Roundup: Signs of Hope for Scientific Integrity and Public Health

April 8, 2021 | 1:36 pm
The National Guard
Liz Borkowski
Managing director, Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University

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

The first quarter of 2021 began with a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and ended with both the Biden administration and Congress having taken important steps to safeguard scientific integrity and speed COVID-19 vaccinations. Executive orders and presidential memoranda directed agencies to create scientific integrity infrastructure and regulate based on evidence, while House committees considered the Scientific Integrity Act and held hearings on the federal workforce. Agencies moved quickly to undo Trump administration actions that sidelined science, while advocates used Sunshine Week to highlight the value of transparency.

Responding to lies with pledges for truth

When violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, their attempted coup was a foreseeable consequence of the dishonesty of President Trump and many members of Congress. Lies about the election having been “stolen” relied on racist assumptions about whose votes should count. The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris marked an end to the rampant falsehoods of the Trump administration, with Biden saying in his inaugural address, “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” However, the pandemic environment dampened celebrations. In February the nation passed the awful milestone of 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19, and in March we entered our second year of necessary but painful limitations on gatherings.

Between the Biden administration’s efforts and the American Rescue Plan passed by the new Congress, the pace of vaccinations has increased and the country has seen dramatic drops in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared to peak levels. Yet many states are moving too quickly to reverse safety measures, at a time when the spread of coronavirus variants makes it crucial to retain safeguards. In late March, case numbers were increasing again. Inequities in vaccine distribution are problems both within the U.S. and globally, mirroring inequities in infection and death rates that have been evident from the start.

Supporters of evidence-based pandemic responses cheered when Biden signed the “Executive Order on Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats,” which calls for strengthening the public health infrastructure and the gathering, sharing, and publication of COVID-19 data. He also won praise for selecting Rochelle Walensky, who was Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Harvard Medical School professor, to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She pledged, “I will tell the president, Congress and the public what we know when we know it, and I will do so even when the news is bleak, or when the information may not be what those in the administration want to hear.” In one of her first acts as CDC Director, she ordered a review to ensure all of the agency’s guidance was evidence-based and free of politics. The review identified guidance documents on reopenings, schools, and testing as problematic, and all of these are now gone from the agency website. However, the agency has not yet heeded calls from scientists or nurses and their allies to reflect the widely acknowledged evidence that the novel coronavirus spreads through tiny droplets that hang in the air (i.e., aerosol transmission). One of Biden’s first executive orders directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt revised COVID-19 guidance and consider an emergency temporary standard, but experts warn that if CDC fails to issue its own guidance it will undermine public acceptance of OSHA’s recommendations. CDC did issue guidance for fully vaccinated people.

Looking ahead: Worker health and safety advocates await the release of the COVID-19 rule that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reportedly drafted and sent to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Strengthening scientific integrity infrastructure and the federal workforce

A week after taking office, Biden signed a sweeping memorandum on scientific integrity that sets up a process for substantially strengthening agencies’ scientific integrity policies. Under this process, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will convene an interagency task force to review the effectiveness of existing scientific integrity policies, collect stakeholder input, and develop a framework to support their assessment and improvement. Then, agency heads must submit new or updated policies to the OSTP director and establish procedures for implementing them. Each agency will have a lead scientific integrity official, who must be a senior career employee; agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research will also have a chief science officer, science advisor, or chief scientist. The timelines are ambitious, with each step concluding 120 or 180 days after the preceding one. OSTP Deputy Directors Jane Lubchenco and Alondra Nelson have notified agencies that they are forming a task force to review existing policies and identify any recent instances of political interference with science.

Congress can give scientific integrity policies teeth and staying power through legislation. Representative Paul Tonko reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would put into law the requirements that agencies develop and enforce strong scientific integrity policies and that each agency appoint a scientific integrity official responsible for implementation. The Act has support from 162 cosponsors, as well as from a range of science, conservation, research,  and accountability organizations. In the previous Congress, the Act won bipartisan support and the House passed it as part of the HEROES Act.

To ensure scientific agencies operate effectively and with integrity, they must also be able to attract and retain workforces with diverse background but a common commitment to using science for the public good. Under the Trump administration, many science-based agencies lost large numbers of staff and suffered declining morale. Reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology documented the problems and proposed solutions ahead of a “Brain Drain: Rebuilding the Federal Scientific Workforce” hearing. Witnesses from GAO, the Partnership for Public Service, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Environmental Protection Network shared their recommendations, and organizations like the Climate Science and Legal Defense Fund submitted comments for the record. Witnesses stressed the importance of restoring scientific integrity in order to retain scientists, and recommended ways to improve recruitment and hiring to ensure a strong, diverse workforce.

