Efforts Mounting to Reinforce Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies

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Publication date: 
29 October 2019
Number: 
94

For the first time, legislation aiming to bolster scientific integrity policies across federal agencies has advanced out of the House Science Committee and gained Republican support. Meanwhile, a report from a bipartisan task force of former government officials recommends that Congress take strong actions to protect government research and the appointment of qualified agency officials from political interference.

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Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) addresses the March for Science satellite event in Albany, New York, in April, 2017.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) addresses the March for Science satellite event in Albany, New York, in April 2017, a month after he first introduced the Scientific Integrity Act.

(Image credit – Office of Rep. Tonko)

Since the earliest days of the Trump administration, there has been widespread concern that the integrity of scientific work in federal agencies was facing a severe threat. In response, congressional Democrats quickly introduced a bill called the Scientific Integrity Act that would codify minimum standards for integrity policies across federal agencies.

The backers of the legislation have been eager to frame it as a commonsense bipartisan measure, and its sponsor in the House, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), has noted more than once that he started working on it before the 2016 election. However, it remained a partisan bill until Oct. 17, when the House Science Committee amended and approved it on a vote of 25 to 6, with six Republicans voting in favor.

Explaining his change of heart before the vote, Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) suggested the original version took “a sledgehammer to the problem that requires a scalpel,” but that modifications negotiated behind the scenes addressed most of his concerns.

Even as the congressional effort gains broader assent, a new report released in early October by the Brennan Center for Justice has put forward a more expansive vision for confronting what it calls a “crisis” of scientific integrity at federal agencies. Written by a bipartisan task force of former government officials, it recommends Congress leverage the power of statute to fortify integrity standards so that they can withstand focused political assaults.

Amended Scientific Integrity Act gains bipartisan support

Opening the Science Committee's Oct. 17 meeting, Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted that new modifications to the Scientific Integrity Act (and two other bills under consideration) reflected both stakeholder input and interparty negotiations. Extolling consensus as a way to advance legislation, she argued, “I do not believe that our constituents sent us here to posture.”

One major modification made to the integrity bill is that many provisions outlining statutory obligations of agency personnel were redefined as matters agencies must address in their integrity policies. The shift effectively gives agencies more leeway in how they implement the provisions.

Under the bill, agency integrity policies must address scientific misconduct, the suppression or alteration of scientific findings, and the subjection of those findings to “political considerations.” They would also have to stipulate that appointments to science and technology positions be “based primarily” on professional qualifications, and that personnel actions relating to people in those positions not be politically or ideologically based, with an exception for political appointees.

The bill further specifies that agency policies prohibit interference with scientists’ ordinary professional activities, including publishing, collaborating with outside scientists, attending conferences, serving as peer reviewers, sitting on advisory and governing boards, and holding leadership positions in scientific organizations. In addition, agencies would have to maintain internal processes such as whistleblower protections to safeguard the integrity of scientific processes and verify the quality of scientific or technical information used in policy decisions.

Through an amendment offered by Lucas that the committee approved by voice vote, the committee removed provisions that would have enabled agency scientists to discuss their research with the media without receiving approval. Lucas explained that he felt the bill had descended too far “into the weeds” on the subject. “Many agencies already have media procedures in place as part of their scientific integrity policies and those would be able to continue under this bill. Every administration deserves the opportunity to shape policy and message. That’s why we hold elections,” he said.

In his own remarks, Tonko highlighted provisions that he said would strengthen the implementation of agencies’ policies, including a new one requiring a government-wide audit and another requiring agencies’ scientific integrity officers to meet annually to discuss best practices.

Other newly introduced controls include requirements that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy approve agency policies every five years or when they are changed, and that agencies report to OSTP and Congress whenever scientific integrity officers’ decisions on alleged integrity violations are overridden by agency officials.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who voted against the bill, said he was concerned it does not stipulate penalties for scientific integrity violations, calling it a “paper tiger.” He also argued it accords too much authority to what he described as “unelected, unaccountable, unrecallable bureaucrats” in agencies, giving them “carte blanche authority to run wild to develop scientific integrity policy and to develop the process.” He suggested Congress should play a greater role.

Among the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill was Rep. Jim Baird (R-IN), the ranking member on the committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee, who has also signed on as a cosponsor.

Brennan Center report calls for broad legislative response

The new report from the Brennan Center is the second volume to be released by its eight-person National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy. The task force is co-chaired by Preet Bharara, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York who was fired by President Trump, and Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey and Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George W. Bush. The center is an independent research and advocacy organization with connections to the New York University Law School, where Bharara is a scholar in residence.

Observing that scientific integrity violations have occurred under all recent presidents, the report enumerates 60 examples from the last three administrations in an appendix. However, it also suggests violations are now occurring “almost weekly” and that the Trump administration has sought “not only to politicize scientific and technical research on a range of topics, but also, at times, to undermine the value of objective facts themselves.”

In line with the task force’s overarching effort to buttress norms and rules that promote good governance, the report calls for a “clearly defined, government-wide prohibition against improper influence over government research and data that has until now existed only in specific statutes or as a matter of executive branch policy.”

The report argues that clear statutory prohibitions would provide stronger mechanisms to “deter and punish inappropriate politicization.” It asserts that whistleblower protections are cumbersome and unreliable and that agencies’ inspectors generals are unevenly empowered to investigate wrongdoing. It also suggests inspectors general have limited powers to enforce agency policies, stating, “Instead, that is left in the hands of agency heads, who may themselves be implicated in wrongdoing or susceptible to political pressure.”

Whereas the Scientific Integrity Act mainly focuses on relations between senior agency officials and scientific personnel, the report delves into a number of additional issues as well. For instance, it recommends that Congress protect agencies’ external science advisory panels against interference. And, in a section of the report that is not delimited to scientific integrity issues, it proposes a number of steps to avoid extended vacancies in positions requiring Senate confirmation and to help ensure agency appointees are qualified and held accountable.

The report also recommends that Congress require that agencies be “proactive” in releasing government data and that they always disclose internal expert analyses of proposed regulations. It cites EPA’s attempted suppression of a study on the toxicity of perfluoroalkyl substances as an example of why such action is required. Noting that the government is mandated by law to publish the National Climate Assessment, it argues that requirement helped ensure the assessment's uninhibited release last year in spite of what it refers to as the Trump administration’s “attempts to discredit and bury the report’s findings.”

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