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Bipartisan Bill Would Protect Government Scientific Integrity

This commonsense legislation would protect evidence-based policymaking.

August 1, 2023

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Scientific Integrity Act in the House of Representatives last week. The bill seeks to strengthen evidence-based policymaking by prohibiting political interference with the scientific research and data federal agencies use to craft programs and regulations to protect public health, improve consumer and worker safety, ensure clean air and drinking water, and much more.  

As the country grapples with a myriad of complex, multi-faceted, highly technical issues — from viruses to record-breaking heat and dangerous air quality — legal safeguards are needed to ensure that senior government officials do not manipulate data or censor the experts who advise them to justify politically expedient policy outcomes. 

The federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic — marred by numerous episodes in which political officials suppressed data about infection rates, made misleading edits to public health guidance and censored leading government scientists — stands out as a recent example of the serious and far-reaching consequences of politicization of science in government decision-making.  

But such abuse is not limited to the pandemic. On issues ranging from climate science to extreme weather patterns, infectious diseases to defense technology, senior government officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations dating back to the Eisenhower presidency have tampered with scientific research federal agencies are charged with using and producing to carry out their statutory missions.

In some cases, they have also intimidated experts employed by the government to conduct research and advise on technical issues that arise in the policymaking process. This phenomenon is, unfortunately, not unique to the federal government. State and local governments have also seen politically motivated manipulation and suppression of research and data on issues including climate sciencelead contamination in water, and community exposure to carcinogens in the air. 

A recent Government Accountability Office study found that many of the abuses that occurred in the federal Public Health Service during the pandemic happened against a backdrop of weak or nonexistent mechanisms to shield scientific decision-making from political interference. In the face of declining trust in these public health agencies, the Biden administration committed to improving executive branch safeguards for science in policymaking. Starting with executive action during the first week of the administration and continuing with several reports from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy since then, the administration has provided thorough guidance to agencies and required them to comply with new standards to curb politically motivated abuse.  

A recent survey of federal scientists shows the effectiveness of such reforms in protecting scientific research and the government experts who perform it from improper political pressure. But executive action is not enough. Congress must act to ensure that the safeguards proving so effective in the federal government continue from one administration to the next. The Scientific Integrity Act would do just that. The bill passed out of the House Science Committee on a bipartisan basis in 2019 and passed the House in 2020. It would require federal agencies to adopt policies designed to prevent and remedy politically motivated manipulation and suppression of scientific research and data. It would also mandate that agencies have personnel and procedures in place to investigate allegations of misconduct and resolve disputes. The bill also provides for training for agency personnel about these protections and dispute resolution mechanisms, which would educate career experts and senior leaders alike about the appropriate use of science in the policymaking process and deter abuse.  

As the country grapples with the consequences the pandemic, there are important lessons to be learned about the role that science and experts need to play in everything from communication of technical issues to the general public to government investments in resources to evidence-based policymaking. In a society profoundly shaped by technological and scientific advances, government leaders’ duty to address multi-faceted issues that require deep subject matter expertise will only increase. Now is the time for Congress to codify proven safeguards for evidence-based policymaking in the executive branch.