What I’ll Tell Congress at Today’s Hearing on Politics and Science

July 17, 2019
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

At 10am this morning, two subcommittees of the House Science Committee will hold a hearing called “Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies,” which will examine political interference in science and legislation to help fix the problem. I am honored to be one of the witnesses invited to appear. Below, you can read my five-minute oral testimony as prepared for delivery, and if you want the good stuff, you can read my written testimony at this link.

You can also watch the hearing, live or archived, on the committee’s website. Follow along on Twitter using hashtags #ScientificIntegrityAct and #sciencenotsilence.

This is the first time in a long while that Congress has devoted significant time to bringing attention to attacks on science and ways to stop them. I’m quite excited to be up on Capitol Hill to share UCS’s work and perspectives with these elected officials. And even though I’m the one speaking, there with me, either in person or in spirit, will be a fantastic team of UCS researchers, advocates, and organizers–and an incredible group of UCS supporters–who document political interference in science and keep the issue in the public eye.

Anyway, on to the show…

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Testimony for Mr. Michael Halpern

Deputy Director, Center for Science and Democracy

Union of Concerned Scientists

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Joint Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight and Subcommittee on Research & Technology Hearing

Good morning, and thank you Chairwoman Stevens, Chairwoman Sherrill, Ranking Member Baird, and Ranking Member Norman for holding this hearing. I am Michael Halpern, and I am the Deputy Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I have spent the last fifteen years working at the intersection of science and policy, standing up for scientists and their work.

I’m thrilled to be here to talk about political interference in the work of federal government scientists, and steps to prevent that kind of misconduct. I hope that today will serve as an example to all that there can be a bipartisan commitment to promoting responsible conduct in federal scientific agencies regarding the development and communication of scientific information.

Federal government experts provide data and analysis that helps us stop the Zika virus. They help neighborhoods deal with public health risks posed by nearby chemical plants. They help journalists and policymakers understand bioterrorism threats.

There is not Democratic science. There is not Republican science. There’s just science. Decision-makers and the public want to hear directly from the experts, and they deserve that access.

Yet too often, policymakers want to keep these scientists on a leash—or worse, change scientific practices or outcomes to support predetermined policy positions. Political appointees suppress scientific reports on chemical toxicity, order staff to soften conclusions on worker safety problems, unethically change testing protocols on lead exposure, and misrepresent scientists’ work on reproductive health.

In such a closed culture, scientists keep their heads down, and we are robbed of their expertise. This keeps valuable information from the public, and makes it easier for politicians to avoid accountability for poor public health and environmental protection decisions.

The consequences are real. During the George W. Bush administration, government experts were ordered to change their testing procedures to suggest that children’s lunch boxes with lead in them were safe. The Obama EPA watered down and changed an agency scientific assessment about the impact of fracking and drinking water in a way that misled the public. And in the Trump administration, assessments of PFAS chemicals were held up, scientists have been muzzled on climate change, and experts report high levels of censorship and self-censorship across issues.

For the last twenty years, journalism associations complained consistently about access to federal government experts and asked for improvements. They were stonewalled then, and it’s only getting worse.

Recently, the US Geological Survey began requiring scientists to ask for permission before speaking with a reporter. USGS isn’t a regulatory agency. It doesn’t do policy. Yet the desire to control the message is still present.

Most federal agencies have developed scientific integrity policies over the past decade. But agencies vary widely in their ability and willingness to enforce these policies. At a majority of agencies, there’s little training and few enforcement mechanisms. Without being in statute, the scientific integrity policies can improve agencies around the edges, but lack authority and enforceability. Policies can be curtailed or eliminated at any moment.

Ultimately, we can’t depend on agencies to police themselves without additional direction and support. It’s time to codify scientific integrity standards. The Scientific Integrity Act creates transparency and accountability through clarity. The legislation 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 employees to share their opinions as informed experts in a personal capacity. And the bill prohibits any employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings.

Now we aren’t talking about being policy prescriptive. The bill is agnostic on the weight that science should be given in a policy decision. The legislation is designed to ensure that science fully informs the decisions that we make.

It isn’t just the science community that is advocating for the Scientific Integrity Act. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight, the National Partnership for Women and Families, SEIU—all have signaled their support. This bill promotes good government. It enhances accountability. It prevents corruption.

We have learned a lot in the past ten years about what works to protect scientific integrity and what doesn’t. I look forward to exploring these issues in more detail later in this hearing and thank you again for the opportunity to testify.