I have studied science used and misused by US presidents for a decade, but the Trump era kicked that work to a new level. In less than four years, we have logged more than 160 attacks on science (and counting)—more than any other president in the last seven decades. From ignoring evidence of harm to gagging federal scientists to suppressing inconvenient science, the administration has disrespected the crucial role that science and technical experts have long played across the government, under both parties, to protect public health, safety, and the environment. Now we must rebuild and build better at the same time.
In many ways, strengthening science lifts all boats. If science and evidence are prioritized and government experts are supported, our nation is better positioned to tackle all its most pressing problems, from COVID-19 to climate change to endangered species protection. There are many key issues that need attention right away, but here are the top ways the Biden administration can be more effective on all issues by strengthening the United States as a science-driven nation.
Appoint qualified leaders to science agencies
We know from years of federal scientist surveys that leadership matters. Federal employees must trust their agency leaders to make good decisions and back them up, even when the science is inconvenient. Those federal employees are now coming out of four years where they were ignored, restricted, and even thrown under the bus by their own agency heads. The Biden administration must take steps to rebuild that trust. They can start by appointing science agency heads with relevant expertise and solid experience, who are free from conflicts of interest.
Boost government science capacity and morale
To do anything, the Biden administration must ensure agencies have the staff to meet their missions. Under the Trump administration, many federal scientists retired, took buyouts, or otherwise left, rather than work under Trump’s leadership, leaving some agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), severely understaffed. This deficit of expertise came on top of existing issues of many federal scientists approaching retirement age. To ensure federal science agencies can continue to be places of scientific excellence, the Biden administration must prioritize recruitment and retention of scientific staff at agencies.
Strengthen scientific integrity everywhere
Scientific integrity has come a long way in the federal government. More than 28 federal agencies now have scientific integrity policies, officers, and trainings. But the Trump administration has demonstrated that challenges remain, even with robust scientific integrity policies and infrastructure in place. We must do more. Policies, processes, and practices can be improved to better ensure that federal science and scientists are shielded from interference and free to do their work. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy can play a key role in leading and coordinating scientific integrity efforts across the government, and federal science agencies can do their part as well. Armed with lots of data on how to strengthen scientific integrity, the Biden White House can hit the ground running.
Prioritize those harmed or neglected by federal science
Headlines over the past four years highlighted many harmful moves taken by the Trump administration on science, climate, and health. It is equally important to focus on all the things that didn’t happen. Federal science agencies are charged with protecting public health and safety, but Trump officials at these agencies failed to do their jobs time and time again on everything from air pollution standards to endangered species protection to keeping unsafe baby products off the market. We now have a backlog of public safeguards at federal agencies and this lack of action has worsened longstanding inequities that the government should be mitigating. Given its stated priority of racial equity, the Biden administration should center equity and environmental justice at agencies and prioritize helping communities who were disproportionately harmed by Trump actions and inactions.
Build back science advice
Each year, thousands of scientists donate their time and expertise to inform the government on everything from drug approvals to public land management to worker safety. Under the Trump administration, this impressive network of science advice was neglected, ignored, and abandoned. In several instances, conflicted and unqualified individuals were appointed. The Biden administration should revitalize the federal science advisory committee system, remove illegitimate individuals on committees, and restore the role of independent science advice to government decisionmaking.
“Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of science”
Tellingly, both President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris mentioned science in their victory speeches last Saturday, even though science will be one of many, many issues they must prioritize as they take the reins during a challenging time in our nation’s history. Strengthening science across the government can give us the best shot at tackling these challenges. And I think they know it too.