In May 2020, a scientist named Rick Bright, who was leading the COVID-19 vaccine development at the Department of Health and Human Services, filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging that he had faced retaliation for raising alarms about shortages of critical supplies and the president’s promotion of potentially dangerous and unproven drug remedies for the virus. In October, he resigned, stating that he could no longer work for an administration that ignored scientific expertise, overruled public health guidance, and disrespected career scientists. His case now adds to the list of examples where federal scientific integrity infrastructure has failed our nation’s scientists, especially in recent years.
Indeed, the Trump administration has censored, manipulated and hindered science at unprecedented rates. Recent disregard of the federal scientific enterprise has hampered our abilities to effectively respond to the crises that need scientific expertise the most, like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, as well as other pressing issues like regulation of toxic chemicals, workplace safety and wildlife conservation.
At the same time, the vast majority of Americans trust scientists—so why don’t we act like it? And why don’t our policies reflect that?
One major reason is that our legal system has not caught up amidst the deepening politicization of science, so federal agency scientists like Bright have extremely limited options to protect scientific integrity from political manipulation. In particular, federal scientific integrity policies—designed to ensure that science informs policy decisions and is free from inappropriate political, ideological, financial, or other undue influence—are imperfect. Despite progress across agencies in the last decade, many agency policies are still missing key provisions and suffer from uneven enforcement.
These scientific integrity policies are largely products of the Obama administration, building upon earlier policies that prohibited plagiarism, data manipulation and other forms of research misconduct. Designed to prevent against abuses seen in previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat, these policies represent a substantial stride forward, but there are still major holes. The last few years have illustrated that much more needs to be done to guarantee that federal scientific integrity can be protected even under tremendous political pressures.
Below are 10 recommendations for the Biden administration that would dramatically improve scientific integrity protections across agencies. The recommendations span from revising the policies themselves to strengthening other aspects of government.
- Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship. Unfortunately, a number of agency policies focus only on “traditional” areas of misconduct, such as plagiarism and data fraud, and do not even address censorship or other political interference. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are missing these critical provisions—which means that even the most blatant efforts to undermine science can go uncontested. If ever it was clear why protecting CDC and NIH science and scientists protects the public, surely it is the federal pandemic response.
- Similarly, protect scientists’ communication rights. Scientists must have clear rights to speak directly to journalists and members of the public, including correcting agency communications that reference their work. Agencies vary widely in the sorts of communication rights that scientists have, which can lead to disastrous results—such as when the Trump administration successfully prevented scientists at the CDC (where scientists have weak communication rights) from speaking about the looming COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. Preventing scientists from speaking directly to the public not only muzzles scientists but prevents the public from making informed decisions about their health and safety.
- Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations. In one notable case, attempts to censor a climate report at the National Parks Service were found to be perfectly within the scientific integrity policy because the report was ultimately published intact. Meanwhile, the scientist who authored the study—and who had fought valiantly for publication—was terminated from her position. Imagine if attempted murder were not a crime, and only “successful” murders were prosecuted.
- Protect federal scientists’ right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers. There have been multiple examples of scientists involved in public health, climate change and environmental toxicology being prevented from providing information to Congress or being pressured to alter their testimony on important scientific topics. Our lawmakers need to hear from scientific experts, unaltered.
- Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions. Unfortunately, there are many examples, at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, where decisions completely ignored scientific findings. Agencies must recognize that ensuring the agency’s credibility and effectiveness are an essential part of guaranteeing the science used in agency decision-making is robust and trustworthy.
- Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law, which could be done by passing the pending House Scientific Integrity Act. This act codifies many of the basic elements needed in an effective agency scientific integrity policy, including making clear that scientists have the right to appeal decisions regarding scientific integrity violations. These measures help guarantee that agency policies are actually enforced.
- Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency. Many agencies currently do not publish even basic information about scientific integrity complaints, which makes it impossible to see the extent of any scientific integrity issues or even if the policies are working. Providing a window into how agencies have resolved prior complaints is critical for understanding how the policy works and ensuring that application is fair.
- Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.
- Strengthen whistleblower protections: explicitly extend whistleblower laws to apply to scientific integrity complaints, expand whistleblower rights for scientific contractors and grantees, and reinstate quorum on the Merit Systems Protection Board (the main body that evaluates whistleblower complaints, which has been without the necessary quorum since January 2017). Doing so would ensure that scientists who speak up about scientific integrity violations no longer need to fear for their jobs.
- Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science, including political appointees, public affairs departments and scientific advisory committee members. Unfortunately, many policies currently are unclear about who is covered, or exempt certain categories of workers—for example, it is not clear to what extent contractors are governed by the scientific integrity policy at the Department of Energy. Fixing these inconsistencies would remove confusion and loopholes, and would make clear that protecting scientific integrity is part of everyone’s job.
When asked about what went wrong with the U.S. pandemic response, Bright recently said: “The career staff and scientists were in place. They were battle tested. They knew their role. They knew the plan. And they were prepared to act. They put on their uniform to respond to this pandemic and then there was nowhere to go.” To ensure that scientists can do their job protecting the public in the next crisis, whether it be a pandemic, an earthquake or the climate crisis, we can and must ensure scientists’ voices and work are shielded from political forces. Our lives and the nation’s future depend on it.