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The Scientific Integrity Act, introduced earlier this year in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1709) and Senate (S. 775), aims to protect science and scientists from political interference.

The Act begins with a “Sense of Congress” resolution that science and the scientific process should be the basis of public policy, including public health and environmental protection, and that the public must be able to trust this process, which should be free from politics, ideology, and financial conflicts of interest.

The proposed legislation covers all federal agencies funding, conducting, or overseeing scientific research, as well as federal employees and contractors involved in “scientific activities” (a term that is not defined), including analysis and public communication of the results of these scientific activities. It also covers the use of scientific information in making policy, management, and regulatory decisions.

The Act is comprehensive in its prohibitions. These federal employees and contractors cannot

  • Engage in dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, or other scientific or research misconduct;
  • Suppress, alter, interfere with, or otherwise impede the timely release and communication of, scientific or technical findings;
  • Intimidate or coerce an individual to alter or censor, or retaliate against an individual for failure to alter or censor, scientific or technical findings; or
  • Implement institutional barriers to cooperation and the timely communication of these findings.

Federal employees and contractors would be free to disseminate scientific and technical findings in scientific conferences and peer-reviewed journals, although there is a 30-day window for pre-publication agency review for technical accuracy. They would also be free to sit on scientific boards, join scientific councils and other professional organizations, act as journal editors and peer-reviewers, and otherwise “participate and engage with the scientific community”.

They would have the opportunity to review public statements regarding their research for technical accuracy and require revision if necessary. They could also respond to media inquiries without agency approval and present their expert or personal opinions, if clearly presented as such, but must disclose actual or potential conflicts of interest.

To accomplish all of this, the Act requires all federal agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research to put in place systems to prevent and address attacks on science. These agencies would have to designate a scientific integrity officer, develop a scientific integrity policy, and provide employees with scientific integrity and ethics training.

At a July hearing on H.R. 1709 before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY-20), aimed for bipartisan support by presenting the issue as transcending one party or administration:

The [entirely predictable] abuses directed by this president [Trump] and his top officials have brought a new urgency to the issue, but the fact remains whether a Democrat or Republican sits in the speaker’s chair or the Oval Office, we need strong scientific integrity policies.

[Bracketed words added.]

He added:

Allowing political power or special interests to manipulate or suppress federal science hurts, and hurts all of us. It leads to dirtier air, unsafe water, toxic products on our shelves, and chemicals in our homes and environment. And it has driven federal inaction in response to the growing climate crisis . . .

Although some federal agencies have already undertaken scientific integrity initiatives following 2010 guidelines issued during the Obama administration, Committee chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), said that legislation was necessary because these policies were

proving unable to counter the Trump administration’s manipulation and oppression of science.

This “manipulation and suppression” was partially quantified by the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC), in their 2018 survey of more than 63,000 federal government-employed scientific experts, conducted in partnership with the Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology at Iowa State University. According to the USC:

The results should be disturbing to anyone who believes that government science has a crucial role to play in making the United States a safer, healthier nation. Federal scientists describe a broad range of problems, including workforce cuts, censorship and self-censorship, political interference, and undue industry influence. Unsurprisingly, these problems have taken a toll on morale, making it hard for scientists to do their jobs effectively.

While there is some Republican support for “rigorous policies on scientific integrity, research misconduct, conflict of interest, and data transparency”, per Rep. Jim Baird (R-IN-4), Rep. Tonka’s appeal to bipartisanship has apparently fallen short. The 216 co-sponsors of H.R. 1706 and 11 co-sponsors of S. 775 are all Democrats.

Rep. Tonko also introduced a Scientific Integrity Act in the previous Congress, again with many Democratic co-sponsors, as did former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), in the Senate. Neither got so much as a committee hearing, so there is some progress.

Brennan Center report on scientific integrity

The need to protect science and scientists from political interference was underscored in a just-released report issued by the bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. According to the Brennan Center, the Task Force, led by former U.S. Attorney (S.D. N.Y.) Preet Bharara and former New Jersey Governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman,

proposes legislative reforms to reinforce the norms and unwritten rules that once ensured that these government functions were carried out without excessive politicization.

A previous report laid out a series of proposals to strengthen government ethics and the rule of law; the second, in addition to addressing scientific integrity, outlines recommendations for fixing what the Task Force sees as a broken presidential political appointments process.

The Task Force’s latest report notes that all recent administrations have manipulated scientific research, retaliated against government researchers for political reasons, asked special interest groups to shape research priorities, undermined and sidelined scientific advisory committees, and suppressed research from public view.

The report contains an interesting history of the government’s attempts to establish science as basis for policymaking, counteractions to undermine that process, and remedies undertaken by Congress and prior administrations to prevent these counterattacks, none of which have been completely successful. This history of scientific misconduct includes Lyndon Johnson’s imposing a political test, based on attitudes toward the Vietnam War, in selecting members of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and George H.W. Bush’s White House altering proposed congressional testimony of NASA climate expert James Hansen to emphasize scientific uncertainties about climate change.

However, with the Trump administration, the Task Force says,

we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.

The current administration not only politicizes scientific research, it “undermine[s] the value of objective facts themselves.”

Some examples from the report:

  • The acting White House chief of staff reportedly instructing the Secretary of Commerce to have NOAA issue a misleading statement in support of President Trump’s false assertion about the path of Hurricane Dorian, with the Secretary reportedly threatening to fire NOAA officials in pressuring them to act. Gov. Whitman refers to this incident as “Sharpiegate.”
  • The Department of Agriculture relocating economists across the country after they published information about the financial harms of the administration’s trade policies to farmers.
  • The Interior Department reassigning a top climate scientist to an accounting job after he highlighted the dangers of climate change.
  • The EPA adopting rules preventing experts from serving on science advisory boards, while encouraging participation by industry-affiliated researchers.

An “Appendix of Scientific Integrity Issues” contains a more complete list of troubling interference with scientific research and scientists, the vast majority of which are from the Trump administration. Categories include

  • Threats to Scientific Integrity
  • Contacts Between Political Officials and Career Experts That Undermine Scientific Integrity
  • Retaliation and Threatened Retaliation Against Career Experts
  • Attacks on Science Advisory Committees
  • Restriction of Public Access to Government Research and Data
  • Politically Motivated Interventions in Nonpolitical Expert Regulatory Analysis Underlying Regulatory Actions

To remedy this abuse, the Task Force recommendations include legislation

  • establishing scientific integrity standards for agencies and policies to guarantee them;
  • establishing clear standards for interactions between political officials and career researchers;
  • prohibiting politically-motivated suppression of research and data;
  • prohibiting retaliation and discrimination against government researchers;
  • protecting scientific advisory committees;
  • requiring disclosure of government research and data;
  • requiring disclosure of nonpolitical expert analysis underlying agency policymaking.

As the report itself notes, several of these recommendations are already contained in the Scientific Integrity Act. The Center for Inquiry has information on contacting your Representative and Senators if you are interested in urging them to support this legislation. I hope you will.

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Posted by Jann Bellamy

Jann J. Bellamy is a Florida attorney and lives in Tallahassee. She is one of the founders and Board members of the Society for Science-Based Medicine (SfSBM) dedicated to providing accurate information about CAM and advocating for state and federal laws that incorporate a science-based standard for all health care practitioners. She tracks state and federal bills that would allow pseudoscience in health care for the SfSBM website.  Her posts are archived here.