The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is holding a hearing Friday dedicated to a recent Government Accountability Office report documenting how political interference at four public health agencies hampered the federal government’s pandemic response. The report recommends that the agencies adopt clear definitions of political interference in scientific decision-making, as well as procedures for reporting and addressing it.
The Biden administration should adopt most if not all of these suggestions, but it can do even more to protect scientific integrity by promoting greater transparency and strengthening enforcement of key safeguards. But over the long term, as the Brennan Center noted in a letter submitted to the Committee, executive actions are no substitute for congressional action to protect the government’s scientific enterprise.
By now, it is well documented that politicization of government science has hindered our ability to manage the Covid-19 pandemic effectively. The Trump administration manipulated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sidelined government scientists who raised concerns about the pandemic’s severity and various treatments’ efficacy, and denigrated public health measures like testing and mask wearing. Similar abuses of power occurred at the state level, too. For instance, top aides to former New York governor Andrew Cuomo changed data to drastically underreport nursing home deaths.
These incidents are part of a much broader problem that is not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic and has spanned Republican and Democratic administrations, from the Obama administration’s rejection of over-the-counter contraceptives for minors — which a federal judge called “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and against agency precedent” — to the George W. Bush administration’s repeated efforts to downplay data showing the connection between carbon emissions and climate change, as well as research on the dangers climate change poses.
Such abuses increased dramatically under Trump, with officials across many different departments manipulating research and data for political reasons — sometimes brazenly, as when President Trump presented an altered map of a hurricane to support his false claim that it would hit Alabama and the secretary of commerce then reportedly threatened to fire National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration officials if they did not refute the National Weather Service’s assessment of the hurricane’s actual trajectory (“Sharpiegate”).
Within one week of assuming office, President Biden sought to turn the page on such incidents by issuing a memo and an executive order announcing his administration’s commitment to evidence-based decision-making. In January 2022, a scientific integrity task force convened by the administration released a report recommending the adoption of additional safeguards, which, like the GAO’s recommendations, would improve scientific integrity if implemented.
But the Biden administration has faced its own controversies, including with respect to the pandemic. While there are no reports of it manipulating data or retaliating against scientists, it has, for instance, been accused of succumbing to political pressure to shorten the CDC’s recommended isolation period for infected people over the objections of groups representing frontline workers like nurses and flight attendants. And the White House has occasionally clashed with career scientists, as when two senior vaccine regulators left the Food and Drug Administration over disagreements about the approval of booster vaccines.
Such policy disagreements are not necessarily indicative of scientific integrity violations — the pandemic has often required policymakers to make hard trade-offs with incomplete data. But when policymakers do weigh other factors alongside scientific advice, they should do so transparently, allowing key stakeholders and the broader public to more accurately judge the merits of decisions that impact all of our lives.
Strong safeguards to ensure that policymakers never pressure scientists, manipulate data, or alter conclusions to justify preferred policy outcomes are critical in this regard. The recommendations from the GAO and the administration’s own scientific integrity task force, some of which have already been adopted, are an excellent start. And there is even more the administration can do to craft broader safeguards to prevent political manipulation of data and intimidation of government scientists, create mechanisms for holding violators accountable, and establish protocols for making government research publicly accessible.
But a different administration could roll all these initiatives back on day one. The only way to ensure comprehensive, enduring safeguards for evidence-based policymaking is for Congress to take legislative action. The Scientific Integrity Act, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tonko (D) of New York, would create key guardrails to prevent abuse, including ensuring scientific findings are not suppressed or altered, protecting scientists from retaliation, prohibiting efforts to delay the release of scientific conclusions, and establishing procedures for investigating scientific integrity issues.
The bill received bipartisan support in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in 2019 and when the House passed it in 2020. It also aligns with recommendations from the Brennan Center’s bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy, a group of former senior government officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. The task force and the Brennan Center have both endorsed the bill.
Passage of this legislation is the best way to ensure that the government’s decisions about public health, the environment, food and workplace safety, and much more are informed by accurate science, free from manipulation for political gain.