By Gretchen Goldman, Union of Concerned Scientists
Today members of the Senate, led by Senator Bill Nelson, introduced a bill to strengthen scientific integrity in federal decision making. If ever there was a time that such a bill is needed, it is now.
The Trump administration has already revealed its disrespect for the use of science in federal decision-making. From instating sweeping gag orders on federal scientists right out of the gate, to across-the-board hiring freezes and disruptive holds on grants and contracts, early indications suggest that this administration is not likely to be a leader in championing scientific integrity in government decision-making.
Moreover, the administration’s pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has expressed limited understanding and respect for the EPA’s scientific integrity policy, noting in his confirmation hearing, “I expect to learn more about EPA’s scientific integrity policies.” In the face of such abuses, a move to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies is certainly welcome.
A bill to strengthen federal scientific integrity
Aimed “to protect scientific integrity in federal research and policymaking,” the bill requires federal agencies that fund or conduct science to adopt and implement scientific integrity policies, an idea initially introduced by the Obama administration in 2009. Specifically, the bill compels science agencies to develop scientific integrity policies that include specific provisions to enhance scientific integrity.
Importantly, the bill reinforces key elements of some federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies. It includes provisions requiring agencies to develop procedures that allow scientists to review and ensure the accuracy of public-facing materials that rely on their work, such as reports, press releases, and factsheets. This provision could help safeguard against political interference that might come from political appointees or public affairs staff that edit scientific documents before they are released. This type of political interference happened in several instances under the George W. Bush administration. Julie MacDonald, for example, a political appointee at the Department of the Interior, edited the scientific content of a document that served as evidence for listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
A safeguard against such abuse could prove useful under a Trump administration, which has already suggested that it will emphasize uncertainty on climate science on NOAA websites and appears to be keeping a tight control on agencies’ scientific communications. The provision could be made even stronger by granting scientists the right to approve the scientific content of the public-facing materials that rely on their work.
Preventing political tampering
Another provision of the bill requires agencies to develop procedures that “identify, evaluate the merits of, and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.” This is an important inclusion since to date, not all scientific integrity policies at federal agencies have detailed procedures for assessing the validity of and addressing allegations of scientific integrity abuses.
This lack of clarity in current agency policies has had damaging impacts on scientists who raise, or are accused of, scientific integrity violations. A scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, appeared to have lost his job over publishing a paper that the Department of Energy didn’t like. When a scientist at the US Department of Agriculture was accused of violating the scientific integrity policy, he was subjected to a long review process that may not have included an independent assessment of the claims. Thankfully, both the DOE and USDA have revised their scientific integrity policies to strengthen the allegation evaluation procedures. A law requiring all science agencies to make allegation procedures clearer would improve evaluation of scientific integrity violations across the government and give federal scientists fairer assessments.
The bill also requires the National Academy of Public Administration to conduct a study of scientific integrity across the government. This is a great idea and one that was included in our recent policy recommendations to the Trump administration. An independent assessment of the effectiveness of scientific integrity policies would provide illuminating findings on how the relatively new policies and procedures could be further improved.
A positive step in uncertain times
To date, 24 federal agencies have developed scientific integrity policies. The policies vary in quality, but in general they afford federal scientists rights to communicate, and include provisions to safeguard against political interference in science-based decisions. The bill would strengthen these provisions by uniformly applying some basic protections across all science agencies. This raises the floor on scientific integrity in the government.
Kudos to all the 26 senators co-sponsoring this welcome legislation. This includes the ranking members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (Sen. Carper), the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (Sen. Cantwell), the Senate Health, Labor, and Pensions Committee (Sen. Murray), the Senate Armed Services Committee (Sen. Reed), and of course, the Senate Commerce Committee (Sen. Nelson).