The Scientific Integrity Act is Good for Science and Good for Government

March 13, 2019 | 4:15 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Today, Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act, legislation that would give scientists who work for government agencies the right to share their research with the public, ensure that government communication of science is accurate, and protect science in policy decisions from political interference. The bill empowers federal scientists to share their personal opinions as informed experts. And the bill prohibits any employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings. Anyone reading this post should reach out to their representative and senators to urge co-sponsorship of this important bill.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Interior, and Food and Drug Administration are supposed to use independent science to protect and improve public health and the environment. Much of the time, they do. But presidential administrations want excessive control over information that comes out of federal agencies—especially if it doesn’t support the policies they want to put forward. This keeps valuable information from the public, and makes it easier for politicians to base public health and environmental protection decisions not on sound science but on something that sounds like science, but isn’t. This makes people sicker and degrades the environment.

Today, members of Congress introduced a bill to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies and enhance protections for government scientists. Photo: USDA

The Scientific Integrity Act would require federal agencies that conduct or utilize science to set up systems to prevent and address attacks on science. Any federal agency addressing science would designate a scientific integrity officer, develop a scientific integrity policy that includes a set of minimum standards, and provide scientific integrity and ethics trainings. Currently, some agencies have had the resources to devote more staff time and resources to scientific integrity than others, and we see the results of this when we look at scientists awareness of the policy and enforcement of its provisions.

Much of the bill is focused on protecting scientists’ rights to communicate their research. You may have thought that this was obvious: don’t scientists who work for NASA or EPA already have the freedom to publicly share their expertise? Well, yes and no. Widespread censorship of science and scientists in the past led federal agencies to develop or improve media and scientific integrity policies that are supposed to protect this right. These polices, however, lack the force of law, and vary agency to agency in terms of their comprehensiveness and effectiveness.

That’s why it’s easier for the White House to try to get away with censoring a study on chemical contamination of drinking water. It’s why employees can be reprimanded for tweeting about climate change.

It’s why, according to surveys, federal scientists are self-censoring and keeping a low profile rather than risk the ire of their political superiors. 631 federal scientists reported having been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work and another 703 federal scientists reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. Policies that better protect scientists communication would help address censorship and self-censorship.

The bill also requires some public reporting as to agency scientific integrity performance, and gives the White House Office of Scientific Integrity Policy some purview over policy implementation. We will do our best to work with the committee to strengthen the reporting and existing policies portions of the legislation as it moves through Congress.

To be sure, there are other steps needed to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking—increasing data disclosure and transparency in decisionmaking, reducing conflicts of interest on science advisory boards, and ensuring that we know when scientists within government disagree with each other, just to name a few. But no one piece of legislation will solve everything.

We all deserve access to the scientific analysis that the government creates, as well as access to the experts who can interpret that information. States, local governments, and individuals all depend on the federal government to help understand the risks we face and how to keep our families and communities safe. From consumer product safety to prescription drugs to air pollution, we are all better off when the scientists who work for government have the basic right to share what they know free from political interference.

This bill is absolutely an essential building block to strengthen the role of science in policymaking that deserves swift consideration in the House and Senate. Bravo to Senator Schatz and Representative Tonko for introducing this legislation and advocating for its passage. Please ask your representatives in the House and Senate to co-sponsor this bill.