After Trump, US researchers urge Biden to dam political meddling in science
US researchers and science groups last week appealed to President Joe Biden’s administration to protect state science from political interference and give federal scientists the opportunity to speak to the media and the public. They made this request during public hearing sessions hosted by the White House Science and Technology Policy Office (OSTP) – the first such meetings held since the Science Bureau launched a massive project to strengthen academic integrity in the federal government .
After four years of former President Donald Trump’s administration marginalizing science and scientists in government decisions, researchers hoped Biden would ensure independent scientific work and communication. He took steps in this direction in January when he instructed the OSTP to review the rules of all US agencies to ensure that guidelines “prohibit inappropriate political interference in the conduct of scientific research.” The OSTP convened a task force made up of nearly 50 representatives from several US agencies in May to address the problem. The group has so far met in closed sessions and with experts on scientific integrity.
“There has never been so much commitment in the federal government when it comes to the issue of scientific integrity,” says Alondra Nelson, deputy director for science and society at OSTP, who is co-leading the task force.
The current effort extends the push to protect scientific integrity that former President Barack Obama began a decade ago. U.S. science agency guidelines were at the center of this OSTP-led effort, Nelson told Nature, but Biden’s project also aims to guide the use of evidence by all government agencies.
During the three public listening sessions last week, participants urged government agencies to be transparent about how science is used in politics and regulation, and recommended that scientists should be able to follow their work – and be free about it – without political interference to speak.
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said government scientists need to be encouraged to speak directly to the public and the media, including through social media. Critics complain that over the years it has become more difficult to access government scientists for information and insight, and that it has become even more difficult with Trump taking office. For the first few days, the Trump administration placed restrictions on agency employees talking about their work. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, top public health officials, including Infectious Disease Chief Anthony Fauci, were banned from speaking to the public. “Agencies shouldn’t be afraid that scientists will speak up,” said Rosenberg.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, the nonprofit Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, both in New York City, have tracked anti-science actions by the US government, including decisions and actions of individual members of Congress at the state level. This number has now grown to almost 500 entries.
Augusta Wilson, an attorney with CSLDF, said at one of the sessions that nearly half of these cases involved censoring scientific information. In her remarks, she called on the OSTP to “urge the agencies to take strong, explicit protection against censorship and other interference with the ability of scientists to communicate about their work”.
The CSLDF and Sabin Center are among the groups that created guidelines to keep science free from political interference and to ensure that scientific evidence carries weight. These suggestions include health training for agency staff and the appointment of government agencies and executives to resolve disputes; Some have suggested that Congress pass laws requiring authorities to back up their rules.
Tom Sinks, who worked for decades at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), told Nature that a “firewall” must be put in place between science and government leaders. “Creating a firewall that allows science to be science and politics to be politics – that is where scientific integrity plays a big role,” he said.
During one of the meetings, he suggested that any agency building such a barrier should appoint a senior scientist, who is not a political officer, as the final approver for scientific products such as publications. Sinks themselves are no stranger to conflicts over scientific integrity. Before stepping down as director of the EPA’s science advisor’s office in 2020, he wrote a reprimand for the agency’s own “secret science rule,” advocated by then-administrator Scott Pruitt, a Trump-appointed advocate. Touted as a move towards transparency, the proposed rule would have prevented EPA from using studies that rely on non-public data as a basis for regulation. However, critics argued that doing so would exclude basic health data on the harms of environmental pollutants – and ultimately weaken the regulator’s power to contain polluters. Biden’s EPA is currently rethinking the rule.
the next steps
The new efforts “reaffirm and build on” Obama’s scientific integrity, according to President Biden’s January memo directing the OSTP to address the issue.
Obama had promised at his inauguration to “return science to its rightful place,” and OSTP director John Holdren outlined a number of steps authorities should take to protect the independence of scientists. It did so after former President George W. Bush and his administration blocked stem cell research and downplayed climate research.
Sinks says the Holdren memo protected some EPA science during the Trump years and allowed scientific reports to pass through that would otherwise have stalled. However, he hopes Biden’s efforts will continue.
A 2019 review by the US Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama-era memorandum was adopted inconsistently by all agencies and recommended further measures to strengthen the integrity of federal research.
The public comments gathered at the hearing sessions and received in writing will feed into the deliberations of the Biden OSTP. “This is a topic that the public really cares about and engages,” says Nelson.
The OSTP task force is due to present a review of the existing guidelines on the integrity of the authorities in September.