As Congress Revives its Oversight Responsibilities, Science Should Be on the Agenda

November 15, 2018 | 9:59 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The midterms brought checks and balances to Washington, complete with new opportunities for accountability and oversight, and some members of Congress have already signaled that science will be on the agenda. Today, a diverse set of environmental, public health, and good government organizations released a report outlining what Congress can do to address recent actions that sideline science from policymaking. Contributing and endorsing organizations are listed below.

Truth and science cartoon

Accountability for political interference in science can come through congressional oversight. It’s now up to Congress to choose what topics are most ripe.

We know that oversight works. Political appointees during the George W. Bush presidency rewrote scientific reports, compromised science advisory committees, and threatened scientists across a wide variety of issues. As a result of oversight, appointees resigned and scientific analysis was made right. To support this process, it was tremendously useful for civil society to come together to identify patterns and build public awareness about the public harm caused by attacks on science.

The report “describes new and ongoing threats to the communication of science and its use in public health and environmental decisions,” and recommends steps Congress can take in response, from exposing abuses of scientific integrity to holding appointees accountable to passing good government laws. Issues addressed include:

  • Politicization of science within agencies
  • Threats to scientific advisory committees and science advice
  • Unqualified and conflicted government leaders
  • Constraints on the communication of science
  • Whistleblowing and scientific integrity
  • Low-information approaches to enforcement of existing public health and environmental laws

I’m thrilled to see so many respected organizations coming together around common themes: scientific advice is essential to public health and wellbeing; attacks on science and scientists decrease faith in the institutions that are designed to keep us safe; and the sidelining of scientists and science advice deserves to be scrutinized and reversed.

It’s so impressive that all of these organizations with desperate interests have come together because they recognize the harm Trump administration actions have had on topics as diverse as workplace injuries, reproductive health, the Census, chemical contamination, tipped workers, endangered species, climate change, and air pollution.

The report recognizes that political interference in science is a constant temptation for policymakers—and that recently, that interference has become more sustained and pervasive. This highlights the need for better systems and protections that strengthen the role of science in policymaking.

The recommendations are intentionally broad so that any public interest organization can use them as a guide when they talk with congressional offices about more specific oversight recommendations that are relevant to their areas of expertise. I hope others who see value in the role of science in policymaking will use this report to inform their work to protect public health and the environment.

Jurisdiction over the federal scientific enterprise falls to several House committees, including The House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Natural Resources Committee, and the Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. The ball is now in their court to conduct fair oversight of the federal scientific enterprise and slow down the most egregious attempts to make evidence-free public health and environmental policy.

The findings and recommendations in this report have been endorsed by the following organizations. Contributors to the report are identified with an asterisk.

  • Climate Science Legal Defense Fund*
  • Defenders of Wildlife
  • Democracy Forward*
  • Environmental Integrity Project*
  • Environmental Protection Network*
  • Government Accountability Project*
  • Greenpeace*
  • Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health*
  • National Center for Health Research
  • National Federation of Federal Employees*
  • National LGBTQ Task Force
  • National Partnership for Women & Families*
  • National Women’s Health Network
  • Power to Decide*
  • Project on Government Oversight*
  • Union of Concerned Scientists*