Highlights from the Historic White House Scientific Integrity Report

January 11, 2022 | 1:49 pm
White HouseiStock.com/Ben Trussel
Jacob Carter
Research Director

Today, in an historic first, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a report about the state of scientific integrity across the federal government. The report was developed by a task force of 57 representatives representing 29 federal agencies that use and communicate science as part of their daily activities. The publication of this report marks an important first step toward strengthening scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking as laid out in a memorandum signed by President Biden almost one year ago. 

The report does a great job of summarizing a variety of scientific integrity issues, explaining why those issues exist, and why the public should care about scientific integrity. It provides some suggestions on how to remedy many scientific integrity issues and, as a first-of-its-kind report, shows that the Biden administration views scientific integrity as a priority and important issue, which is very gratifying to see.  

A number of recommendations in the report closely align with those the Union of Concerned Scientists has been making for over a decade. However, the report falls short in providing details on issues like accountability, equity, and the fact that many agencies have lagged behind the implementation of strong scientific integrity policies (see Table 1 in our report Strengthening Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies). These issues will warrant further work and discussion as OSTP takes its next steps to develop a framework to provide guidance to agencies about how to strengthen their scientific integrity policies. Additionally, the details for OSTP’s next steps are unclear: what is the timeline for developing this framework, how will it be implemented, and when will stakeholders be allowed to provide input into this process?  

There is still a lot of work to be done, but this report represents a major step forward to lay the groundwork for bolstering scientific integrity policies. If implemented effectively, this work will ensure that public safeguards will continue to be informed by the best available science and make science-based decisionmaking more resistant to undue political interference. 

The good

The scientific integrity task force made several recommendations that go beyond provisions currently in agency policies. The report provides novel suggestions for strengthening scientific integrity training that I thought were great ideas, particularly the idea of expanding training to external entities doing science-based work for federal agencies as well as including training as part of the onboarding for all new agency staff, political appointees, contractors, and grantees.

The report suggests promoting scientific integrity among extramural researchers with a goal of embedding scientific integrity training in university-level programs. This is a great idea because early-career scientists typically do not receive training on scientific integrity despite the issue’s clear importance to the scientific community. Training early-career scientists on this critical issue could help bring greater awareness about the issue of scientific integrity and help educate the future scientific workforce.  

The report also suggests moving to standardize a definition of scientific integrity, and to further standardize principles of scientific integrity across the federal government. Given the variability in scientific integrity policies across federal agencies, more standardization is greatly needed. While some agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have stellar policies, others pale by comparison when it comes to rights and protections for scientists and their work. The Department of Transportation, for example, lacks many of the basic provisions needed to ensure that scientific integrity is maintained within the agency. 

Another great set of suggestions from the task force report concern the processes used to allow scientists to dissent. The report provides several mechanisms and a full process for handling scientific disagreement: discussion with the team developing a scientific product, engagement with additional subject matter experts, internal or external peer-review of the scientific merit of the differing opinion, and documenting differing opinions for policymakers. Given that only three scientific integrity policies (the Department of Energy, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency) currently have a strong process for addressing differing scientific opinions, the report’s suggestion for all agencies to adopt a process for scientific disagreement was great.  

The not so good

While this report lays an amazing foundation for bolstering scientific integrity policies, some areas could benefit from additional work, especially the plans for agency accountability and enforcement of policies. This is particularly important because, without consequences for those who violate scientific integrity policies, new rules may not carry much weight for those expected to adhere to them. This could lead to a large number of violations in an administration that is more interested in policy outcomes than following the best available science.  

The report does state that violations of scientific integrity should be addressed on par with violations of ethics. This is a good idea, especially since most federal employees will not want to be found “unethical.” Additionally, there are well-articulated consequences for ethics violations across the federal government that can result in consequences ranging from recusals from certain work to expulsion, depending on the offense. However, the report does not provide details on what the consequences should be for violating scientific integrity policies, nor does it provide any suggestion of who should decide or implement those consequences. These details are important to ensure that federal scientific integrity policies will have teeth.  

Issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) will also likely need more focus as a scientific integrity framework is developed for federal agencies.. It is great to see the scientific integrity task force tackle this issue and to see the federal government, for the first time, make an explicit tie between DEIA and scientific integrity. The report’s suggestions represent great starting points to ensure that scientists think about building DEIA into their work, and that agencies ensure they have a professional environment that is inclusive, safe, and equitable for all scientists. As DEIA continues to be discussed, those developing the framework may want to consider scientific communication and access to science. Underserved communities are often most in need of scientific information, but generally lack access to this information. Making information accessible and transparent for communities—particularly  underserved communities—should be embedded as a hallmark of scientific integrity.  

Next steps

With this new report, the Biden administration is making good on its commitment to take the issue of scientific integrity seriously, and it represents the first-ever comprehensive government report on the subject. I look forward to hearing more about the next steps this administration will take as a framework is developed to implement the many suggestions provided by the scientific integrity task force. It is my hope that more clarity will be provided on the timing of this development and that stakeholders, especially communities, will be provided advance notice and multiple opportunities to provide comments on this process given that scientific integrity deeply affects all our lives.

There is a lot more work to do but this report marks a great first step!