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Historic Opportunity to Strengthen U.S. Scientific Integrity Policies

Anita Desikan, a Senior Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, reflects on progress made in advocating for scientific integrity in the United States.

Anita Desikan investigates the role of science in public policy, focusing on topics like scientific integrity at federal agencies, and political interference in the scientific rulemaking process.

Note: An earlier version of this blog post was published on The Equation, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog.

Since 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been advocating that federal agencies in the United States adopt the strongest measures possible to protect scientists and their work from political interference. During the George W. Bush administration, we learned that political officials and other higher ups were burying reports of federal scientists, halting data collection processes at federal agencies, and sidelining the expert advice from scientific advisory committees.

In 2009, as a result of advocacy work by the UCS and a coalition of scientific partners, the Obama administration began to adopt and implement scientific integrity policies that would help protect scientists and their work from these attacks on science. However, during the Trump administration, these scientific integrity policies were undermined at an unprecedented level, never before seen in modern U.S. presidential administrations. At UCS, we recorded over 200 attacks on science, where the Trump administration sidelined the science used to protect communities – especially underserved communities – from environmental and public health harms.

The Biden administration is making gains in strengthening scientific integrity policies

The Biden administration has pledged to reverse the trends under the prior administration and use evidence-based measures to strengthen scientific integrity policies across all federal agencies. There have already been a number of notable milestones in these efforts, but perhaps the most pivotal is the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) framework document. It includes the first government-wide definition of scientific integrity, a roadmap of activities and outcomes to protect scientific integrity, a model policy, and critical policy features and metrics that can be used to assess and track agency’s progress in implementing these actions.

My colleague Jacob Carter previously wrote about this landmark achievement and how, despite some weaknesses, the framework includes many innovative components—including some that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been advocating for nearly two decades. Some of these innovative components include providing several mechanisms for the consideration and documentation of differing scientific opinions; ensuring that scientific integrity protections extend to the open and timely communication of science to the public; and tying the protection of scientific integrity at federal agencies with efforts to improve and strengthen diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility measures.

Earlier this year, federal scientists, policymakers, and other experts from all major US federal agencies have been conferring on how best to implement the Biden administration’s historic framework for codifying scientific integrity principles into policy. Never before has there been a similar effort across federal agencies to carry out large-scale changes to the policies protecting the integrity and independence of federal science.

Already, we are seeing the framework in action. For the first time ever, OSTP has adopted a strong scientific integrity policy that can serve as a model for other agencies. OSTP’s new scientific integrity policy appears to have included, at least in part, several key recommendations that we at UCS, along with 12 partner organizations, previously urged the agency to adopt. In particular, we recommended that OSTP be:

  • More transparent about how investigations are conducted into potential violations of scientific integrity;
  • More explicit in delineating scientists’ ability to communicate with the media and public;
  • More specific about how enforcement actions will be carried out to ensure that all scientific integrity violators are held to account;
  • More robust in its protections for federal scientists from retaliation when they report scientific integrity violations.

We expect over the next few months that other federal agencies will draft new scientific integrity policies in line with the OSTP framework and carry out a public comment process to allow the public to provide input into their policies. But the uncomfortable truth is that, as federal agencies work to implement this framework into their scientific integrity policies, it will be far too easy for some agencies to decide to do only the bare minimum, to take shortcuts with the process, or even to try to retain some detrimental policies and procedures.

Scientific integrity policies help protect people from harms

Scientific integrity principles boil down to a simple concept: the need to stop unnecessary political intrusion into what should be science-based processes—such as scientific reports, data collection, or policy-makers using science in decision-making.

We’ve collected hundreds of examples in which federal agencies have blatantly violated scientific integrity in ways that have led to serious consequences for the public. For instance, the White House under the Obama administration overruled the FDA and imposed an age restriction on use of an emergency contraceptive for reasons that had nothing to do with science, while the White House under the Trump administration buried a CDC report outlining the dangers of PFAS chemicals because Trump officials considered it a “potential public relations nightmare.” The people of the United States deserve a government that uses science to decide how we keep people safe from toxic chemicals or how medicines are administered to the public, not a government that will shelf science when it is politically convenient.

Upholding scientific integrity principles at federal agencies also translates to being better able to protect underserved communities from environmental and health harms. While people across the United States can be affected when scientific integrity is violated at federal agencies, underserved communities most often bear the brunt of the harms, including disproportionately higher exposures to air pollutants, toxic chemicals, and climate change impacts.

Additionally, violating scientific integrity can undermine the ability of federal agencies to carry out robust and independent scientific data practices that can help identify health disparities in the first place. Scientific integrity protections at federal agencies make it possible to use science to identify and address the legacy of systematic racist policies that still disenfranchises Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities across the nation.

We need the strongest scientific integrity policies possible

Scientific integrity policies at federal agencies matter, and how dozens of agencies choose to implement the OSTP framework will matter a great deal. Weak, ineffective, or poorly enforced scientific integrity policies can create openings for unscrupulous political officials to use for their own benefit at the expense of the health and safety of the communities across the country.

The details of the process unfolding now will profoundly affect tens of thousands of federal scientists for years to come, along with all of us in the United States who rely on the research of federal scientists to keep our food safe, our water clean, and our environment free of pollutants.

Opportunities to influence federal scientific integrity policy are rare and the public now has a chance to help secure the quality of science across the federal government. That’s why it’s imperative for us to raise our voices to insist that our federal agencies need the strongest scientific integrity measures possible to protect federal scientists from undue political interference in their work.

In the United States, along with countries across the world, we believe that governments have a duty to protect the health and welfare of their people, and to carry out that duty, governments need to utilize the best available science as a fundamental component of their decision-making processes. Ensuring that government science is protected from political interference cannot be accomplished overnight, it often takes years of work by federal agencies to ensure that strong safeguards are put in place. In the United States, we expect the fight for scientific integrity to continue, particularly in pressing congressional representatives to adopt a legislative bill that can put in place strong enforcement measures for when scientific integrity measures are violated by government employees.

We all depend on government science to protect our health and safety. Therefore, it is imperative that this science be kept free from political interference. Perhaps the best lesson that the fight for scientific integrity in the United States can provide to Canada and other countries across the world is that the only reason why we have these safeguards in place, and why they are currently being strengthened under the Biden administration, is the due to the power of scientists and the public telling their government that this issue is important. One voice, in chorus with others, can help shift the actions of governments and ensure that robust, independent science plays a pivotal role in government decision-making.

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