Ask a Scientist: What Must the Biden Administration Do to Protect Federal Science?

December 9, 2020 | 4:00 pm
The White House/Pete Souza
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Science is not liberal or conservative. It is not Democratic or Republican. Facts, after all, are facts. Regardless, even a relatively simple solution for blunting the spread of the novel coronavirus—wearing a mask—can, and has been, politicized.

Since the 1970s, when Congress enacted landmark environmental and public health protections and established a raft of new federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, successive administrations have tried to suppress science for political ends, some more blatantly than others.

The George W. Bush administration was particularly brazen in its attempts to politicize science, prompting UCS to launch the Scientific Integrity Program to press for much-needed reforms. With the changing of the guard in 2009, the Obama White House committed itself to bolster federal scientific integrity policy and adopted a number of our recommendations.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s efforts to protect federal science were not strong enough to withstand the Trump counterrevolution, which made the Bush-era attack on science look, well, bush league. The successor to the Scientific Integrity Program, the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD), has documented more than 170 incidents where the Trump administration has censored, suppressed and sidelined science.

In late August, CSD released Roadmap for Science in Decisionmaking, the first in a series of papers that offer recommendations for incorporating science in federal policy and insulating it from political manipulation. Subsequent papers, which the center posted over the following month, addressed scientific integrity issues at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Interior Department and other key federal agencies; and explored a range of related issues, including how to best deal with conflicts of interest, guarantee public participation in the rulemaking process, and ensure environmental justice for marginalized communities.

Now that it is clear that Joe Biden will be the next president, it is much more likely that CSD’s recommendations will get a fair hearing. To get an idea of what the Biden administration could do to strengthen scientific integrity policies and stop political appointees from running roughshod over career federal scientists in future administrations, I turned to the lead author of the Roadmap recommendations, Jacob Carter, a CSD research scientist who worked at the EPA before joining UCS in 2017.

“The coronavirus pandemic is a vivid, tragic example of what can happen when the federal government doesn’t have a good strategy for gathering and evaluating scientific input and sharing it with the public,” Carter says. “The good news is we have a roadmap. We’ve surveyed thousands of federal scientists, studied agency policies, and we know what it takes to build back from where we find ourselves today.”

EN: Before we get into what the Biden administration should do to build on previous efforts to protect the federal scientific enterprise, the Obama administration did make considerable progress during its eight years in office. What went right? What, if anything, went wrong?

JC: Let’s start with what went wrong, because I think a lot of folks don’t realize that the Obama administration politicized science, but it certainly did. For example, the Obama administration ignored the recommendation of Food and Drug Administration scientists to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B morning-after contraceptive pill to young women under 18. It fell to the courts to order the FDA to make the pill available without any restrictions.

That said, the Obama administration did establish scientific integrity policies to protect federal scientists and their work from political interference. These policies are now in place at more than 28 federal agencies, providing scientists the right to communicate to the public about their work, the right to review press releases if they depend on scientific work, and a process to document and adjudicate scientific integrity violations.

EN: The fact that Congress has not codified scientific integrity reforms into law enabled the Trump administration to ignore them, weaken them, and kill them. At this point, we don’t know which party will control the Senate. If the Republicans maintain control, the odds that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will play ball with the Biden administration are slim. Given that uncertainty, what are some of the initiatives the incoming administration can take with or without Congress to strengthen protections for federal science and scientists?

JC: Science isn’t a partisan issue, so I wouldn’t completely write off any progress on Capitol Hill. For example, Congress could play a pivotal role by passing the Scientific Integrity Act, which the House Science Committee passed with bipartisan support last year. If enacted, the bill would codify many of the provisions within agency scientific integrity policies. Then, if a political appointee censored a scientist for partisan purposes, it would be easier to hold the official accountable for wrongdoing.

If Congress fails to pass that bill, the Biden administration could still strengthen scientific integrity and undo many of the Trump administration’s executive orders that undermine the science-based decision-making process. For example, President Trump issued an executive order requiring each federal agency to arbitrarily cut the number of its advisory committees by at least a third and placed a limit of 350 committees across the government. President Biden should rescind that executive order on Day One and start the process of rebuilding federal science advisory infrastructure.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also could tighten protections by updating its 2010 memo requiring federal agencies to develop and implement scientific integrity policies. The memo was a step in the right direction, but the Trump administration’s assault on science showed that it did not go far enough to protect scientists and their work from politics.

For example, not all federal agency’s scientific integrity policies include what is called a “differing scientific opinions” provision. This provision allows scientists to formally disagree with an agency policy if they have contributed substantially to the work underlying it.

One senior EPA scientist, Tom Sinks, recently relied on this provision to take issue with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s decision to implement a rule restricting science from informing agency policy when a study’s data are not made publicly available. This could disqualify the use of epidemiological studies that rely on confidential medical records to inform policy, for example. Sinks’ public dissent likely will be an important piece of evidence for future litigation to rescind the rule, which the EPA is expected to finalize before President Trump leaves office.

EN: You worked at the EPA during the Obama administration. What specifically should the Biden administration do to turn what has become “Every Polluter’s Ally” during the Trump administration back into the Environmental Protection Agency?

JC: First, the Biden administration has to ensure that that the agency has an adequate budget and staffing. The Trump administration targeted the agency as soon as it took office, which sent a number of staff members packing. In its first 18 months, the agency suffered a net loss of roughly 1,200 people—nearly 8 percent of its workforce—and close to half of them were scientists. The Trump administration also tried to cut its budget by a third and get rid of another 3,200 staffers. Right now, only 14,000 people work there, the lowest amount since 1987. Meanwhile, its fiscal year 2020 budget—$9 billion—is 26 percent less than it was 10 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Thanks to reforms instituted during the Obama administration, the EPA has a strong scientific integrity policy. Regardless, there were multiple cases when science-based decisions at the agency were politicized during the past four years. This was due in part to the scientific integrity officer’s low rank in the agency hierarchy. The officer’s job is to hold individuals accountable for violating the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which is difficult when violators rank higher in the hierarchy, which was often the case. Therefore, the agency needs to formalize a process that allows the scientific integrity officer to coordinate with the EPA inspector general’s office when senior officials, such as White House staff or EPA political appointees, violate scientific integrity policy. The EPA inspector general’s office has greater authority to hold individuals accountable for their misdeeds.

The Biden administration also has to ensure that the EPA has the necessary scientific expertise by bolstering staff resources in the White House science and technology budget, as well as by increasing the number of science fellows at the agency. The administration could reinstate the STEM-specific track for the Presidential Management Fellows program, for example. That could help create a pipeline for early career scientists into the EPA and jumpstart the kind of research needed to inform agency policy decisions.

President-elect Biden has yet to announce his pick to run the EPA, but the candidates mentioned so far would return the agency to its mission of safeguarding public health and the environment. Regardless of who winds up being the administrator, the foxes won’t be guarding the henhouse anymore.