Another hearing, this one by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, considered the damage to the federal workforce from Trump administration policies such as the undermining of collective bargaining rights and creation of a new “Schedule F” employment category in which employees would no longer be hired under competitive procedures and would lose the rights to due process and appeals of personnel actions against them. Shortly after taking office, Biden signed executive orders undoing workforce-damaging Trump policies such as Schedule F, anti-union orders, and restrictions on diversity trainings. Advocates have also recommended more far-reaching improvements that the executive branch and Congress can make to protect federal employees in general and whistleblowers in particular. Biden has also appointed personnel expert Pam Coleman to serve as a White House czar on federal workforce and agency performance.

Strong federal agencies require strong leaders, and Biden’s early appointments indicated the priority he places on scientific leadership. He elevated the Presidential Science Advisor/OSTP Director position to the cabinet level and tapped MIT and Harvard biology professor Eric Lander to fill it, and he named Alondra Nelson, President of the Social Science Research Council and Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, as Deputy Director of OSTP. Given OSTP’s role in implementing the memorandum on scientific integrity, these leaders will be at the forefront of the work to create an infrastructure for scientific integrity across the executive branch.

Looking ahead: The first step in the scientific integrity memorandum is for the OSTP Director to convene an interagency task force to review the effectiveness of existing scientific integrity policies. Their review is due 120 days after members are appointed.

Undoing Trump administration damage

The early weeks of the Biden administration saw a flurry of executive actions to undo non-evidence-based Trump administration actions. These include restoring integrity to the Census process, returning the “social cost of carbon” metric for measuring the cost of climate impacts to pre-2017 values, correcting shortcomings in the regulatory review process that allowed agencies to issue dangerous rules without fully considering evidence, and revoking the orders to cut federal advisory committees and require that agencies revoke two existing rules each time they issue a new one. Biden also instructed agencies to examine rules issued during the Trump administration to determine whether some are at odds with agency missions and goals, with some specific rules identified for priority consideration. One of these, an EPA rule that purported to promote transparency while sharply limiting the research the agency consider when acting, was overturned in court before the agency had time to address it through rulemaking.

Elsewhere, agencies are acting quickly to address problematic Trump administration actions. The Department of the Interior rescinded a secretarial order that sidelined the use of scientific research in agency decisions. EPA dismissed members of the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) who were appointed when the Trump administration illegally prohibited EPA grantees from serving on those advisory committees. The Department of Health and Human Services began the process of undoing a rule that damaged the Title X family planning program by requiring providers to give incomplete information to pregnant patients. USDA withdrew a proposed rule to increase line speeds at poultry plants that ignored evidence of the substantial harms associated with such changes and their disproportionate impacts on communities of color. One problematic Trump administration action that has yet to be reversed is a Food and Drug Administration requirement for people seeking medication abortions to obtain the pills in person—a restriction that is unwarranted in normal times and particularly inappropriate during a pandemic, when users of other restricted drugs have been allowed remote access.

Looking ahead: Advocates prepare to comment in support of agency rulemakings to withdraw Trump administration rules that failed to follow appropriate procedures and disregarded evidence. Individuals with appropriate qualifications for the SAB and CASAC are encouraged to apply for open seats.

For Sunshine Week, a FOIA focus

During Sunshine Week (March 14-20, 2021), much of the attention focused on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A recent Supreme Court decision—with an opinion based on questionable rationales—allowed federal agencies to use one of the law’s exemptions to shield large swaths of information from public view. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) quickly responded by introducing the Open and Responsive Government Act to restore the longstanding legal interpretation that the Supreme Court decision cast aside. Meanwhile, organizations highlighted news stories that journalists couldn’t have published without FOIA and notable FOIA requests filed in recent years, called for FOIA’s application to government contractors, and warned that responses to FOIA requests have been delayed due to the pandemic.

Looking ahead: The Biden administration has a chance to demonstrate a commitment to transparency by using FOIA exemptions sparingly and following additional recommendations from civil society organizations.


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Liz Borkowski, MPH, is managing director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She serves as managing editor of Women’s Health Issues, the peer-reviewed journal of the Jacobs Institute, and works with a wide range of organizations on protecting scientific integrity in the federal government.

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Liz Borkowski, MPH, is managing director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She serves as managing editor of Women’s Health Issues, the peer-reviewed journal of the Jacobs Institute, and works with a wide range of organizations on protecting scientific integrity in the federal government.