Attacks on Public Health and Safety that the Scientific Integrity Act Could Have Prevented

July 15, 2019 | 5:39 pm
Chris Quintana/Flickr
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

In March, Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (hereafter referred to as the “SI Act”). The legislation is a step forward to protecting federal agency scientists and their work from political interference.

Attacks on science come from both sides of the political aisle and have for many years. If enacted, this legislation could prevent future attacks on science and protect the health and safety of people across America who depend on science-informed policies.

The SI Act protects public health

The SI Act would codify and bolster scientific integrity policies already in place at science-based federal agencies. This is a great idea because there have been inconsistencies between agencies in terms of how robust policies are. The SI Act requires an agency’s scientific integrity policy to ensure that no individual at a science-based federal agency will “suppress, alter, interfere, or otherwise impede the timely release and communication of scientific or technical findings.”

Suppression and alteration of scientific reports for political purposes has long been a problem at federal agencies. Examples include altered biological opinions on endangered species at the Department of Interior and White House reports on climate change. The SI Act might have prevented issues like the recent case of suppressed science within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which produced a risk assessment report on the potential health hazards of formaldehyde in 2017, but the report and its findings are being suppressed. Formaldehyde is a common chemical found throughout the home. Formaldehyde in household materials can vaporize, and when such fumes are inhaled over the long term this can lead to increased cancer risk.

Risk assessment reports produced by EPA’s IRIS often serve as the underpinning of public protections that keep people from being exposed to dangerous chemicals at unsafe levels. But federal agencies cannot put protections in place if the science is suppressed. By suppressing this report, the Trump administration is increasing the risks of certain types of cancer associated with exposure to formaldehyde in the general population.

The suppression of this risk assessment report would be considered a violation of scientific integrity under the SI Act. Classifying the suppression of this report as a violation of scientific integrity could help Congress and officials at federal agencies take steps to release the formaldehyde report, spurring development of a science-based policy to regulate this chemical and protect any further damage to public health.

The SI Act grants fundamental rights to scientists

The SI Act also grants key rights to federal scientists across all science-based agencies. Such protections are crucial for ensuring scientists feel empowered that their scientific work is protected and that they are able to speak up when it isn’t.

Federal agencies release information about scientific reports and publications, but sometimes do not allow scientists who conducted the work to review the information before being communicated externally. The SI Act would allow scientists “the opportunity to review” public statements for “technical accuracy.” The SI Act also provides scientists with the right to correct any inaccuracies in publications jointly with the agency in external communications.

Administrations have communicated information that is not scientifically accurate previously. For example, under the Obama administration, the EPA produced a report about the risks to drinking water presented by hydraulic fracturing. In an executive summary, the agency wrote that the scientists of the report did not find “widespread systemic impacts” of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. However, this was not in line with the scientific evidence reported. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), its primary federal science advisory board, determined the EPA did not provide quantitative evidence to support its claim that hydraulic fracturing did not have widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water. Following this report, the EPA deleted the language from the executive summary.

Under the SI Act, the scientists involved would have been able to review report materials before they were released publicly. This might have prevented the release of misleading scientific information from the agency and saved the agency the time and resources of convening the SAB to deliberate whether the agency’s language was in line with the scientific evidence.

The SI Act protects workers from harm

Another provision of the SI Act says agency policies must ensure that “scientific conclusions are not made based on political considerations.” There have been several times when science has been sidelined, resulting in policies that are not effective at protecting the public from harm, that undo reproductive health measures, or that put our environment’s health at risk. One such example is the lack of consideration of science in allowing the poultry business to increase worker line speeds, which will likely increase poultry worker injuries.

Poultry workers are at high risk for on-the-job injury. As described by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Workers employed in the poultry industry face many serious hazards, including high noise levels, dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals such as ammonia, used as a refrigerant, and peracetic acid used to kill bacteria.”

This is why a policy was put in place in 2014 establishing a maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute. This speed was not arbitrary; it was based on evidence that increased line speeds result in increased worker injury. However, in February 2018, some poultry processing plants received waivers to increase line speeds up to 175 birds per minute.

The science is clear: an increase in line speeds will increase worker injury. Therefore, the decision to increase line speeds was not based on science or the public’s input, it was based on political considerations. The SI Act would create conditions such that decisions that are clearly based on politics and not science could be considered a violation of scientific integrity. In the case here, that could have resulted in increased safety for poultry workers and the general population, who may now be at increased risk of food borne illnesses.

The SI Act protects reproductive health

The provision of the SI Act that ensures that “scientific conclusions are not made based on political considerations” may also have prevented science from being sidelined on reproductive health decisions.

In the case of emergency contraception, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) attempts to move forward on a drug which science had shown to be safe were undermined during the Obama administration. Critically, the FDA is legally bound to only consider evidence when making drug approval decisions.

While Obama’s FDA commissioner and science advisors supported an application to make an over-the-counter emergency contraception drug available to young women, the Secretary of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA, stating concerns about potential health effects of the drug on 10- and 11-year-old girls. Obama publicly supported this rejection despite scientific evidence showing that the drug did not have negative health effects on young women. In April 2013, a judge ordered the FDA to make emergency contraception available to women of all ages, arguing that the Secretary’s action was “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent.”

The SI Act may have created conditions such that the administration’s move to challenge a science-based decision would have been considered a violation of scientific integrity. It’s possible that this might have allowed young women access to safe emergency contraception earlier.

The SI Act fights censorship

The SI Act would allow scientists to speak more openly and freely about their work to the public, in conferences, and through scientific peer-reviewed journals—for example, climate change scientists in the federal government could explain to the public and policymakers what their research shows.

The SI Act has a number of provisions that would allow scientists to make their work more transparent to the public and prevent censorship of scientific information. Censorship and alteration of scientific materials on publicly contentious topics has continued to happen, especially around climate change work. We also know that it is critical that scientists be allowed to discuss their work publicly with the media, especially during emergencies or natural disasters when the public may require information from a scientific expert.  A number of the SI Act provisions “promote and maximize the communication and open exchange of data and findings to other agencies, policymakers, and the public…” The SI Act prohibits conduct of an individual to “intimidate or coerce an individual to alter or censor, or retaliate against an individual for failure to alter or censor, scientific or technical findings.”

Recently, climate change scientists and their work have been particularly targeted. Political appointees have refused to fund grants that mention “climate change,” federal scientists have been reprimanded for publicly discussing the effects of climate change, and even the phrase “climate change” has been banished from government documents.

The negative impacts of climate change are already affecting the US now, and these negative effects will be amplified in the future. Therefore, it is critical that our government supports, conducts, and communicates its climate change research and policies. This is important for the US public and the world.

Having transparency on this government work, as well as other scientific concepts, would allow policymakers and the public alike to better understand if an administration’s policy actions are in line with science. If not, the SI Act would create conditions that allow an administration to be held accountable when science is sidelined.

The SI Act is a step forward for science

There are countless other examples of attacks on science from the Trump administration. In fact, we’ve documented over 100 attacks on science to-date. Many of these and the harms they have caused to the American people could have been prevented by legislation such as the SI Act. While we cannot go back in time, we can ensure that the future is brighter for our brothers and sisters in this country by encouraging our decisionmakers to pass this common-sense legislation. Science is still our best system of knowledge gathering – it just makes sense that our best knowledge informs policies that protect the public and our environment from harm.

Want to protect federal scientists and their work? Take action now to encourage your decisionmaker to ensure that science remains at the forefront of policy decisions.