By Gretchen Goldman, Union of Concerned Scientists
Throughout its history, the US has benefited by applying science to public policy making. As national challenges become more complex, we rely on the federal government’s use of science to keep us safe and healthy. Science informs the safeguards and standards that protect us—from infectious disease to environmental pollution, from new drug approvals to consumer and worker safety.
The next president has a chance to strengthen the long-standing role science has served in our democracy. I detail how in our newly released recommendations for the next administration.
Our next president can be the science president
The next president will inherit a nation where many Americans have lost faith in government. Evidence of undue political influence over science-based policy decisions and federal scientist survey results suggest that concerns about governmental scientific integrity persist.
But this doubt is also an opportunity. The next president has a chance to create an efficient, effective administration, one built solidly on evidence. The next president has a chance to build public trust in government and to strengthen policies and practices based on science. The next president has a chance to leave a legacy that includes a government with a strong commitment to scientific integrity and an American public with a restored faith in their decision makers.
Today, I am sharing a detailed list of actions the next president can take to reinforce the role of science in federal decision-making:
1. Creating a culture of scientific integrity
The next president can build a culture of scientific integrity throughout the government. This means strong policies and even stronger practices at federal agencies.
Following President Obama’s scientific integrity directive, 23 federal agencies and departments developed scientific integrity policies and designated scientific integrity officials to oversee their implementation.
Yet surveys of federal scientists and journalists show that problems persist. Politics has derailed what by statute should be science-based environmental and public health decisions. Some agency scientific integrity policies are weakly written, while others have not been fully implemented. Further, some government scientists and journalists report an increase in barriers to the free flow of scientific information.
The next president has a chance to curb political interference in science. They can work toward strong policies, consistent practices across agencies, and a firm commitment by government leadership to investing in scientific integrity standards. The next administration should make clear that scientific integrity will be a priority, partner with agencies to bolster policies and practices that support a proper role for science, and affirm that scientists who report losses of scientific integrity are protected from retaliation.
2. Promoting independent science
The processes by which science informs policy are vulnerable to political tampering. As a notice of proposed rulemaking becomes a final agency rule, too often inappropriate interference occurs. Public policies change shape as they make their way through the checks and balances of federal decision-making, of course. But the science informing those decisions should not be altered for political purposes.
The next administration should work to ensure that science-based policies remain free from undue influence throughout the regulatory and policy-making process. The president can work to make sure that all of the scientific advice their administration receives — in the White House, from agency scientists, and through the federal advisory committee system — is accessible, robust, independent, and credible.
The next president has a chance to create the most effective administration possible by implementing the advice of technical experts. Access to scientific information is critical for the best possible outcomes to policy decisions.
3. Increasing government transparency
Public faith in government decisions and the ability of science to inform decision-making are threatened by decisions made behind closed doors. The next president has a chance to improve the transparency of its administration’s actions—an excellent strategy for building public trust.
Recent steps have helped promote openness, including the FOIA Improvement Act and release of White House visitor logs. More can be done.
The public also needs greater access to federal science. Opening it to public scrutiny is an important, inexpensive means of revealing and ending political interference in evidence-based policy decisions.
Greater access can be achieved through better disclosure of regulatory decision-making, wider use of information technology, and more communication channels for agency scientists and researchers to share their expertise.
An open government is the best safeguard against corruption and abuse of power and is a necessary ingredient of democracy.
4. Enhancing public participation
Finally, the next president has a chance to create the most participatory democracy the nation has ever seen. The recent, unprecedented interest in elections can be transformed into an active citizenry that participates in federal decision-making.
The US was founded on the conviction that an informed citizenry, armed with evidence and reason, can make wise decisions that promote public health, safety, and well-being. Yet today, many citizens are excluded from the democratic process by outdated information collection methods and unnecessary institutional barriers.
The next administration should capitalize on technology and innovation to make federal processes for gathering public input more diverse, inclusive, and participatory. In this increasingly noisy information landscape, it is more important now than ever for governments, scientists, and citizens to engage together in our democratic processes to ensure that our policies are informed by the best available science.
For the future of our democracy, I call on the next president to make science a priority.