After Trump: Restoring Scientific Integrity

November 20, 2020

First make sure he’s gone.

Then, Lauren Kurtz has 10 suggestions.
Kurtz is Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Scientific American:

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 federalpandemic 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 healthclimate 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.


4 Responses to “After Trump: Restoring Scientific Integrity”

  1. doldrom Says:

    At the start of disaster movies there’s always a scientist being ignored. But usually it is a renegade hero, and there is also a gaggle of bureaucrats with official scientific credentials working the opposite angle. It’s often the story of Ignaz Semmelweis all over.

    Many agencies such as the NIH and the FDA have lots of skeletons, with a lot of influence peddling and revolving doors with industry. It’s not that easy to elevate pure science.

    And then there’s funding, which is officially based on merit, but of course, everybody thinks their own field/projects have the most merit. Only open and honest discussion can sort out who is worthy of research grants and funding, but such discussion will always remain fraught. These are things that cannot easily be solved by good policy and rules alone.

  2. jimbills Says:

    Burning the building on his way out:

    A destructive legacy: Trump bids for final hack at environmental protections

    Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing

    “They’re not actually committed to free market principles on their own. They’re committed to free market principles so long as they serve their favored industries,” he said.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It isn’t a Trump thing, it’s a GOP thing. George W. Bush had an oil lobbyist edit a government report on climate change. GOP members in Congress undermine climate communication.

    Ted Cruz, for example, brings in minority-position scientists to testify as experts (including Judith Curry saying that satellite data is the most reliable temperature data).

    Trump was the most brazen, but he got away with all sorts of horrible things with the near-unanimous support of GOP weasels snakes tapeworms.

  4. Keith McClary Says:

    “Biden’s first climate appointment, Cedric Richmond, is one of the Democratic Party’s top recipients of fossil fuel industry money, raking in $340,000 in the last 10 years. Richmond has repeatedly voted with Republicans against Democratic environmental legislation and for bills to help oil and gas companies.”

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