This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic
One year ago today, the nation was enduring hell.
63,000 people in the US were dead from COVID-19. 20 million people had lost jobs. Political officials—desperate to hide the severity of the pandemic and their failures to contain it—had muzzled experts. Federal science, which had been vulnerable to political assault for decades, lost even more ground.
Now, on the cusp of President Biden’s 100th day in office, we at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) are sobered by the problems that remain. Many are still dying from COVID-19, many more suffer under the weight of racism and environmental injustice, and federal science still lacks the armor it needs to withstand assault.
But we’re also hopeful. Last summer, we published advice to guide the next administration in its effort to restore science in decision-making—and so far, Biden appears to be listening. The new administration has already reversed damaging policies from the past, prioritized scientific integrity, established new ethics rules, and committed to addressing environmental injustice, climate change, and COVID-19 inequity.
But much work remains. Today, we’re releasing a scorecard on the Biden administration’s progress on science in its first 100 days. In it, we ask and answer:
What has Biden done well, and what must he prioritize in the months ahead?
Protecting science in government
Federal science is only as robust as its protection from political interference, and as nearly 200 Trump-era attacks on science indicate, these protections are lacking.
Biden has already beefed up federal science protections. On January 20, he revoked a Trump executive order that required agencies to purge two rules for every new one created; on January 27, he signed a historic memorandum outlining a bold vision for the future of science in government. The memo directed agencies to assess their scientific integrity policies—what works and what doesn’t, whether policies are enforced, and how protections can be strengthened. The memo also created a task force to review incidents of “improper political interference” in the recent past (spoiler: there are many).
In the coming months, the administration must work to curb abuses in research funding, protect scientists’ right to engage with the public, and hold wrongdoers accountable for violating scientific integrity.
Bringing in the scientists and letting them lead
Federal scientists have mapped the human genome, created the World Wide Web, and shaped revolutionary treatments for disease—but during the Trump administration, these experts left civil service in the thousands.
The Biden administration has already taken steps to restore this workforce. Days after his inauguration, Biden revoked one of Trump’s last-minute executive orders, which would have made it easier to fire federal employees for political reasons. A week later, Biden signed a memo requiring that every science agency have a chief science officer and a scientific integrity official. Biden also took the unprecedented step of elevating his science adviser to the cabinet level, a move we’ve supported for more than a decade.
Biden has also begun filling key science positions. Of the 100-some most critical science positions selected by the president, Biden has announced nominations for 37 of them; 19 have been finalized (i.e., they were confirmed by the Senate or required no confirmation). This is a fast clip compared to the prior administration: 100 days in, Trump had announced only 13 nominations, with only seven finalized. However, Biden trails Obama, who had filled 37 science positions by the 100-day mark.
Prioritizing underserved communities
Attacks on science do not impact everyone equally. Long-standing inequities have saddled Indigenous, Black, and other people of color, as well as low-income communities, with disproportionately high exposure to pollution.
But while the last administration spurned the cause of environmental justice, Biden’s team has prioritized it. The administration’s American Jobs Plan and EPA budget direct billions of dollars toward environmental justice work, and in the first week, the White House formed two working groups on environmental justice. Biden also appointed members to the newly created White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which includes leaders from the environmental justice movement.
The gears are turning at agencies, too. Earlier this month, the EPA’s new administrator, Michael Regan, declared environmental justice an agency priority and called on EPA offices to engage with pollution-burdened communities. Meanwhile, at the National Institutes of Health, a new initiative seeks to promote racial equity in the research workforce, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just declared racism a public health threat.
Letting experts advise
To create effective policies, the government relies on scientific advice, a need filled in large part by experts on more than 200 scientific advisory committees. But these committees are vulnerable: During the Trump administration, political officials disbanded many of them, and stocked many that remained with unqualified, conflicted people.
The Biden administration has already begun undoing this damage. On his first day, Biden revoked a Trump rule that required agencies to slash a third of advisory committees, and a week later, he directed agencies to assess how to protect these committees. Some agencies have been proactive: the EPA has already “reset” two of its committees by emptying the rosters and starting anew.
Next, Biden’s team must make science committees more resilient and more reflective of the public they serve. Committee membership must be more diverse, agencies must rigorously protect against conflicts of interest, and the federal government must do all it can to inform the public about the purpose and people of its science advisory committees.
Keeping out conflicts of interest
On his last day as president, Trump released his aides from ethics requirements intended to endure years after their departure from government. The move freed them to take advantage of lucrative lobbying jobs.
But that same day, President Biden signed an executive order affirming his administration’s commitment to ethics, and restoring the requirements for Biden’s staff that Trump had undone for his. But Biden must do more. His ethics pledge keeps his staff from working as lobbyists for two years after they leave government, but this ought to be longer, and Biden ought to ensure that whatever can be made public—for example, conflicts-of-interest waivers and officials’ past professional ties—is made public.
Involving the public
Because our leaders are elected by and for the people, the public should know what goes on in government—a rarity during the previous administration, which hid visitor logs, spurned congressional oversight, rained hostility on the free press, and rammed through regulations with scant public input.
So far, the Biden administration has done better. Biden has already tasked agencies with improving public access to federal data. When appointees are exempted from certain ethics requirements, their names must be made public, and Biden has asked agencies to make the regulatory process more inviting to the public (although this directive is vague). While the White House plans to release some of its visitor logs, it won’t release virtual visitor logs—a big problem, especially during a pandemic that has kept many events online.
Science and democracy are partners. If the best available science tells us that lead paint is dangerous, sea levels are rising, or vaccines are safe, our elected leaders ought to embrace this knowledge and use it to make decisions that serve the public good.
But our democracy is eroding. Some leaders have attacked voting rights, cast doubt on free and fair elections, gerrymandered their districts, and allowed private money to pollute government decision-making.
But this isn’t enough to rebuild the shaky foundations of American democracy. The White House must work with Congress to keep dark money out of elections, prevent gerrymandering, help states manage their elections, and let voters vote.
Here at UCS, we’re keeping watch
This is not an exhaustive list of successes or recommendations. The Biden administration has done more, and must do more, to protect scientists and their role in decision-making. In the months to come, we’ll continue to track the administration’s actions, celebrating progress and, when needed, demanding more.
In the meantime, we commend the Biden team for the steps they’ve taken to protect federal science—and as ever, we implore the administration to listen to the experts, speak the truth, and lead with science. The public is counting on it.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.