By Michael Halperin, Union of Concerned Scientists
Today, the remarkable happened: the Scientific Integrity Act passed the House Science Committee with support from both Republicans and Democrats. Six Republicans joined all 19 Democrats in attendance to vote the Scientific Integrity Act out of Committee. This is the first time this kind of legislation has passed out of a House committee. This is also the first time this kind of legislation has received public support from Republicans still in office.
Bipartisan support for scientific integrity reform has grown in recent months. In July, I testified before this committee about the Scientific Integrity Act and was encouraged by the level of agreement among witnesses and members of Congress about the need for independent scientific analysis. Witnesses invited by both Democrats and Republicans agreed that scientific integrity legislation was both important and necessary.
Momentum continues to build
More than 60 organizations urged co-sponsorship and passage of the Scientific Integrity Act. The supporter list included government accountability groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, women’s health organizations such as the National Partnership for Women & Families, and unions such as SEIU.
Former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman joined UCS President Ken Kimmell in an op-ed supporting the legislation. And a bipartisan task force of the Brennan Center for Justice released a report earlier this month calling for legislation to address what they termed a scientific integrity “crisis.”
What the bill accomplishes
The legislation makes it illegal for anyone to manipulate, suppress, or distort scientific research. It requires agencies to establish policies for approval of scientific papers written by agency scientists. It empowers scientists to participate in scientific meetings and serve in leadership positions within scientific associations.
It stops agency officials from delaying the release of scientific findings for non-scientific reasons. It requires agencies to train employees on proper conduct. And it requires agencies to report out their progress in implementing their policies.
In real life? If the bill is signed into law, political appointees can’t hold up analysis on formaldehyde because it’s politically inconvenient. They can’t order scientists to change testing procedures to hide the presence of toxic lead in children’s lunch boxes. The can’t misrepresent research on drinking water and fracking. They can’t politically restrict the types of scientific methods that scientists can use to understand environmental threats.
These issues are all currently addressed in varying levels of comprehensiveness by a patchwork of agency scientific integrity policies. But without the force of law, the policies can be rescinded at any time and are dependent on the willingness of agency leaders to allow their enforcement. This is part of the reason why we see continued censorship of scientists, manipulation of scientific methods, and misrepresentation of scientific work, and why we continued to call for passage of the Scientific Integrity Act.
Silent on silencing scientists
The legislation is unfortunately silent on the right of experts to respond to interview requests from reporters. This is a mistake. The right of scientists to share their scientific work and analysis directly with the news media shouldn’t be controversial. Standards are already in place in many agencies that explicitly give scientists this permission. These standards have led to more public understanding of important scientific topics. They have not led to public confusion, nor have they empowered scientists to undermine an administration’s policy priorities.
Fortunately, the legislation does not preclude agencies from setting transparency standards that remove political barriers between reporters and experts. They should do so. This deficiency should eventually be codified, but should not hold up final passage of the legislation.
Advancing good ideas
Some scientific organizations pointed to an early lack of Republican co-sponsors of the bill as a reason to sit this one out. But good ideas should be embraced regardless of their origins, and we were able to earn votes from members of both parties through dialogue, compromise, and pressure. Imagine the kinds of policy success we could achieve if more scientific voices had the courage to give their support to legislation like this.
Thank you to House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Representatives Stevens, Baird, Sherill, and Norman for advancing our understanding of this issue in committee. Thanks also to Ranking Member Lucas and Representative Baird for working in good faith to achieve a bipartisan bill.
Of course, thanks most of all to to Congressman Paul Tonko for drafting the Scientific Integrity Act and for working tirelessly to elevate this important issue and leading 226 other Members to support this important legislation.