Historic Opportunity to Strengthen Scientific Integrity Policies

April 20, 2023 | 10:28 am
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Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

Over the past few weeks, federal scientists, policymakers, and other experts from all major US federal agencies have been conferring on how best to implement the Biden administration’s historic framework for codifying scientific integrity principles into policy. Never before has there been a similar effort across federal agencies to carry out large-scale changes to the policies protecting the integrity and independence of federal science.

Three months ago, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released the framework document calling for strengthening scientific integrity policies and practices. It includes the first government-wide definition of scientific integrity, a roadmap of activities and outcomes to protect scientific integrity, a model policy, and critical policy features and metrics that can be used to assess and track agency’s progress in implementing these actions. My colleague Jacob Carter previously wrote about this landmark achievement and how, despite some weaknesses, the framework includes many innovative components—including some that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been advocating for nearly two decades—that promise to really help protect federal scientists from undue political interference.

We at UCS, along with 12 partner organizations, recently sent OSTP a letter urging them to address some weaknesses in its proposed scientific integrity framework. In particular, we make four recommendations to OSTP for improving their model policy—the policy that most federal agencies will adopt in part or in full. We want the OSTP framework and the model policy to be:

  • More transparent about how investigations are conducted into potential violations of scientific integrity;
  • More explicit in delineating scientists’ ability to communicate with the media and public;
  • More specific about how enforcement actions will be carried out to ensure that all scientific integrity violators are held to account;
  • More robust in its protections for federal scientists from retaliation when they report scientific integrity violations.

We expect over the next few months that federal agencies will draft new scientific integrity policies in line with the OSTP framework and carry out a public comment process to allow the public to provide input into their policies. But the uncomfortable truth is that, as federal agencies work to implement this framework into their scientific integrity policies, it will be far too easy for some agencies to decide to do only the bare minimum, to take shortcuts with the process, or even to try to retain some detrimental policies and procedures.

Scientific integrity policies help protect people from harms

Scientific integrity principles boil down to a simple concept: the need to stop unnecessary political intrusion into what should be science-based processes—such as scientific reports, data collection, or policymakers using science in decisionmaking.

We’ve collected hundreds of examples in which federal agencies have blatantly violated scientific integrity in ways that have led to serious consequences for the public. For instance, the White House under the Obama administration overruled the FDA and imposed an age restriction on use of an emergency contraceptive for reasons that had nothing to do with science, while the White House under the Trump administration buried a CDC report outlining the dangers of PFAS chemicals because Trump officials considered it a “potential public relations nightmare.” The people of the United States deserve a government that uses science to decide how we keep people safe from toxic chemicals or how medicines are administered to the public, not a government that will shelf science when it is politically convenient.

Upholding scientific integrity principles at federal agencies also translates to being better able to protect underserved communities from environmental and health harms. While people across the United States can be affected when scientific integrity is violated at federal agencies, underserved communities most often bear the brunt of the harms, including disproportionately higher exposures to air pollutants, toxic chemicals, and climate change impacts.

Additionally, violating scientific integrity can undermine the ability of federal agencies to carry out robust and independent scientific data practices that can help identify health disparities in the first place. Scientific integrity protections at federal agencies make it possible to use science to identify and address the legacy of systematic racist policies that still disenfranchises Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities across the nation.

We need the strongest scientific integrity policies possible

Scientific integrity policies at federal agencies matter, and how dozens of agencies choose to implement the OSTP framework will matter a great deal. Weak, ineffective, or poorly enforced scientific integrity policies can create openings for unscrupulous political officials to use for their own benefit at the expense of the health and safety of the communities across the country.

The details of the process unfolding now will profoundly affect tens of thousands of federal scientists for years to come, along with all of us in the United States who rely on the research of federal scientists to keep our food safe, our water clean, and our environment free of pollutants.

Opportunities to influence federal scientific integrity policy are rare and the public now has a chance to help secure the quality of science across the federal government. That’s why it’s imperative for us to raise our voices to insist that our federal agencies need the strongest scientific integrity measures possible to protect federal scientists from undue political interference in their work. Stay tuned for more information from UCS about upcoming opportunities to let public officials know how important it is to strengthen scientific integrity policies at federal agencies.