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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
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.