Ask a Scientist: Building on Advances in Scientific Integrity

October 16, 2023 | 4:56 pm
plane with "scientific integrity"
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

It was a long time coming. Two decades after the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) redefined the term “scientific integrity,” the White House issued its first-ever scientific integrity policy in May as a model for all government agencies and departments to protect federal scientists from political interference. The new policy, which followed a 2021 presidential memorandum on strengthening scientific integrity and last January’s guidelines for federal agencies updating their policies or establishing new ones, hews closely to many of UCS’s recommendations. Taken together, the memorandum, the guidelines, and the new White House policy, drafted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), should help ensure that science plays an essential role in all government decision-making going forward.

Twenty years ago, a scientific integrity violation primarily referred to research misconduct, such as plagiarism or fabrication. Thanks largely to UCS, the term morphed to describe the George W. Bush administration’s penchant for censoring scientists and quashing their findings. In February 2004, UCS sent a statement to the administration, initially signed by more than 60 prominent scientists, former government officials, and university presidents and department chairs, calling on it to restore scientific integrity to the federal policymaking process. Over the following four years, 15,000 US scientists added their names in support.

Since then, a number of federal agencies and departments have instituted their own scientific integrity policies, at least in part based on the findings of periodic UCS Center for Science and Democracy surveys of federal scientists as well as our recommendations. But this patchwork of policies could not withstand the anti-science onslaught of the Trump administration, which was even more intense and widespread than during the Bush years. The Biden administration’s initiatives hopefully will shield federal science from politicization no matter who is president.

While the Biden administration was adopting many of UCS’s priorities, the Center for Science and Democracy was undergoing a changing of the guard. Andrew Rosenberg, the center’s first director, retired in 2022 after 10 years at the helm, and Jennifer Jones came on board as director last March.

Before joining UCS, Jones was an associate professor of environmental studies and director of the Center for Environment and Society at Florida Gulf Coast University. She previously served on the faculty of Virginia Tech, Williams College, and the University of Tennessee, and earned a doctorate and a master’s degree in environment and society from the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

I recently had a virtual sit-down with Jones to find out where she sees the Center for Science and Democracy going from here. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: First, a belated welcome to UCS. While the Center for Science and Democracy has had much success since it was founded 10 years ago, obviously there is a lot more to do. Late last month, the center and the Brennan Center for Justice released a report documenting that state and local officials are just as guilty as their federal counterparts when it comes to politicizing science, censoring scientists, and ignoring scientific evidence. Which states are particularly bad? Are any states particularly good? How do you and your team plan to address this widespread problem?

JJ: At the heart of scientific integrity is the conviction that science can and should inform government decisionmaking. We should develop the best science possible and then draw on it as we make the laws and policies that impact our health, our environment, and our communities.

Unfortunately, there are way too many examples of states that do a poor job protecting science and scientists. A key finding of the new report we co-authored with the Brennan Center is that only two state agencies—not two states, just agencies—have publicly available scientific integrity policies: California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. That means that virtually all publicly funded state agencies with science-based missions do not have policies that establish standards and safeguards to ensure their research is protected from political interference.

What happens in the absence of scientific integrity? Look no further than my home state of Florida where I sit today. Our surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, altered data in an official report to justify his personal, scientifically indefensible opinion about Covid-19 vaccines. One of our previous governors, Rick Scott, essentially banned state agencies from using the term “climate change.” Our current governor, Ron DeSantis, denies the primary role fossil fuels play in the climate crisis. All the while, here in Fort Myers we are still rebuilding from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian, whose impacts were exacerbated by rapid intensification triggered by climate change.

Scientific integrity is also an equity and justice issue. Our research suggests that when federal science is sidelined, underserved communities—namely Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), low-income, and rural communities—frequently bear the brunt of the harms because of weak, ineffective, and undermined health, safety, and environmental protections.

As our work on scientific integrity at the state level evolves, one solution we are promoting right now is a bill in Congress that would require federal agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research to establish and maintain clear and enforceable scientific integrity policies. If enacted, it would help ensure that federal policymaking is based on the best available science and protect scientific research, done on behalf of the public, from political interference. It would prohibit suppressing, altering, and interfering with the release or communication of scientific findings, as well as retaliatory acts against scientists.

Each of us is impacted every day by decisions that can and should be based on science, from the food on our dinner table, to the water we drink, to the air we breathe. We have a right to expect that government decisions rest on the best possible science and that scientists can do their work free from political manipulation.

EN: Not only is it essential that scientists and their findings inform public policy at the federal, state, and local level, it is also essential that the communities that policies will directly impact have a seat the decisionmaking table. What does the center plan to do about ensuring what social scientists call procedural equity?

