New Report Underscores the Need to Prevent Political Interference at US Public Health Agencies

October 10, 2023 | 12:51 pm
Woman in a labJulia Koblitz/Unsplash
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

A new report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides a roadmap on how best to protect the nation’s public health agencies against political interference in government science. The report was developed in response to the devastating attacks on science that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately undermining the government’s efforts to protect the public from a dangerous, fast-spreading virus and decreasing public trust in our public health institutions.

As one of the experts who contributed to this report, I am heartened by the GAO’s efforts to press public health agencies to do better. We’ve seen how attacks on science can fracture what should have been a science-driven process during the pandemic, opening the door to a flurry of misinformation, much of which we are still navigating today. There is no better time than now to put guardrails in place to prevent current and future administrations from pushing political agendas during the next public health emergency.

One of the most troubling lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is to recognize how effective political interference was in dissuading or blocking people from accessing vaccines, medicines, or other life-saving public health measures. During the pandemic, government science was specifically targeted and undermined for political purposes. As a result, the public was impeded from obtaining the latest scientific information about how best to protect themselves.

Public health agencies such as the CDC and FDA faced the brunt of these attacks during the pandemic. For instance, in the aftermath of President Trump’s praise, political officials pressured the FDA to issue emergency approval for the drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for treatment of COVID-19 without strong science to back up these actions. Additionally, political leaders tried to edit scientific reports in the CDC’s well-respected Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports to align with the political messaging coming from the White House at the time, thereby undermining the ability of the scientists to provide the public with the best available scientific information on COVID-19 (or in the words of one of those officials, to stop “ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC”).

In light of these kinds of episodes, Congress requested that the GAO examine the issue. The agency’s report provides a strong set of recommendations about how public health agencies can better protect themselves from undue political interference.

The importance of scientific integrity policies

For this report, the GAO collaborated with the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and convened a two-day roundtable of 11 experts to discuss the issue and pinpoint what steps could be taken to safeguard the scientific process at public health agencies. I was one of these experts, and I found the discussions rich and substantial.

While the group disagreed at times, leading to some extremely fruitful conversations, I was most surprised by how much those in attendance agreed on the big-picture items. We all agreed on what did—and did not—constitute a scientific integrity violation in the pandemic-related examples presented to us. And we all reached a consensus about the types of safeguards that can be put in place to protect federal scientists and employees from undue political interference. Below is a graphic from the report summarizing those safeguards:

The report’s discussion of scientific integrity policies is particularly interesting. The expert panel highlights three specific ways that public health agencies can strengthen their scientific integrity policies. The key, the report says, is to ensure:

  • a well-documented decisionmaking process for non-emergency and emergency situations,
  • a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities for both internal and external stakeholders when making scientific decisions, and
  • a transparent process through which officials can report and address allegations of political interference.

Additionally, the report highlights ways to improve science-based decisionmaking at agencies, including being transparent about the process, documenting the procedures used, and developing mechanisms that allow differing scientific opinions to be examined as part of the peer review process. Other safeguards identified in the report included providing training on scientific integrity processes, incorporating the expert opinions from scientific advisory committees, and designating an scientific integrity liaison or ombudsman at each public health agency.

UCS role remains pivotal

Political interference in science during public health crises inevitably means that people’s access to the latest scientific information will be diminished, thereby making them less able to take actions that protect their health and safety. How effective our government can be in tackling these public health threats will depend on whether federal agencies can put safeguards in place to prevent powerful folks from politicizing government science for their own benefit.

The safeguards identified in the GAO report align with the numerous reports, surveys, factsheets, and advocacy efforts about scientific integrity that my colleagues and I have worked on for nearly 20 years. The report even references one of our peer-reviewed publications, which documented that scientific integrity violations have occurred under both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations since the 1950s.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has had some notable success in pressing agencies to adopt strong scientific integrity policies as many of our scientific integrity recommendations have been adopted over the years by federal agencies. Recently, Dr. Richard Spinrad, the Director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically acknowledged UCS’s role in helping to develop NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, (you can see a video of the Q&A session here, starting at the 26:05 mark). And we are continuing to press agencies to strengthen their scientific integrity policies. It’s a process that you can get involved in too.

There is more work to be done at federal agencies to cultivate a culture that values and protects scientific integrity. I am encouraged by the fact that UCS continues to be in the vanguard of this fight, advocating for solutions that are being echoed in the latest GAO findings and in expert opinions from across the country.