Congressman Tonko talks Scientific Integrity at AGU

December 21, 2021 | 8:00 am
US House Office of Photography
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

This week, at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans (and virtually), my colleague Jacob Carter, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS led a session entitled, “How Is Science Doing in Washington? The State of U.S. Science Policy One Year Into the Biden Administration and Where We Go From Here”.  

The session was very fortunate to have Congressman Paul Tonko (D. – NY) as one of the panelists.  I thought many who could not attend the meeting would be interested in what Rep. Tonko had to say.  Below, with his permission, are his remarks, slightly edited for length:  

“Thank you to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Geophysical Union for inviting me to visit with you all.  It seems impossible to imagine modern society without publicly funded science. Our nation’s scientific agencies perform an invaluable function for the American people, and we’ve attracted some of the best and brightest scientific minds in the world. Their research has become the foundation for our most important work at all levels of government to protect public health, our environment, our economy, and so much more.

“Because this research is so powerful, political advocates and other special interests have long tried to influence, distort, or bury it when it doesn’t fit their views or serve their purpose. Through both Democratic and Republican administrations, I have seen this important work be thrown into the partisan fray where it does not belong. But, without question, the previous administration significantly raised the stakes.

“This is exactly why we need scientific integrity policies. The public we serve should know that our decisions and the policies that affect their lives are based on the best available information, regardless of political power or who is in the Oval Office.  As Chair of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, and long-time member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology, I have made it one of my top priorities to right the ship of America’s science policy.

“As part of that broad effort, I was proud to reintroduce the bipartisan Scientific Integrity Act in February of this year, and as of today it has racked up more than 175 cosponsors. This legislation establishes consistent scientific integrity policies across all agencies so scientists, members of Congress, and the American people can put our faith in federal research findings.

“More than 20 federal agencies have some form of scientific integrity policy today, but standards remain inconsistent. Some agencies lack these policies entirely, while others have strong policies and processes but little or no training for staff to use them. Still others, including EPA, have robust scientific integrity standards and strong enforcement, showing the positive impact that these policies can have for the American people.

“I know that the science leaders and members of AGU are keenly aware that America is facing unprecedented challenges in the form of a rapidly changing climate, environmental contamination, and countless other concerns that threaten our public health, national security, and general welfare.

“As we witnessed this weekend, Americans are living, and dying, in the path of unprecedented flooding, raging wildfires, and battering storms driven by Earth’s changing climate. It falls to us to set aside past disagreements and rise together to meet this challenge.

“We agree that climate change is real. We agree humans are driving it. We agree that we need to build solutions that meet the scale and urgency of the crisis we face. I am working in open and collaborative fashion to build legislation toward this end.

“When the Biden Administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy releases their upcoming Scientific Integrity report, we intend to continue working in partnership with them and many of you participating in this panel. Specifically, we are working to shore up our oversight and enforcement language to ensure any violators of scientific integrity are held accountable and our publicly funded research is always made whole.

“I have been greatly encouraged by the Biden Administration’s early and forceful attention to the role of science in US policymaking and governing. Government-funded science is, after all, the product of political choices. For it to be sustained, we must leverage the momentum and take immediate action to establish strong scientific integrity policies as a standard across the federal government.

“I am looking forward to codifying scientific integrity policies in the remaining time we have in the 117th Congress so we can, finally, solidify public trust that federal scientific research is never hidden or manipulated.

“I want to thank everyone again for the invitation to join with you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me and my office if there is anything we can do to assist you.”

Congressman Paul Tonko

The moral of the story is that things are happening in Washington in the administration and on the Hill. The path is complex, difficult, and uncertain.  But, hey, as scientists we are used to that!  And we don’t give up. With leaders like Paul Tonko, we know we have a real chance at progress.