The COVID-19 pandemic tragically highlights the dire and immediate threats to public health that can result when the culture of scientific integrity at research institutions is ignored or fails.
Scientific integrity violations impair scientific agencies’ and institutions’ ability to fulfill their missions and protect human and environmental health. What’s more, scientific integrity failures aren’t limited to issues surrounding the pandemic; they are distressingly pervasive in research institutions under the Trump administration.
Climate scientists are particularly hard hit. A June 15 article in The New York Times describes efforts to undermine climate science at federal agencies. The Times found that these actions first came from high-level Trump appointees, but they’ve filtered down to mid-level managers concerned about attracting unwanted scrutiny of their programs and budgets from senior political officials.
The article documents instances where climate scientists had their work flagged for additional review, denied final approval, or shelved after years of effort because it acknowledged human-caused climate change. It also describes cases in which scientists have found themselves under immense pressure from supervisors to delete “red flag” words related to climate change.
Interference with tax-payer-funded research, meant to inform both scientific discourse and the American public, because it touches on a politically contentious topic is the essence of a loss of scientific integrity.
Scientific Integrity Under the Trump Administration
Failures of scientific integrity have been documented at several federal agencies during the Trump administration; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a particular hotbed of politically-motivated attacks on science. A May 2020 report published by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) suggests the undermining of science may be correlated with concerns about the overall culture of scientific integrity at the EPA.
The OIG report included the results of a survey of EPA employees about the implementation of scientific integrity at the agency. The majority of employees surveyed expressed concerns about the agency’s culture of scientific integrity (59 percent) and the release of scientific information to the public (57 percent).
The survey also found that nearly 400 EPA employees experienced potential violations of the agency’s scientific integrity policy but did not report them out of fear of retaliation or the belief that reporting would not be taken seriously.
This failure of the EPA’s culture of scientific integrity is characterized by incidents such as the agency eliminating references to climate change from its website and ignoring scientific research on the effects of mercury emissions on public health.
The EPA stands out as an egregious example. Yet it is not the only federal agency where scientific integrity has given way to political pressure at the expense of the agency’s mission and public health.
Take the controversy known as Sharpiegate, for example. In September 2019, President Trump insisted that Hurricane Dorian was forecasted to impact Alabama, even though such impacts were not predicted. The Birmingham, AL office of the National Weather Service (NWS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), used its Twitter account to provide the public with the correct scientific information.
Under significant pressure from the White House, the acting head of NOAA, Neil Jacobs, subsequently issued an unsigned statement chastising the Alabama NWS scientists and backing Trump’s false claim. This behavior by the agency leadership violated principles in NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.
In June 2020, an independent panel determined that Jacobs and his deputy violated provisions in the NOAA scientific integrity policy, and suggested remedial steps. But while the report made clear that scientific integrity violations occurred and that corrections were needed, it fell short of punishing the responsible individuals.
The outcome of this series of events demonstrates that scientific integrity policies can be useful tools to address such issues, and shows the need for additional reforms to ensure these policies fully address scientific integrity violations. It’s also a potent reminder—during the 2020 hurricane season (forecasted to be particularly active)—of how political interference with science can threaten human health and safety.
This is why we’re concerned about scientific integrity policies. Strong, comprehensive, and well-implemented policies at scientific research institutions are essential. This is especially true today: the Merit Systems Protection Board, the quasi-judicial body that issues final determinations concerning federal employees’ whistleblower complaints, has no members and has lacked a quorum since January 2017. As a result, whistleblower cases are piling up waiting for action.
For federal employees, this means their agency’s scientific integrity office may be one of the only pathways to resolve an issue of censorship or sidelining of science in a timely way.
Resources on Scientific Integrity
In response to these issues, we published guides to the scientific integrity policies of nine key federal agencies. These resources increase awareness among agency scientists that scientific integrity policies exist and are a potential remedy to censorship and other threats to research.
We also have a guide to scientific integrity at research universities, state agencies, and international institutions. It helps researchers employed by these organizations understand what behaviors are covered by their institution’s policy, how they can file a complaint, and what to expect from an ensuing investigation.
Researchers dealing with scientific integrity issues can contact us for free, confidential advice about their situation. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to request a consultation with one of our attorneys.