Bipartisan Support for Scientific Integrity Reform is Growing

October 3, 2019 | 3:41 pm
Photo: John Brighenti/Flickr
Ken Kimmell
Former contributor

“We are at a crisis point,” according to a new report from the highly respected Brennan Center for Justice, “with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.” The crisis in question involves threats to scientific integrity in government, and the report could not be more timely. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, we learned the White House ordered scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to refrain from giving the public accurate information about the path of Hurricane Dorian because that information conflicted with President Trump’s mistaken tweet.

The report is authored by a nonpartisan task force at the Brennan Center, chaired by former Republican New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Obama-appointed US Attorney Preet Bharara and including several other prominent leaders with diverse political backgrounds.

Governmental science at a crisis point

Make no mistake: the crisis highlighted by this report is real. Governor Whitman and I wrote an op-ed this summer about the consequences of political interference in science and the need to take steps to stop it. It’s no secret that the Trump administration has attacked science and scientists more than any other president. But it is also important to recognize that political interference in science is wrong no matter which president presides over it, and the report cites scores of previous examples, including the suppression of climate change research under George W. Bush, a report on fracking and drinking water under President Obama, and manipulation of data by the Trump administration on everything from labor statistics to nutrition.

With strong and frank language, the authors warn that our ability to tackle complex challenges requires us to get back on track.  As they state: “We have big problems to solve in this nation. If we cannot agree on the facts underlying potential solutions to these problems, and we do not have qualified and dedicated people in place to develop and execute on them, we will imperil the future of our democracy.”

The report calls upon the federal government to:

  • Create scientific integrity standards and require agencies to establish protocols for adhering to them
  • Prohibit politically motivated manipulation or suppression of research
  • Ensure the proper functioning of scientific advisory committees
  • Increase public access to government research and data, and
  • Encourage the appointment of qualified and ethical people to key government posts.

Legislation needed

Currently, scientific integrity standards exist through a patchwork of policies of varying effectiveness across government agencies that are largely dependent on the willingness of political appointees to allow their enforcement. This is clearly insufficient. To ensure that independent science informs policy discussions, Congress needs to act.

We need legislation that clearly empowers government scientists to publish their research and share their expertise; that holds accountable any government officials who attempt to manipulate or suppress research; and that protects researchers from retaliation when they arrive at or share politically contentious research results.

Fortunately, support is growing for legislation introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (NY) and Sen. Brian Schatz (HI), called the Scientific Integrity Act, that would meet many of these needs. The act requires federal agencies to adopt scientific integrity policies to ensure that scientists can publicly communicate about their work and 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.”

Defining roles for scientists and political appointees

Functioning federal agencies also need qualified leaders without conflicts of interest that impair their ability to effectively do their jobs. The report also addresses our currently broken process of appointing such leaders. In this administration, for example, a talk show host with no scientific credentials was nominated to be the chief scientist of the USDA,  and the current Secretary of the Interior has so many conflicts of interest he reportedly carries around a list so he can remember them all.

The report recommends requirements that would make it more difficult for presidents to nominate family members or political allies with limited experience to critical government positions. They recommend requiring that “acting” officials—agency leaders who have not been Senate-confirmed—possess a minimum amount of prior federal government service, preferably within the same agency. They also suggest requiring more statutory qualifications for positions that require specific expertise. This idea has merit: when UCS successfully opposed the nomination of nonscientist Sam Clovis to be the chief scientist of the USDA, it was extremely helpful to point out that Mr. Clovis did not meet the specific statutory requirements for that position.

Scientific integrity reform is good for government

The Brennan Center report makes a valuable contribution in alerting the public that science is under unprecedented attack and that reform is urgently needed. With many norms of democracy unraveling around us, it’s heartening to see Republicans and Democrats come together to outline meaningful changes designed to protect independent science from politicization and fix the process for filling senior government positions.

It’s important to emphasize that these are not partisan issues; Americans across the political spectrum understand their importance.  As my colleague Michael Halpern recently testified before Congress, “there is not Democratic science. There is not Republican science. There’s just science. Decisionmakers and the public want to hear directly from the experts, and they deserve that access.”