Roundup: A New Scientific Integrity Framework and Overstretched EPA Staff

May 12, 2023 | 12:02 pm
EPA Administrator Michael Regan in the foreground, looking pensive, with a diverse group of young people sitting in the backgroundThe White House/Flickr
Liz Borkowski
Science Network Contributor

This post is part of a series of quarterly roundups on scientific integrity.

In the first quarter of 2023, the Biden administration released a framework to help agencies strengthen their scientific integrity policies; several organizations praised it while also noting areas for improvement. EPA lacks the staffing necessary to meet its new regulatory responsibilities, and COVID-19 deaths have fallen but not stopped.

Biden administration takes steps toward scientific integrity and equity

In January, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released A Framework for Federal Scientific Policy and Practice, which lays out requirements for federal agencies to develop scientific integrity policies, along with metrics by which the National Science and Technology Council’s newly chartered Subcommittee on Scientific Integrity will evaluate those policies and their implementation. The framework is part of a process President Biden set in motion with the “Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking” memorandum he signed during his first week in office (see the April 2022 roundup for more details on earlier steps in the process).

The new framework provides specifics agencies can use to strengthen their policies; in particular, it includes a model scientific integrity policy with provisions for protecting scientific processes, ensuring the free flow of scientific information, supporting decision-making processes, ensuring accountability, advancing government scientists’ professional development, and coordinating federal advisory committees. Several organizations that advocate for scientific integrity praised the framework as a step in the right direction, though groups raised concerns about aspects of it, too, including: limited details about accountability, enforcement, and consequences; insufficient attention to the link between scientific integrity and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; a failure to prohibit attempted (as well as successful) interference; a lack of protections for scientists conducting research or publishing on controversial issues; and a provision that could be used to discourage scientists from speaking to media or the public. The success of the framework will be measured in the strength of the agency scientific integrity policies it informs.

Other Biden-Harris administration processes are shaping government science at the same time. OSTP launched the Year of Open Science with “new grant funding, improvements in research infrastructure, broadened research participation for emerging scholars, and expanded opportunities for public engagement.” As part of this initiatives, federal agencies will provide updates to their public access plans, including procedures to ensure the public can immediately access published findings of federally funded research. The new Federal Evidence Agenda on LGBTQI+ Equity instructs agencies on how to collect the data and evidence necessary to improve the lives of LGBTQI+ people; it includes an overview of priority evidence gaps and guidelines for collecting sexual orientation and gender identity information. And OSTP released a report on progress toward collecting and analyzing data in order to improve equitable outcomes from federal programs and policies, while the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) solicited public feedback on recommendations to broaden public engagement in the federal regulatory process.

Looking ahead: Agencies should have submitted drafts of their new or revised scientific integrity policies to OSTP for review; OSTP and the NSTC Subcommittee should review them by mid-May, and agencies should provide an opportunity for public comment on their policies in June.

EPA needs money and repairs

Leaders of AFGE Council 328, a union that represents roughly half of EPA’s workforce, have called on Congress to substantially expand funding to the agency. EPA is now tasked with implementing large portions of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in addition to fulfilling its usual responsibilities, while still stretched thin after losing more than 1,200 scientists and policy experts who left the agency during the Trump years. Regulations often take years to write, but EPA is under pressure to issue rules implementing the new laws by mid-2024 to prevent their rollback under the Congressional Review Act if a Congress hostile to environmental regulation takes over in 2025.

President Biden’s proposed 2024 budget contains large increases for EPA, including $3 billion in new funding to grow its workforce, $750 billion for measures to reduce air pollution, $1.8 billion to advance environmental justice, and $120 million to improve enforcement and compliance monitoring. David F. Coursen of the Environmental Protection Network notes, however, that last year Congress rejected almost 70% of the new funding EPA needed.

Although staffing levels are a concern, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that EPA scientists who completed a 2022 survey reported higher levels of morale, job satisfaction, and effectiveness than those who responded to a similar survey in 2018. A majority of 2022 EPA respondents perceived that the effectiveness of their office or division had increased compared to the prior two years.

In addition to new funding, EPA would benefit from a new approach to regulating chemicals. “Regulatory agencies urgently need to improve the use of science in decision-making processes and ensure that populations are not exposed to harmful levels of chemicals or classes of chemicals,” wrote a group of scientists affiliated with the Science Action Network for Health and the Environment (SANHE) in the first of a set of five papers published in the journal Environmental Health. The scientists recommend ways for EPA to update risk assessment to better understand exposures and equitably protect public health. Recommendations include updating methods to consider effects on people who are at sensitive life stages or burdened by other exposures and stressors, and adopting a chemical class-based approach to evaluate risks from groups of chemicals rather than examining one chemical at a time.

Looking ahead: The House of Representatives will consider annual appropriations bills over the summer.

COVID-19 is still killing people

March 11, 2023, marked the three-year anniversary of the World Health Organization characterizing COVID-19 as a pandemic, and nearly 7 million people worldwide died of the disease during those three years. Death rates have slowed but not stopped: During the anniversary week, according to CDC statistics, around 1,700 people died of COVID-19 in the United States.

Although researchers have made impressive advances in addressing the pandemic over the past three years—most notably by quickly developing and testing vaccines that offer substantial protection against hospitalization and death—inadequate data remains a problem in several areas. Jennifer W. Tsai, Rohan Khazanchi, and Emily Laflamme point out that from 2020 to 2022, data on race and ethnicity were missing from 34% of US COVID-19 diagnoses, which makes it hard to identify and address inequities. A review of studies on the effectiveness of masks to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses (not just COVID-19) found too little evidence to answer the research question—which then gave rise to misinterpretations and inaccurate claims about the effectiveness of masks to reduce COVID-19 transmission. (Although policymakers still want to see more research, early evidence specific to COVID-19 indicates masks do help reduce the virus’s spread.)

Looking ahead: Encouraging preliminary findings from a Phase I trial of a COVID-19 nasal vaccine raise the possibility of a new generation of vaccines that prevent infection more effectively than current injectable vaccines.


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