What I Told Congress: To Protect the Nation’s Health, We Need Strong Scientific Integrity Policies

May 10, 2022 | 12:08 pm
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Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

I recently testified before the US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis and spoke about why scientific integrity at federal agencies matters. It’s an issue we at Union of Concerned Scientists have strongly and repeatedly championed for the past 18 years. Since the subcommittee was created, I have admired its strong commitment to uncovering violations of scientific integrity related to the pandemic response; for instance, they documented more than 80 instances of political interference by the Trump administration. The hearing also featured testimony from staff at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) which recently issued a report showing the deficiencies in policies and procedures for ensuring scientific integrity at public health agencies.

I laid out in my oral and written testimony how political interference in federal science – such as buried reports, manipulated data, and censored scientists – can have drastic consequences on the health and safety of the public, especially underserved communities. This was especially prominent in 2020 when government officials repeatedly interfered with the ability of federal agencies to research, set policy, or communicate to the public about COVID-19. When federal scientists and officials faced this onslaught of political interference, they were not able to act on the best available science to protect the public which, in turn, translated to the virus spreading rapidly, hospitals being overwhelmed, and people facing severe illness. Communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities already experiencing longstanding health inequities were hit hardest by government failures to act on the science and protect public health.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed in the starkest terms why scientific integrity matters and for whom it matters most. I hope my testimony will help press congressional leaders to take action and strengthen scientific integrity policies.

What I told Congress:

“Thank you, Chairman Clyburn, Ranking Member Scalise, and Members of the Subcommittee for holding this important hearing. My name is Anita Desikan, and I am a Senior Analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). For nearly a decade, I have worked as a public health researcher and I have acted as a leading subject matter expert for a strong science-based and equitable response to the pandemic.

“I am thrilled to talk to you today about the need for strong scientific integrity protections across the government, and especially at our nation’s public health agencies. Scientific integrity refers to a process by which independent science can fully and transparently inform policy decisions, free from inappropriate political, financial, ideological, or other undue influences. UCS has played a leading role in researching scientific integrity and its role in science-based policymaking since 2004. Scientific integrity is integral to protecting the health and safety of communities across the country, especially underserved communities, and the pandemic has shown in the starkest terms possible why scientific integrity matters.

The pandemic showed why scientific integrity matters

“The COVID-19 pandemic was, and continues to be, a public health crisis of unimaginable scale and devastation. The number of people in the US who have died from COVID-19 is expected to soon reach one million. There is likely no person who is untouched by the fear, loneliness, and hardships that the spread of this virus has wrought. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous, people of color, low-income, and rural communities who throughout the pandemic have faced disproportionate harm and heartache.

“Science has been pivotal in protecting the health and safety of people during the pandemic. But the role of science in decisionmaking goes far beyond vaccines and lifesaving treatments. The use of the best available science is required by numerous public health laws and policies to protect the public from serious threats such as air pollution, toxic chemicals, and climate change impacts. Science, in other words, has played a major role in safeguarding the lives of millions, over generations.

A history of interference in federal science

“However, science at federal agencies has long faced a serious problem. Since at least the 1950s, some in government – often those with power and influence – have politicized federal science in service of their political agendas. Such tactics have included burying studies, censoring scientists, and halting data collection.

“These actions can have enormous consequences. For instance, the Trump administration’s numerous attempts during the pandemic to silence experts from speaking to the public and line-editing, delaying, or blocking the release of scientific documents deeply eroded public trust in scientific institutions. And the lack of clear, scientific information coming from federal scientists opened the door to the enormous spread of online misinformation and disinformation – the effects of which we are still dealing with to this day. These were not isolated events. According to our research, the Trump administration attacked science 204 times, which averages to an attack on science occurring once a week, every week, for four years.

Strengthening scientific integrity policies

“Since 2005, UCS has conducted periodic surveys on scientific integrity to thousands of federal scientists across the past three presidential administrations. In every survey we have conducted, we found a connection between workplace morale and scientific integrity. When federal scientists felt they could do their jobs and communicate about their work without undue political interference, they were more likely to report personal job satisfaction and that their agency was effective in carrying out its mission.

“The only way to prevent current and future administrations from engaging in politically motivated attempts to crush science is to put strong guardrails in place. Most science-based agencies have scientific integrity policies, but they can vary wildly in the rights and protections they afford their scientists. For instance, few agencies specify that political appointees are required to follow scientific integrity guidelines, and even fewer agencies appear willing to investigate a scientific integrity violation when a political appointee is involved.

“While the current system is functioning, it is full of holes, like water going through a leaky hose. Therefore we need stronger and more comprehensive measures, like the Scientific Integrity Act, to plug these holes. This would help ensure that agency decisions are informed by the best available science to protect people from the effects of the pandemic and other public health threats. The public needs and deserves a government that is willing to strengthen scientific integrity policies for the public good.”