Ask a Scientist: Assessing the Biden Administration’s Progress in Its First Year

February 10, 2022 | 11:45 am
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

It is common practice for news organizations, think tanks and advocacy groups to take stock of a new administration’s successes and failures after its first year in office. How much was it able to accomplish, and what are its prospects going forward in the face of the obstacles, both foreign and domestic, in its way?

Last month, UCS issued its own assessment of the Biden administration’s attempts to restore the rightful role science should play in federal policymaking, which was severely compromised by the Trump administration.

UCS researchers found that although President Biden and his administration have been saying all the right things and have taken significant steps in the right direction, they have a long way to go to fulfill Biden’s campaign promises, follow the science, and build a federal scientific enterprise capable of meeting the challenges the country faces.

The analysis reviewed the new administration’s progress in nine issue areas, including climate protection, democratic safeguards, environmental justice, food system investment, nuclear weapons reductions, pandemic vaccinations, and restocking federal agencies with scientists.

To get an overview of the report’s findings, I turned to Andrew Rosenberg, director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy. Dr. Rosenberg joined UCS 10 years ago after serving as Conservation International’s senior vice president for science and knowledge and, before that, as dean of life science at the University of New Hampshire and deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

EN: When it took office, the Biden administration pledged to “listen to the scientists” and “create a culture if scientific integrity.” How far has it gone to fulfill that promise?

AR: Let’s give credit where credit is due. In the first week of his administration, President Biden issued a presidential memorandum stating that it is the policy of his administration to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.” It went on to assert that the administration’s intention is to “establish and enforce scientific-integrity policies that ban improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and in the collection of scientific or technological data, and that prevent the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results.”

That’s pretty direct. And to follow through on that policy, the president ordered all federal agencies to review their scientific integrity policies. In mid-January, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a report on those reviews that identified policies agencies need to improve by broadening their scope and strengthening implementation.  

EN: Do federal agency scientific integrity policies really matter? After all, they are just policy statements, and the Trump administration ignored them. Can they have real teeth? And will the Biden administration ensure that they do? When OSTP released that report last month, critics argued that its policy recommendations do not go far enough.

AR: The biggest challenge is to ensure that scientific integrity applies and is enforced across government and throughout the chain of command, from political appointees right up to the heads of agencies. The OSTP report was straightforward in noting that problems often arise from senior leadership, and those are the most difficult to deal with. But it did not recommend mechanisms to hold leaders accountable. However, one possible approach that the report’s forward recommends—which we had a hand in—is to treat scientific integrity violations as government ethics violations. That approach would offer some advantages that could strengthen accountability efforts.

Frankly, Congress needs to pass scientific integrity legislation to give agency policies statutory teeth. Rep. Paul Tonko, from New York, has introduced such legislation. We worked closely with him on the specific text and so far have helped convinced more than 150 of his House colleagues to sign on as co-sponsors. Of course, Senate action will be challenging, but not impossible. The key point is that a statutory mandate can’t be easily ignored or revoked by a future administration.

The lack of scientific integrity has real world implications. When forecasts are censored, natural disasters harm more people. When data about toxic pollution are suppressed, communities—especially marginalized ones—are at greater risk. And when climate studies are ignored, policymakers can continue to sit on their hands and do nothing. When scientists are not allowed to speak out, people suffer. 

EN: The New York Times reported that the Trump administration rolled back more than 100 environmental safeguards. Taking a more expansive approach, UCS’s Center for Science Democracy documented that it launched more than 200 attacks on science, including incidents in which it deleted data, silenced scientists, and suppressed studies. How is the Biden administration doing on rolling back those rollbacks?

AR: Actually, it has made real progress in dealing with some of the more egregious problems the Trump administration created. And it is doing it in ways that will provide some durable fixes. By that, I mean it has used lawsuits brought by UCS and other public interest groups to obtain court rulings that vacate the Trump rules and then essentially agreed to rewrite those rules with the courts’ blessing. It all takes time, but again, we are heading in the right direction.

While the Trump administration did do a lot of things that undermined environmental safeguards, it often based its actions on flimsy or nonexistent analysis. Courts won’t stand for that. The current administration is doing a careful job of bringing the science forward in corrective actions. However, we lost years of progress on public health, safety and environmental protection, so now it is spending its time correcting bad policies instead of putting every effort into making existing policies better. We can’t turn the clock back and regain those years we needed to address some of our most dire problems, such as environmental justice for marginalized communities.

EN: According to The Washington Post, as of late last month, the Biden administration had overturned more than 70 Trump administration environmental rollbacks. But some charge that it is still moving too slowly on a wide range of progressive priorities. What’s your take about the administration’s progress writ large? Given all that the Biden administration is dealing with these days, from inflation to Republican stonewalling to Putin saber-rattling—not to mention a worldwide pandemic—what can we reasonably expect in just one year?

AR: For many, many reasons, expectations are extremely high for the Biden administration. The frustrations and real anger over the prior administration’s actions, coupled with the pandemic, racial reckoning, the insurrection by the far right, and the frightening emergence of White supremacist organizations from the shadows have all contributed to a sense of urgency to make real progress. But presidents are not autocrats, and hopefully will never be in our constitutional democracy. Our laws clearly lay out how public policy is made and implemented, as well as the roles of each of the three branches of government.

Science has a very specific role, primarily in the executive branch, in informing the analysis of societal threats and policy options. The judiciary also relies on science to varying degrees depending on statutory language. All of this “due process” takes time. Everyone hates the how long it takes, but it protects the opportunity for stakeholders to have a say on public policies.

That said, we always should expect more from any administration, any Congress, and from the courts. Without a doubt, this administration is moving too slowly. But it is also moving with deliberate speed on many issues. Too often our legislative system seems gridlocked. But a president can’t wave it away. The country is divided, so we will get the policies that we can marshal just enough support to push through. And frankly, it is our job at UCS to yell “Go faster!” We need to keep the pressure on. But we also have to be realistic and not give in to despair. That’s too easy. We need to do what is hard.