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Analysis

Restoring Scientific Integrity in the Federal Government

The Scientific Integrity Act is crucial to reestablishing protections for government scientists and trust in the policymaking process.

January 24, 2022
scientist
Karen Ducey/Getty

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.