A New Day for Science: President Biden’s Big Plan for Scientific Integrity And What Comes Next

January 27, 2021 | 4:29 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Today, the Biden Administration releases a presidential memo on scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking, setting the stage for the administration’s efforts to build back from the Trump administration’s unprecedented assault on science and strengthen protections for science and scientists across the government. This is big and it puts science on the agenda like never before. Here’s my take on today’s bold actions and what we should watch in the coming months and years.

Trump’s unprecedented sidelining of science

Science suffered. Scientists were gagged. Facts were manipulated. This is the story of the Trump Administration. But, in part, we’ve seen this movie before. After the George W. Bush administration’s (then unheard of) attacks on science, the Obama Administration vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and put in place policies to protect science and scientists, in case we ever got science-hostile administration again. And we all know what happened next.

The Trump Administration attacked science more than any other president in our nation’s history, averaging an attack on science per week by our count. Now, we are once again in the position of repairing the damage, but today we are armed with a wealth of information and tools to strengthen science across the government in bold new ways, and the Biden Administration has made clear it means business. On day one, the administration elevated the presidential science adviser to a Cabinet-level position—a move that the Union of Concerned Scientists has advocated for at least since 2008.

Laying the foundation for building up science

Today’s Presidential Memorandum contains many positive steps for rebuilding and strengthening science across the government. It directs agencies to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data. Here’s some key components where I’ll be tracking the administration’s progress.

1. Expanding science leadership!

Every science agency (broadly defined) must assign a Chief Science Officer and a scientific integrity official. This move helps ensure that every agency has clear science leadership—a factor that we know improves scientific integrity at agencies, based on analysis of surveys of federal scientists and comparing progress across agencies (see our 2018 PLoS One paper).

2. Improving scientific integrity policies!

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), working with a newly formed Taskforce on Scientific Integrity (a recommendation of UCS), will lead a continuous review of the effectiveness of federal agency scientific integrity policies. This is a key step that will help ensure that existing gaps in policy provisions are filled. Most agency policies were developed under the Obama administration and there remains wide variability across agencies in the strength of the policy provisions (see our recent assessment of current federal agency scientific integrity policies, chart p. 3).

Importantly, the review will also look at implementation of the policies, providing a key opportunity to learn more about how science was sidelined under the Trump administration, even at agencies with strong polices in place. This will allow the Biden administration to improve policy provisions and scientific integrity leadership structures at agencies in ways that directly prevent the kinds of interference in science we experienced under Trump. This is a huge opportunity for progress and it is the part of today’s memo that I am most excited about.

3. Increasing public participation!

The OSTP review of scientific integrity processes will include a public input and consultation process. This is a rare opportunity for the public to weigh in directly on the White House’s approach to improving science across the government. I am excited for this huge opportunity for the policies and practices around scientific integrity to be enriched and improved in new ways from the input of diverse perspectives.

4. Restoring science advice!

Federal science advisory committees will undergo a review to ensure they are restored, operating effectively, and include greater diversity of members. This is an important first step for rebuilding independent science advice from top experts across the country and ensuring Black, Indigenous, and people of color experts, along with early career researchers, and diversity of disciplines, are represented when appropriate. Such a move is welcome after the Trump administration froze some science advisory committees, disbanded others, and tried to arbitrarily slash a whopping third of them.

The road ahead

These are important first steps. Importantly, we can’t stop here. Our nation knows all too well now that simply electing a president that accepts science is not enough. We must put additional safeguards in place to ensure that science and scientists are protected even when a future administration or other actors are hostile to the very idea of science-based decisions. Today’s move starts us down a path to hard but great things to improve government science. But we have a roadmap and I’m ready for the journey.