Misinterpreting Scientific Integrity Data in House Oversight Hearing

July 29, 2019 | 10:38 am
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

Last week, the House Natural Resource Committee held a hearing on scientific integrity and attacks on science at the Department of Interior (DOI). In his opening statement, ranking member Rob Bishop from Utah showed the Committee a graph and offered it as evidence that under the Trump administration, scientific integrity complaints are at their lowest since data collection began at the DOI. ​As is often the case, the graph alone does not tell the full story, and Congressman Bishop ought to want to understand why the numbers appear to be so low.

  1. Federal scientists are afraid of filing scientific integrity complaints. How do I know this? Because I measured data on this very issue in 2018. In a survey of federal scientists that I led in 2018, I found that 800 scientists said they would not feel comfortable coming forward with a scientific integrity violation. That is far too many scientists who feel like they cannot report interference in their work – the ideal number, of course, being zero. Many members at the hearing criticized scientists for a lack of transparency in their raw research data, so we invite these members to take a look at the raw frequency results from my survey for item 36 here. These data are from the very federal scientists in agencies when the survey was conducted.
  2. More scientific integrity issues have been discussed publicly than have been documented at DOI. We know that more scientific integrity issues have happened at DOI than what has been formally filed because of freedom of information act requests and investigative journalism. At UCS, we keep a running tally of all these publicly reported scientific integrity issues on our attacks on science page. For example, DOI’s list of closed scientific integrity cases records two filed complaints in 2018, we documented eight scientific integrity issues from information that has been disclosed publicly. This is just another signal that scientists are not filing scientific integrity violations even if they are occurring.
  3. Scientist whistleblowers have publicly stated the hesitancy in filing scientific integrity complaints due to fear of retaliation from the Trump administration. One of the witnesses at the HNR hearing, Dr. Maria Caffrey, discussed a personal and painful story of her fight to retain climate change language in a report she drafted for the National Park Service. In her testimony, she recalled colleagues begging her not to come forward with her allegation of a scientific integrity violation. One colleague noted their fear that Dr. Caffrey coming forward could result in their reassignment, which would make it difficult for them to provide for their children. Dr. Caffrey did, indeed, lose her job for speaking out about the truth. And we have seen others publicly reprimanded for discussing scientific work or reassigned.

These are examples of the very real repercussions that our federal scientists may risk in simply trying to do their jobs – informing their agencies and the public about what the science says. Imagine the impact on the federal workforce writ large as they witness what can and has happened to their colleagues.

If you were a federal scientist working under the Trump administration, would you be willing to come forward with a scientific integrity complaint? Or even talk publicly about the science related to issues considered politically contentious or at odds with the administration’s political/ideological preferences? This culture of fear would probably have you think very long and hard about doing so if it meant losing your job and the ability to provide for your family.

Currently it’s all stick and no carrot when it comes to the work of scientists under the Trump administration, which the data clearly shows. Congressman Bishop did not take these other data into consideration when coming to his conclusion that scientific integrity is not a big problem at DOI under the Trump administration. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding will cost federal scientists, and the public who depend on their work, a lot of heartache.