Five Things to Know About the Recent Scientific Integrity Report from the Biden-Harris Administration

January 27, 2022 | 5:14 pm
Allison Cain/UCS
Andrew Rosenberg
Senior Science Advisor

Scientific integrity (SI) policies do not just affect scientists.  They affect government decisionmaking on a huge range of issues.  And they are critical for informing the public about scientific evidence and information. When SI policies are weak, emergency warnings may go awry, information about public health and safety may be withheld and the public can be misinformed on a wide range of issues.  Scientific information and evidence can’t always guide us to the “right” decision.  Of course, the information is always evolving and always contains some uncertainties.  But it is also always better to know that the best independent scientific information and guidance is based on carefully reviewed and compiled evidence, free from political manipulation.  This administration, in a new report, has made a strong first step to protect science from political interference.  Here are five things to know about that report.

1. Preventing political meddling in science must be the goal

Some will tell you that the concept of scientific integrity is vague. Not so. The recent Scientific Integrity Fast-Track Action Committee report released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy described it this way, “Scientific integrity aims to make sure that science is conducted, managed, communicated, and used in ways that preserve its accuracy and objectivity and protect it from suppression, manipulation, and inappropriate influence—including political interference.”

How does the government accomplish that? In part, through the implementation of strong scientific integrity policies in federal agencies. According to our recommendations for the incoming administration in 2021, “Principles of scientific integrity begin with a commitment to independent science. This commitment must encompass processes such as peer review and conflict-of-interest disclosure; transparent decisionmaking, including public access to government science and its use in policymaking; and scientific free speech, especially the right of government scientists to share research, express their personal views, and report abuses without fear of retaliation. These tenets must be explicit in policies, promoted by agency leaders, and valued in agency culture.” 

2. Federal agencies’ self-reviews were insufficient

Fortunately, many of our recommendations regarding scientific integrity were directly adopted by the Biden-Harris Administration, particularly through the Presidential Memorandum issued one year ago this week.  That Memorandum created the Scientific Integrity Fast-Track Action Committee (SI Committee) which reported in early January 2022. That’s real progress to restore science in public policy. 

The SI committee was made up of federal agency officials responsible for implementing scientific integrity policies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the report found, “Existing agency policies are responsive to the principles and guidance in previous Executive actions. All major science agencies, and a number of others, have scientific integrity policies that address most if not all of the guidance articulated in Memoranda issued by the President and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 2009 and 2010, respectively.”  In other words, self-review found that agencies were doing a good job.  On the other hand, as highlighted in the figure below, our independent review (notably conducted before the Biden-Harris Administration took office!) found that while some agencies had good policies in place, such as NOAA and EPA, but many did not, such as Transportation and Agriculture.  And no agencies were strong across all ten criteria we considered. 

For more, see UCS’s report, “Strengthening Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies: Recommendations for 2021 and Beyond,” available at https://ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/si-report-roadmap-for-science.pdf

3. The report did highlight some big issues!

To its great credit, and hopefully leading to real progress on scientific integrity, the SI committee also found some critical concerns need to be addressed.  To wit:

“Agencies need to strengthen scientific integrity policies to deter undue influence in the conduct, management, communication, and use of science. Although violations of scientific integrity are small in number compared to the magnitude of the Federal Government’s scientific enterprise, they can have an outsized, detrimental impact on decision-making and public trust in science.

“Violations involving high-level officials are the most problematic and difficult to address. Implementation and enforcement of scientific integrity policies take place at the agency level, meaning senior agency leaders, including political appointees, can either enable or undermine these policies.

“Further action is needed. Concerted efforts are needed to establish and maintain a culture of scientific integrity across all individuals and agencies that conduct, manage, communicate, and make use of science. A strong organizational culture of scientific integrity is a necessary foundation to reduce the potential for wrongdoing, protect against inappropriate influence, reinforce agency missions and goals, and ensure equitable delivery of Federal Government programs.”

I fully agree.  It might seem that establishing policies and strengthening agency culture through training and review are straightforward, but they still require a lot of work. Holding senior leadership–including political appointees– accountable is really challenging but must be addressed. In the foreword to the report, penned by the leadership of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, it states: “Violations of scientific integrity should be considered on par with violations of government ethics, with comparable consequence.”  I think there may be a path forward here.  Political appointees and other senior managers might not feel that a scientific integrity violation is too big a deal, but I suspect they don’t want to be labelled unethical!  And the system to deal with ethics rules in general is far more developed.  But putting that into place will take a lot of effort.

4. There is still a long way to go on equity and justice issues

The report makes a nod to “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility”.  It is really important that the committee recognized the importance of scientific integrity policy to equity and justice, even though they didn’t go very far into these issues.  But the need to equitably deliver federal programs to underserved and marginalized communities is noted, as well as the importance of ensuring protection for scientists from diverse backgrounds. 

Scientific integrity policies should be a vehicle for ensuring that community organizations, particularly those including Black, Indigenous, Latinx and communities of color who have been historically marginalized or ignored, can have access to better information from scientists to improve public health, safety and their environment.  Many of these communities face the cumulative impacts of a multitude of stressors including pollution, poor transportation, poor health care, economic challenges, and many more.  They need to hear from scientists, not politically manipulated messages, so communities can fight for themselves with the science in hand to support their efforts.   And they need to have access to scientists who understand their issues and challenges.  Scientific integrity policies aimed at preventing political manipulation, suppression, or censorship of information is an important part of this challenge. 

5. Implementation and enforcement are key

In some sense, really good policy is only as effective as its implementation and enforcement.  A statement of intent is necessary but not sufficient.  And the SI committee report has not yet dealt with the implementation and enforcement of policy. It’s a tough challenge. Politically appointed staff are at the top of nearly all federal agencies and they are often the ones who set direction on key issues. Even well-intended staff members often have an understandable tendency to want the science to support policy choices – even when the evidence is to the contrary.  This happens in every administration. If it didn’t then the need for strong enforceable policies would be less urgent. So, who can hold leadership to account?  Who can hold high-level leaders to account – to listen to, but not manipulate the science? 

Government professionals and political appointees are held to account for ethics violations such as misuse of funds, conflicts of interest and the like – not perfectly, but the system is strong. Just recall the departure of many high-level officials in the last administration for ethical lapses. Scientific integrity needs to be on a par with misuse of government resources. After all, government science is a critical, costly and vital resource. For conflicts of interest, agency general counsels have significant responsibility.  Agency managers do too, through the performance management system. And the public record of the administration as a whole is at risk when ethics violations occur.  The same must be true for manipulation or suppression of scientific evidence.  And the mechanisms are the same, transparency, adequate reporting, training and consequences for violations up to an including dismissal from the government. In other words, we have applied these accountability methods in other areas, so now is the time to do the same for scientific integrity.

Over the coming months, the next steps in the process of strengthening scientific integrity in government will be rolled out by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Hopefully, as part of that effort, input from the public and from organizations such as UCS will become a part of the effort. And Congress has work to do too. Hopefully they will work swiftly to advance the Scientific Integrity Act to ensure that protections will be in place no matter who is in the White House. After all, UCS has worked on scientific integrity policy for more than 15 years.  We and our supporters have more to contribute if the government is willing to listen. 

Watch this space.  Scientific integrity is on the move and it is high time too.