So far this year, most of the activity to safeguard scientific integrity at federal agencies has come from the executive branch. With the reintroduction of the Scientific Integrity Act in the House, Congress has a chance to put the force of law behind the push to ensure that federal scientists can do their jobs without political interference.
Representative Paul Tonko has championed the Scientific Integrity Act in multiple Congresses and won substantial support; in the 117th Congress, the House passed it as part of the Heroes Act in 2020. The latest version (HR 4893) has bipartisan backing, and Representative Tonko reintroduced it along with Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Haley Stevens, Suzanne Bonamici, Don Beyer, and Brian Fitzpatrick.
At the core of the Scientific Integrity Act is a requirement for federal agencies that fund or direct public science to establish and enforce scientific integrity policies. Many agencies first developed scientific integrity policies when the Obama Administration required them to do so, and the Biden Administration has taken additional steps to ensure that all agencies have policies that meet high standards for protecting scientific work from political interference. (The process of developing and updating those policies is still ongoing; I wrote about aspects of it here, here, and here.) The Scientific Integrity Act would enshrine in statute the requirement for agencies to have such policies, so their presence and enforcement wouldn’t be dependent on having a supportive president.
We need federal agencies to produce high-quality science and make evidence-based policy decisions in order to solve problems like the climate crisis, pandemics, and an appalling maternal mortality rate that disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous people. Regardless of their policy preferences, political appointees at federal agencies shouldn’t suppress a toxicological profile of a chemical contaminant; remove references to humans’ role in climate change from a report on impacts of sea-level rise on parks; abruptly halt research projects on teen sexual health or offshore drilling safety; or interfere with publication of scientific studies on COVID-19. The Scientific Integrity Act would send a strong message that these kinds of interfering actions are unacceptable. When such meddling does happen — and given that many candidates are politicizing science, it’s almost inevitable that it will — scientific integrity policies offer a tool to address it. I hope Congress will recognize the many ways the Scientific Integrity Act will benefit us all in the long run and pass this important bill.