On January 27, 2021, President Biden signed a Presidential Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, saying that protecting scientific integrity is critical to responding effectively to two current crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
The Biden memo recognizes that federal scientific integrity needs rehabilitating and builds upon a memo President Obama issued on scientific integrity in 2009. The new memo is considerably more detailed than Obama’s and contains provisions that will help ensure that federal policy is grounded in sound science, now and in the future.
We applaud the Biden Administration for taking this step toward restoring scientific integrity and bringing science back into the federal decision-making processes. It is especially timely given the multitude of scientific integrity violations at federal agencies under the Trump Administration.
Trump-era Violations of Scientific Integrity
Sometimes scientific integrity violations occurred because the policy language fell short. For example, National Park Service (NPS) climate scientist Maria Caffrey, one of our pro bono clients, was repeatedly pressured by NPS leadership to delete references to anthropogenic climate change from a report she authored. She fought back, and NPS eventually published her uncensored report.
In 2018, Caffrey filed a scientific integrity complaint with the Department of the Interior (DOI), NPS’s parent agency, describing this political interference with her work. The DOI dismissed the complaint; the Scientific Integrity Officer took the position that the DOI scientific integrity policy does not prohibit attempted censorship and that “because the report was published with references to anthropogenic climate change, there was no loss of scientific integrity.”
Other policies were not effectively or fairly enforced, as demonstrated by the 2019 “Sharpiegate” scandal. Then-President Trump falsely stated on Twitter that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama and subsequently displayed a NOAA forecast map of the hurricane modified with a sharpie to justify his lie. National Weather Service meteorologists (overseen by NOAA) quickly corrected Trump, but days later, NOAA released an unsigned statement supporting Trump and rebuking its meteorologists. That statement turned out to be the result of political pressure, and NOAA received multiple scientific integrity complaints due to this blatant politicization.
The resulting investigation and report found that NOAA leadership repeatedly violated NOAA’s scientific integrity policy—yet NOAA didn’t take disciplinary action against the violators. In this case, the problem was NOAA’s unwillingness or inability to enforce its policy when it was violated by those at the highest levels of leadership.
How the Memo Improves Federal Scientific Integrity Policies
The memo is a promising start to making significant improvements to federal scientific integrity policies in several ways.
- According to the memo, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) must now ensure that agency scientific integrity policies explicitly prohibit political interference, suppression, and distortion of science—items that, as we have noted, are vital yet not part of every agency policy.
- The memo also requires all scientific agencies to appoint both a Chief Science Officer and a Scientific Integrity Official, which are currently not filled at all key scientific agencies.
- The Director of OSTP must convene an interagency task force on scientific integrity to review the current effectiveness of agency policies. Part of this review involves evaluating how to address issues such as scientists’ communication rights, differing scientific opinions, and conflicts of interest—provisions we call for in our model scientific integrity policy. Agencies must develop or update their policies following the task force review.
- The memo requires agency heads to update policies or practices published by their agency since the start of the Trump Administration that prevent their agency’s work from being informed by the best available science. This requirement impacts a recent Environmental Protection Agency rule that restricts that agency from considering valid and relevant science.
- The memo also calls for agency leadership to review their needs for independent scientific advice from Federal Advisory Committees (FACs) and identify policies or practices that may keep qualified experts from serving on FACs. These provisions are likely meant to counteract the damage done to FACs by the Trump Administration, particularly attempts to prevent experts from sitting on FACs.
However, the memo fails to address critical issues such as better protecting scientists from retaliation for trying to uphold scientific integrity, prohibiting even unsuccessful attempts to violate scientific integrity, and ensuring that scientists can provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.
We’re working on scientific integrity issues and will help ensure that the OSTP, task force, and agencies take Biden’s call for action seriously.
Our guides to the scientific integrity policies of 12 federal agencies help scientists navigate their agency’s policy; we also have a chart that offers side-by-side comparisons of agency policies on various key issues. And federal agencies may want to refer to our model language when strengthening their scientific integrity policies.