JJ: Our work is driven by the fact that too many people are left out of the process to advance democracy. Communities are left out of the decisions that affect them, and decisionmakers rarely, if ever, come from those communities. The result is our decisionmaking processes are unfair. Decades of systemic racism and exclusionary practices in science, policymaking, housing, health care, and the economy have put low-income and BIPOC communities on the front lines of public health, safety, and environmental threats. By harnessing our expertise in environmental justice and scientific and democratic integrity, we can foster a systemic shift in democratic and regulatory decisionmaking that guarantees marginalized communities’ meaningful involvement in developing, implementing, and enforcing public health and environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

For example, one effort we are leading considers cumulative impacts, the well-documented fact that decades of discriminatory federal, state, and local policies and practices have allowed multiple pollution sources to be sited in or near low-income and BIPOC communities. The result is that people living in those communities are often exposed to multiple pollutants at once, yet regulations address them one by one and fail to account for their unequal distribution and impact.

So we are pushing federal, state, and local agencies to adopt what we call a cumulative impacts framework. We also are working with a number of coalition partners on a first-of-its-kind tool kit on how to advocate for cumulative impacts regulations. The tool kit, which we plan to release early next year, will help communities pressure government at all levels to finally start considering the cumulative impacts of chemicals in their science-informed, decisionmaking processes.

EN: The issue of community involvement in policymaking is linked to the work that the center has been doing for several years to promote voting access in the wake of state efforts to suppress the vote. In 2021, 19 states—mostly controlled by Republicans—passed 34 laws that make it harder to vote. Last year, eight states collectively passed 11 restrictive voting laws. What are you doing to push back?

JJ: Our work begins with the fundamental truth that electoral processes in this country are discriminatory. Communities face threats to their health and safety and should be able to use the democratic process to confront them. Regardless, states are passing laws that actively seek to disenfranchise people.

We are using science to expand voter access and help move toward a fairer and freer election process. Ohio was one of the states that passed a restrictive voting law last year, and we are working directly with a Cleveland-based organization that is trying to reform the voting system and address questions of inequalities. Traditional voter engagement work focuses on registered voters who are most likely to cast a ballot—the “high-propensity” voters. Our partnership with Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC) mobilizes historically disaffected, low-propensity voters who have been largely ignored by get-out-the-vote efforts.

The UCS-GCC partnership piggybacks on GCC’s decade of experience developing ongoing, enduring relationships with area residents. GCC provides the canvassers. UCS provides the data that makes it easier for them to contact and inform low-propensity voters. This community-first model combines deep canvassing and power building with real-time data analysis that enables voting advocates to identify and counter policies and practices that are barriers to participation and ultimately increase marginalized community civic engagement.

We are also bringing science to bear on gerrymandering issues. By analyzing voter data at the precinct level before and after elections in North Carolina and Michigan, we will be able to evaluate how changes in election laws and gerrymandering influence election outcomes. Our findings will shine a light on the worst gerrymandered district maps in those states and bolster our call for election commissions to institute transparent election data processes. Our findings also will serve as an additional layer of accountability for localities running elections.

EN: Finally, you were quoted in a recent Washington Post investigative story that reported that academics, universities, and government agencies are pulling back or even discontinuing their efforts to combat political and medical disinformation online in the face of regulatory and legal threats. What’s at risk here, and what can the Center for Science and Democracy do about it?

JJ: The recent attacks on disinformation researchers are no different than the attacks we’ve seen on scientific researchers. Science and democracy are essential enabling conditions for a safer and healthier world, yet there are vicious assaults on both. I left a coveted university position to join UCS earlier this year because this is a defining moment with the rise of authoritarianism, politicized attacks on science and scientists, and threats against the health and integrity of the electoral process. There is an urgency to this work.

What’s at risk? Everything. We risk further erosion of basic public safeguards, from clean air standards to open access to life-saving vaccines. We risk losing a government that values and upholds intellectual curiosity and scientific endeavor for the betterment of humankind. We risk losing our democracy and the opportunity to make it freer and more representative.

But there is a lot we can do about it, and science is a powerful tool! So, while there is an urgency, there is also an opportunity. At the Center for Science and Democracy, we will mobilize and advocate for the best available science to inform systemic changes that center justice and equity in government decisionmaking. We will put science and scientists into action and ensure that voices from all communities—especially marginalized ones—are reflected in the structures and processes that govern our people, our places, and our environments. We will work to ensure that democratic processes and electoral systems include all voters and serve the broadest public good. Lastly, we invite the readers of this column to join us as we build a more livable future for everyone.