A Comeback for Science in the Biden-Harris Administration

November 7, 2020 | 12:08 pm
Jiayu Liang/UCS
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Our government is like a lobster. Every four years in the United States, we have a chance to renew our government. Like a crustacean shedding its old shell so it can grow, our national elections allow us to stretch for a bigger and better democracy.

This renewal and election of a new administration and Congress now provides us with an extraordinary opportunity for science and science-based decision-making to once again serve the public interest. And we must demand that the incoming administration and Congress deliver on that promise.

Science must again guide public policy

Unfortunately, over the last four years we have lost a lot of ground in securing fair, equitable, and scientifically justifiable policies that protect public health, safety, and our environment. This is due in large part to the Trump administration relentlessly sidelining science from public policymaking while allowing special interest influence to run virtually unconstrained.

The result has been an inability to effectively confront major crises and protect the public. A pandemic that rages uncontrolled because of political rhetoric to cover a bungled unscientific response. A flaring of the long-standing national injustice of systemic racism, exemplified by overt and unjustified police violence against Black, Indigenous, and communities of color, but also clearly visible in the disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards and the disparate impacts of COVID-19. And overall, an unfolding crisis of a warming climate caused by unchecked human environmental destruction in an unprepared world.

Now, a new administration led by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris must step up to all these challenges. They will only be successful if science and the public interest are guiding principles for their public policy decisions. While blocking or reversing some of the Trump administration’s harmful anti-science actions and regulatory rollbacks are part of what is needed, just turning the clock back is sadly insufficient.

Rebuilding scientific capacity and science-based decision-making across the federal government

Over the coming months, President Biden must immediately begin work to rebuild the scientific capacity of federal agencies. Over the past four years, science programs across the government have been redirected, slashed, and mismanaged. To say that the scientific workforce is currently demoralized would be a sadly inadequate way to describe the current feelings among beleaguered agency staff.

Under the Trump administration, scientists have been routinely shut out of the policy process and many senior staff have departed and not been replaced, leaving a vacuum of expertise and leadership. To help address this, new administration and agency leadership needs to immediately reconfigure the very processes by which decisions are made.

As we move forward, leadership for federal science programs needs to be highly qualified, visionary, and part of the core teams that will build new agency strategic directions. Talented young scientists need to be actively recruited to public service. New ways to participate need to open up—not just standard civil service jobs, but new fellowships, rotating assignments, specialized contracting and granting (beyond the usual consulting contracts), joint science institutes, and more. Land Grant, Sea Grant, and Space Grant institutions need to be rebuilt and re-visioned as part of that effort. (How about Climate Grant? Justice Grant? Public Health Grant?) And pandemic-strapped universities across the country, especially minority-serving institutions, can and should be part of the solution.

The rules of engagement for scientists need to be revised, refreshed, and advanced. Scientific integrity policies are intended to ensure that political manipulation, censorship, or suppression of science and scientists are prevented. This should be a matter of law, not policy.

The public and policymakers at all levels of government need to hear directly from the experts. Not just in crisis situations (though that’s certainly the current situation we are in), but always. We should all want the best information we can get to shape public policies.

To help achieve this, the Biden administration should work with the new Congress to pass strong, comprehensive, and enforceable scientific integrity legislation early in the new term. President Biden should direct agencies to work with the White House to implement stronger policies and ensure every agency leader knows what they have to do. Accountability mechanisms and a strong role for Inspectors General should be re-established. Executive agencies should work with oversight committees in Congress.

Independent science advisory committees have and should bring expertise, new ideas, and quality control to the work of all science-based agencies across the government. When implemented properly they are extraordinarily cost effective—but not if you pack them with scientists with ties to regulated industries and deep conflicts of interest, as was done routinely during the Trump administration. Science advisory boards are an opportunity to be embraced, not a chore agencies must reluctantly perform.

President Biden should immediately create essential new science advisory committees across agencies, peopled by independent scientists from a range of perspectives that includes more diversity of all kinds—more gender diversity, more early career scientists, and more Black, Indigenous, and scientists of color must be appointed to advisory panels because we need new thinking from across society to confront the many challenges we face.

In the Biden administration, every federal agency must be part of the effort to advance racial justice and equity in society. Every policy enacted, implemented, and enforced; every grant program; every new effort of government to serve the people must ask hard questions about the equity impacts, needs of those most vulnerable, and how to redress historic wrongs. That means science programs in every agency need to have the skills, people, and tools to inform those policy decisions. And it also means new thinking about how to do policy-relevant science.

Science enables us to identify and better understand threats, problems, and challenges like climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, and health impacts. And it enables us to analyze the impacts of proposed policies that address those threats and challenges. But if we don’t evaluate the impacts on the most vulnerable, the fairness of benefits, or the risks to vulnerable communities that remain unaddressed, we are not doing the job. To address this, the president must direct agencies to build the science infrastructure needed to support just and equitable decision making and embrace the task across scientific disciplines.

The science community must continue to take action

Many of us in the science community may be breathing a sigh of relief at the end of the most anti-science administration in our lifetimes. I am. But that absolutely does not mean that it is time to just go back to our labs, field work, or computers and let the rest unfold as it will. No, now more than ever, it is time for continued action.

To have more scientists in government we need to train them, in and out of the classroom. Scientists need to value their colleagues in public service and encourage each other to contribute. To stand up and volunteer for advisory panels. Propose new innovative programs. Embrace diversity, equity, inclusion and opportunity. And stop valuing contributions only through publications in academia.

Scientists need to speak up and speak out in a Biden administration and speak truth to power, because when science is suppressed or manipulated it hurts us all, not just the scientist who is targeted. The damage done by the Trump administration has taught us well that the science community can’t hold itself apart and just expect people to someday “read the literature.” We all need to hold the incoming Biden administration accountable to the same standards we spoke out against during the Trump administration.

Restoring democracy

The last four years and this election have clearly demonstrated that our constitutional democracy can be corrupted. Voting can be undermined. Even the census and the postal service—both crucial to a functioning democracy—are not immune from manipulation.

Federal and state courts can act to mitigate some of this, but it can’t all be up to the legal system because politicized court appointments add additional uncertainty. Our constitution sets out three branches of government to serve the public interest–but if the people’s voice is suppressed or hindered our democracy is undermined.

We have the science of democracy to help us understand these threats as well as the remedies. We know that over-gerrymandered states see greater health disparities among their communities. We know that both over-represented and under-represented communities are suffering the burden of failing democratic institutions. We know that greater life expectancy is associated with less electoral bias.

President Biden needs to immediately address electoral reform. With the bully pulpit under him, we need a new voting rights act. We need a fair census that enumerates all the people in the country and congressional districts designed for representation not partisanship. And we need to overcome the distortions of the Electoral College by calling for more states to sign on to the national popular vote campaign.

In the 21st century, it is long past time to put behind us the suppression, passive or active, of the votes and representation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color. That will take a strong leader and the well developed field of science—the science of democracy—to guide him.

Mr. President, please lead

I believe we can and will overcome the many challenges we face today. We can become a more equitable society. We can resolve issues of injustice. We can end this pandemic, address the threat of climate change, and rebuild a more sustainable economy.

That will take serious effort—and, as part of that effort, President Biden must embrace science as a tool to solve problems and lift up communities. And we, the scientists and science-minded public, need to serve as guides and watchdogs to ensure that happens.

We can do this.