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Science Under Siege

Congress must preserve and protect the integrity of government science and research from executive-branch abuses.

  • Preet Bharara
  • Christine Todd Whitman
October 4, 2019

This piece origin­ally appeared in the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Regard­less of Pres­id­ent Trump’s fate in the impeach­ment inquiry, his pres­id­ency has exposed seri­ous fissures in our system of govern­ment that require repair — espe­cially when it comes to the integ­rity of govern­ment research. Noth­ing illus­trates that better than “Sharpie­Gate,” an absurd incid­ent in early Septem­ber during which the White House reportedly ordered top weather offi­cials to back the pres­id­ent’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama.

This isn’t the first time this admin­is­tra­tion has retali­ated against scient­ists for doing their jobs. The Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment recently decided to relo­cate an entire staff of career econom­ists from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to Kansas City after they published reports on the finan­cial harms of Trump’s trade policies. The Interior Depart­ment moved a climate scient­ist to an account­ing role after he stressed the dangers of climate change to Alaska’s Native communit­ies. A recent tally by the Union of Concerned Scient­ists listed more than 120 attacks on science by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion.

Clearly, the informal rules and guard­rails that used to rein in polit­ical attempts to inter­fere with data and research can no longer be trus­ted. Congress must turn these norms into law.

Govern­ment science matters. It put Amer­ic­ans on the moon. It helped create the Inter­net. And today, it helps the govern­ment protect the envir­on­ment, improve our water and food safety, and provide the economic data that help busi­nesses and investors make wise finan­cial decisions. It provides advance warn­ing when we’re in Mother Nature’s danger­ous path.

How can we protect the integ­rity and rigor of govern­ment science and research from exec­ut­ive abuse in these polar­iz­ing times? Today, the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Demo­cracy, a nonpar­tisan group of former govern­ment offi­cials and policy experts that we co-chair, released a report on protect­ing the integ­rity of govern­ment science and research, complete with narrowly tailored recom­mend­a­tions for codi­fy­ing these norms into law.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s abuses are extreme, but this White House is far from the first to lay siege to govern­ment scient­ists. Our new report docu­ments how the current and previ­ous admin­is­tra­tions have manip­u­lated the find­ings of govern­ment scient­ists, suppressed govern­ment research they did not like from reach­ing the public, retali­ated against career govern­ment scient­ists for uphold­ing the integ­rity of their work and invited special interests to help shape govern­ment research.

For instance, polit­ical offi­cials at the Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency during the Obama admin­is­tra­tion made last-minute changes to a report high­light­ing the dangers of frack­ing on drink­ing water by down­play­ing the risks. Fortu­nately, the EPA scient­ists pushed back, and the edits were removed from the final report. In 2008, NASA’s inspector general published a report describ­ing how the agency’s public affairs office suppressed climate-change science and barred a top scient­ist, James Hansen, from speak­ing to the media. During this epis­ode, a polit­ic­ally appoin­ted public affairs officer rejec­ted an NPR produ­cer’s request to inter­view Hansen, arguing that his job was “to make [Pres­id­ent George W. Bush] look good.”

In response to these and other abuses, our task force proposes concrete ways for legis­lat­ors to protect and preserve scientific integ­rity from exec­ut­ive power.

First and fore­most, Congress should pass scientific integ­rity stand­ards for the exec­ut­ive branch and require agen­cies to create policies that guar­an­tee these stand­ards. These policies would apply both to employ­ees and contract­ors who conduct research for the federal govern­ment directly, as well as feder­ally funded research and devel­op­ment centers. At their most basic, these stand­ards would ensure that the science conduc­ted at these agen­cies is free from polit­ics, ideo­logy and finan­cial conflicts of interest.

Congress must also protect scient­ists and their work from inter­fer­ence by polit­ical appointees. It can do this by requir­ing agen­cies that conduct scientific research to artic­u­late clear stand­ards for how polit­ical offi­cials inter­act with career research­ers about their work and estab­lish­ing mech­an­isms for trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity in those inter­ac­tions.

And if polit­ical appointees break the rules, their miscon­duct cannot be toler­ated. To ensure account­ab­il­ity and deter corrup­tion, Congress should pass legis­la­tion that makes it unlaw­ful for govern­ment offi­cials to tamper with or censor feder­ally funded scientific research or data for personal, finan­cial, or partisan polit­ical gain. Congress should also prohibit offi­cials from dissem­in­at­ing scientific inform­a­tion that they know is false or mislead­ing, and legis­lat­ors must bar retali­ation against govern­ment research­ers for doing their work.

Reforms like these and others outlined in the report are crucial to a soci­ety that values the scientific method as crit­ical to the public good.

No one polit­ical party has a mono­poly on science. Congress should demon­strate as much by shield­ing govern­ment scient­ists and their work from politi­ciz­a­tion. Our collect­ive futures depend on these reforms, no matter who occu­pies the White House in the future.

Preet Bhar­ara is the former U. S. attor­ney for the South­ern District of New York. Christine Todd Whit­man, pres­id­ent of the Whit­man Strategy Group, was admin­is­trator of the Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency and governor of New Jersey. They are co-chairs of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Demo­cracy housed at the Bren­nan Center for Justice.