Worried for Government Science? So Are We.

August 25, 2020 | 3:07 pm
Taryn MacKinney
Former Contributor

A few weeks ago, my colleague chronicled a milestone for our organization and the country: We had just recorded the federal government’s 150th attack on science, carried out by the officials and agencies tasked with defending science. Today, we mark another milestone: The release of our recommendations, for 2021 and beyond, to undo the damage from these attacks and bolster protections for government science.

Government science is under threat

Both milestones reflect a dark truth: Excellent government science, conducted for the public good, cannot be taken for granted. Without protections, the science we rely on—for clean water, breathable air, a livable climate, and safe homes, schools, and communities—can fall victim to political attack. While many presidential administrations have been complicit, the activities of the Trump administration have laid bare the inherent weaknesses in existing protections for science. Since 2017, political officials have stunted or stalled scientific research, retaliated against government scientists, weakened science advisory committees, left appointed scientific positions vacant, and undermined career staff.

But, you might say, don’t agencies have policies to protect scientists and their work from these attacks?  Some do, and some don’t. Scientific integrity is managed and enforced by individual agencies, so policies protecting federal scientists can vary enormously—and even when these policies are strong in writing, their implementation and enforcement in practice may not be.

To paint a picture of this, we graded scientific integrity polices across agencies, using criteria we developed from years of expertise. You can view our methodologies, as well as detailed evaluations of each agency’s policies, in this appendix. The results, summarized below, are striking:

As the chart above demonstrates, the protections afforded to federal scientists and their work vary widely by agency. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has an easily retrievable scientific integrity official—but the Census Bureau doesn’t. NASA has been certified for making sure its employees know their whistleblower rights—but the Department of Agriculture hasn’t. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a suite of excellent scientific integrity policies and resources, but its parent department, the Department of Commerce, hardly has a policy at all.

Meanwhile, some scientific integrity policies have become difficult to find. The Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) scientific integrity policy is retrievable, but not easily (we found it through a search engine, rather than the CDC website). Other policies have disappeared altogether. For example, in the past, we have praised the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) media and social media policies. Today, these NSF policies are missing, and previous links are now dead.

Within and across agencies, weak policies leave cracks in the foundations that hold up government science. When these foundations, battered by political interference, break, science for the public good is imperiled.

The path forward: recommendations for 2021 and beyond

The federal government must take decisive action to repair these cracks. Our new report, “Strengthening Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies: Recommendations for 2021 and Beyond,” outlines what must change to ensure that government scientists can do their lifesaving work. Broadly, federal science agencies should:

Establish and empower officials to oversee scientific integrity. Agencies should appoint officials to oversee scientific integrity, publish reports on the state of scientific integrity in each agency, and convene an interagency working group on scientific integrity to share resources and unify efforts.

Educate federal workers on their rights and responsibilities. Agencies should train federal employees and contractors (especially political appointees) on scientific integrity, provide procedures for addressing differing scientific opinions, and offer opportunities for staff to consult scientific integrity officials.

Ensure open communication with the press and the public. Agencies should clarify that federal employees have the right to engage freely with representatives of the news media, as well as communicate about scientific work on social media when expressing their personal views.

Enforce clearance and review policies that protect scientific independence. For official scientific work, agencies should uphold scientists’ right to publish, ensure that peer review is transparent and free from political interference, and create mechanisms to track and deter this interference in federal science.

Prevent interference in data collection and research funding. Agencies should ensure that officials cannot hamper or halt data collection for political reasons. They should also prevent the politicization of government funding for research and ensure public access to federal science.

Minimize conflicts of interest in government science. Agencies should fill scientific leadership positions with people who have relevant expertise and are not tied to industry. Agencies should ensure that conflicts of interests are disclosed, clarify criteria for appointing advisory committee members, and enact actionable penalties in case of violations.

Provide safe and meaningful procedures to report and investigate SI violations. Agencies should provide clear procedures for addressing alleged violations of scientific integrity and for publishing the results of investigations. They should protect scientists from a broad array of retaliatory actions and threats.

When science is protected, the public is protected

It’s easy to forget what federal and federally funded science does for all of us. In recent decades alone, government and government-supported scientists have contributed to many of the nation’s and the world’s greatest achievements. They have mapped the human genome, spurred the creation of the World Wide Web, saved species from extinction, and mitigated risks to human health with revolutionary vaccine campaigns and lifesaving medical procedures.

More recently, science has been essential as the world seeks to prevent, treat, and manage the spread of COVID-19. This pandemic has showcased the heroic determination of scientists and researchers, who have already made revolutionary discoveries at unprecedented speed—but with 177,000 people dead in the United States already, this pandemic also reveals the high cost of ignoring the science.

The collective contribution of government-supported science is incalculable. In the months and years to come, the federal government must ensure that this science is protected, and that federal scientists and employees can perform their vital duties. The public good depends on it.