The White House released its recommendations to strengthen federal scientific integrity and improve trust in science policy on January 11. These recommendations, along with President Biden’s memo and executive order to restore evidence-based decision-making in the federal government signal the importance of this issue, and Congress should take note and act to codify scientific integrity standards and protections.
As confusion, distrust, and politicization continue to thwart the U.S. response to a pandemic that has already killed more than 800,000 Americans, enacting effective protections for science in the policymaking process could not be more crucial. One critical step is for Congress to pass the bipartisan Scientific Integrity Act, which would address the new White House recommendations.
As is now well-documented, the federal government’s response to Covid-19 was marred by politicization, especially in the early months of the pandemic. Under President Trump, senior political officials censored top government scientists who warned of the pandemic’s severity, undercut the Food and Drug Administration’s review process for new treatments, and manipulated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to encourage an end to lockdowns. State governments led by both parties have also been accused of misconduct. For example, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, initially lauded for his pandemic response, was lambasted after an investigation found that his office may have drastically undercounted the number of deaths among nursing home residents and rewritten reports to hide the higher death toll.
The politicization of government public health guidance has had an impact. In a poll taken in May 2021, 20 percent of respondents said that they did not trust the CDC, and 24 percent said that they did not trust the FDA. Despite the fact that Covid-19 vaccines have received approval or emergency authorization from the FDA after extensive clinical trials, about 90 million Americans continue to forgo vaccination, leaving them 11 times more likely to die of the disease than those who are fully vaccinated.
These problems did not begin with the Trump administration. The attacks on government research and public health guidance we have seen throughout the pandemic are part of a longer pattern of assaults on scientific integrity in the federal policymaking process. During the Obama administration, officials from the National Institutes of Health solicited funding from alcohol industry representatives to study the benefits of moderate drinking and allowed those representatives to provide input on the design of the study, violating federal policy. Under President George W. Bush, political officials manipulated climate change research to serve the administration’s political interests and the financial interests of large donors to the president’s campaigns.
The politicization of science results in fear, self-censorship, and attrition among government experts, as well as policies that serve senior officials’ short-term political goals or the financial interests of the politically connected, at the expense of the public interest. It also subverts democratic accountability for government officials.
These consequences in turn degrade the quality of policy decisions that affect the wellbeing and livelihood of everyday Americans. Though policymakers often must take into account factors beyond scientific considerations, it is essential that the data and research findings upon which government decisions are based be free from political influence, and officials should acknowledge when their decisions are based on other considerations, promoting transparency and accountability.
The good news is that many policymakers and advocates recognize the need to restore guardrails to protect the integrity of the research and data produced by the federal government and used to make policy. Despite the encouraging actions from the White House, we cannot rely on the commitments of a single administration to create enduring protections for the federal government’s scientific enterprise. That is why the Brennan Center’s bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy — a group of former senior government officials who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations — published a report advocating for legislation that would protect government research and data from improper politicization. Those recommendations are encompassed by the Scientific Integrity Act, reintroduced last February by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and set to be reintroduced soon in the Senate by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).
The legislation, which our bipartisan Task Force endorsed, aligns well with the new recommendations from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The bill would require federal agencies to adopt scientific integrity policies and mandate that they have safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of the scientific process. It would prohibit the manipulation or suppression of scientific findings, as well as retaliation against scientists. The bill received bipartisan support both in the House Space, Science, and Technology Committee 2019 and when the House passed it in 2020.
As people across the country face the devastating consequences of the pandemic, the need for objective research and data, science-based policymaking, and democratic accountability in the federal government could not be more urgent. The Scientific Integrity Act would protect and strengthen the scientific work that America needs.