Want More Science-Based Policies? Start by Protecting the Scientists

November 25, 2020 | 10:35 am
Photo: Triff/Shutterstock
Maria Caffrey
Former Contributor

As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.

One thing I am particularly looking forward to is hearing more from experts and scientists so that we can usher in a new era of science-based policymaking. But before we get too excited about what those changes could be, there are some essential actions that the Biden administration must take to ensure that the scientists and their work will be protected over the next four years and beyond.

I am eager to put the past behind me, but I am also acutely aware that if we do not make the effort to learn from our history then we risk repeating it. So how can we close the gaps in our laws to ensure that industry cannot profit at the expense of public health or diminish our public lands? Two words: scientific integrity.

Scientific integrity refers to the professional culture, norms, and rules that underpin the production, communication, and use of scientific research. Now more than ever we need to establish scientific integrity policies and laws that prevent the suppression and distortion of scientific research, and prohibit retaliations against scientists. Without this we risk future abuse and manipulation of science and harm to the public good.

We need more than listening

By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.

I have my own history of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these attacks on science over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.

President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will listen to the scientists. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and my colleague Gretchen Goldman published an article listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:

  1. Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.
  2. Protect scientists’ communication rights.
  3. Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.
  4. Protect federal scientists’ right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.
  5. Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.
  6. Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.
  7. Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.
  8. Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.
  9. Strengthen whistleblower protections.
  10. Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.

All of these recommendations have been reinforced by what we have learned during the Trump administration. They would ensure that no future administration could do things like edit climate change reports to include scientifically unsound language questioning climate change, suppress oil and gas safety information, prevent scientists from discussing their work in public forums, or withhold vital scientific information that is required under other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act.

When it comes to changes at the Department of the Interior, the Union of Concerned Scientists has articulated specific actions that the Biden administration should implement if they want to ensure that government scientists are free to do their work without political interference. Scientists deserve the right of last review and the ability to comment publicly, they shouldn’t have to fight for their publications to be published, and they should have a pathway to anonymously file a complaint if they think their rights have been breached.

I spent over a year staring at my finished climate change report on my National Park Service desk wondering why it was being delayed. I was later pressured to makes edits I did not agree with. When I fought back I was told that I could be removed as an author or have my work not published at all. Given my own experience, these suggestions to fix our current system are deeply personal to me because I have seen how Interior can work against scientists to silence them when their work is politically inconvenient.

Time for action

I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be “normal” again.

Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the Obama administration would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.

I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.

We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.