrity advocates have been concerned about drug approvals based on insufficient evidence. One approval that might have been on the minds of those completing the 2022 survey was for the Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. Trials of the drug indicated serious risks without clinically significant improvements in memory, and none of the advisory committee members recommended approval. FDA approved the drug anyway, citing a reduction in amyloid beta in the brains of patients who took it. (Although amyloid beta plaques are found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s, reducing the substance hasn’t been shown to improve memory.) Advocates for scientific integrity decried the decision, and three of the advisory committee members resigned in protest.

Congress’s Role

Presidents and the leaders they appoint have a lot of influence over federal scientists’ working conditions, but Congress also plays an important role. When legislators fail to appropriate enough money for agencies to fulfill their missions, staff suffer. Anita Desikan writes in a blog post about the survey:

Fifty-nine percent of surveyed scientists (982 respondents) reported noticing staff departures, retirements, or hiring freezes in the past two years. Of these, some 88 percent (868 respondents) reported that a lack of capacity made it difficult for them to fulfill their agencies’ science-based missions. Seventy percent (715 respondents) of those who reported burnout said it was due to lack of staff capacity. And respondents overwhelmingly chose limited staff capacity as the greatest barrier to science-based decisionmaking.

One NOAA scientist phrased it this way: “The most significant limiting factor for my agency’s ability to maintain scientific integrity is its staffing level. We are consistently being asked to do more with either less, or the current level of, staffing.”

President Biden’s proposed budget includes several elements aimed at rebuilding the federal workforce, including spending increases at nearly all agencies, but it seems unlikely that Congress will adopt those proposals.

Congress could also help by passing the Scientific Integrity Act, which would give the force of law to what is currently just a Biden administration instruction for agencies to develop and implement scientific integrity policies that prohibit political interference with scientific activities. I hope the development and revision of those policies will result in positive changes at CDC and FDA and that we’ll see improvements the next time UCS surveys federal scientists.

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