This week the Biden administration announced an essential step toward de-politicizing science and restoring scientific integrity and evidence-based policy-making in federal agencies.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has convened an inter-agency task force to review agency scientific integrity policies, following a January 27 Presidential Memorandum by President Biden.
The task force’s work is badly needed. The Trump administration was not the first in U.S. history to politicize science. President Obama issued his 2009 memo at least partly in response to the problematic interference with science that occurred during the George W. Bush administration. But the egregiousness and the pace of attacks on science that occurred during the Trump years was unprecedented.
We tracked the numerous high-profile violations of scientific integrity that occurred under Trump in our Silencing Science Tracker. A joint project with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, the Tracker lists 331 attacks on science by the Trump administration. These actions include blocking the release of scientific studies that did not align with the administration’s political agenda, directly altering scientific work, and proposing draconian cuts to federal research budgets.
Of the hundreds of anti-science actions by the Trump administration we documented in the Tracker, the Biden administration has reversed only four to date. So there’s still a great deal of work to do.
It’s critical to understand the nature of the violations that occurred in the Trump era and how existing scientific integrity policies failed to prevent them. In many cases, it appears even relatively strong agency policies proved ineffective because they were not enforced or loopholes were exploited.
For example, one loophole in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific integrity policy allowed then-Administrator Scott Pruitt to publicly claim that carbon dioxide did not contribute to climate change. An EPA investigation found that this false statement did not violate the agency’s scientific integrity policy because it qualified as an “expression of opinion.”
We compared the scientific integrity policies of 12 federal scientific agencies. We found that policies too often give little to no attention to important topics such as political interference, conflicts of interest, or who the policy governs. That’s why we also wrote a model scientific integrity policy that addresses common weaknesses and creates better protections for federal scientific work.
The new task force consists of 46 members representing more than two dozen federal agencies, and it meets for the first time on Friday, May 14. According to Biden’s January memo, once members are appointed, they have 120 days to complete a review. That review will result in a report and ultimately in a framework for the ongoing assessment and improvement of scientific integrity policies at federal agencies. Following the report’s publication, agency heads will also be required to submit updated scientific integrity policies.
We applaud the Biden administration for moving forward with this critical effort to assess and strengthen scientific integrity policies. It will help undo the damage of the past four years and make federal science more resilient to politicization and other attacks in the future.