Yesterday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a long-awaited report on improving protections for federal science. During his campaign, President Biden vowed to “end the politics and follow the science” and this report represents a big milestone on this effort.
The report, by a specially-created Scientific Integrity Task Force, details a number of problems and identifies various solutions. There has clearly been much thinking about what is needed to close the gaps in how agencies treat science. Some of the big picture proposals – such as the development of an interagency Scientific Integrity Council (pg 42) – seem quite helpful.
However, this report largely sets the stage and, by its own admission, there is still much more to be done to effectively guarantee that government science is protected from the range of harms we saw during the Trump administration. Our Silencing Science Tracker, which we co-run with Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, found literally hundreds of anti-science actions by the federal government under Trump; sadly, the Biden administration has currently only reversed or reviewed 9 of these by our count.
CSLDF has three main critiques of the Scientific Integrity Task Force report:
One, there is little guidance on how to implement any of the proposals and while that may be by design, unfortunately, as our Executive Director told Nature, this is “a situation where the devil is truly in the details.” There are few specifics regarding how to actually update scientific integrity polices – a fundamental requirement for protecting federal science.
For example, the report notes that agencies should “[e]stablish clear consequences for violations of scientific integrity” (pg 40). However, there is no mention of what sorts of consequences might be considered, how those might be applied, or even what should be the goal of consequences. (Is it to correct the scientific integrity violation? Discourage future violations? Provide a sense of justice?) The report acknowledges that it “fall[s] short of comprehensive solutions” and that “[c]omplementary efforts are needed at a government-wide level” (pg 40). However, it is unclear who exactly will do this if not this specific Task Force – agencies themselves are already overloaded and understaffed.
The Task Force seems to shy away from any sort of prescriptive steps, claiming that a one-size-fits-all approach would not fit a wide selection of agencies with varied missions (pg xiii) – which is certainly true. At the same time, some concrete, foundational directives would go a long way. The Canadian government was able to put out a model policy for its government agencies. CSLDF has also put out a model policy scientific integrity that provides a starting point.
Two, the Task Force’s report downplays how awful things really got under the Trump administration by claiming that while federal science “remains subject to political and other forms of interference that can undermine Federal decision-making and erode public trust in science” it is overall “fundamentally sound” (pg 44).
For example, the Task Force approvingly cites EPA protections for “differing scientific opinions” highlighted (pg 24), which are designed to encourage discussion of alternate ideas. While it is surely true that this provision of EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy has in fact successfully protected important scientific debates, the report neglects to mention that this was also twisted to defend unscientific claims – specifically, Scott Pruitt’s statement that carbon dioxide is “not a primary contributor to global warming”.
Three, it’s disappointing there wasn’t more done to thoroughly review different agencies and learn from the full range of successes and failures. By its own admission, this report was based on personal experience of Task Force members and publicly reported incidents (pg 4). The Task Force says was due to “the timeframe available for its analysis” (pg 4) but does not acknowledge it went several month past the original deadline or explain what was done with the extra time; President Biden’s January 2021 memorandum set a September due date.
We know it is possible to review specific agencies even with resource constraints: CSLDF has put out a detailed review of 12 agency polices. Meanwhile, some of the scientific integrity issues that we’ve catalogued were not addressed at all. For example, our client Dr. Maria Caffrey faced attempted censorship – but the relevant scientific integrity official found there was “no loss of scientific integrity” because her report was ultimately published with the contested terms. This is an absurd finding, akin to concluding that attempted murder is not a crime because it was not successful. There is nothing in the Task Force report that suggests closing this loophole.
On a more positive note, the Task Force says its next step will involve setting “baseline standards” and we hope there will be more implementation proposals at that stage. We’re also glad that Task Force plans to continue to seek community involvement, and we hope that includes allowing more public opportunities for public engagement. And it is worth reiterating that, even though this report does not solve all of the problems facing federal science, it remains an important and necessary step forward.
We look forward to continuing to work to protect federal government science. To learn more about our scientific integrity resources, visit our website here. If you are a scientist and you have a question about scientific integrity, you can email us at email@example.com.