The need for scientific integrity policies in federal agencies received support from both sides of the aisle during a 17 July congressional hearing, with Republicans and Democrats alike stressing the importance of protecting scientists and the scientific process.
However, so far there are no Republicans among the 192 cosponsors of legislation that would establish these policies as a safeguard no matter who controls Congress or the White House.
“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,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said at the hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
Tonko, a member of the committee, introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1709) in March to establish scientific integrity policies for federal agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research.
“Scientific integrity is a long-standing concern that transcends any one party or political administration,” Tonko said. “The abuses directed by this president [President Donald 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.”
Codifying those policies into law would strengthen current scientific integrity initiatives that have been instituted at a number of federal agencies following 2010 guidelines that were issued during the Obama administration. At the hearing, committee chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) charged that the current policies have been “proving unable to counter the Trump administration’s manipulation and oppression of science.”
The Trump administration has taken a number of measures that critics have charged run counter to scientific integrity. These measures include altering scientific content, misrepresenting climate science, restricting communication of scientists, creating a hostile environment for scientific staff, and weakening federal advisory committees that provide scientific advice to federal agencies, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
“It is essential to codify these policies precisely because they are vulnerable to repeal, they are vulnerable to being cut back at any moment,” testified Michael Halpern, deputy director for the UCS Center for Science and Democracy. Halpern cited a report by the Los Angeles Times that, for instance, in 2018 the U.S. Geological Survey began requiring scientists to ask for permission before speaking to reporters.
However, Halpern stressed the bipartisan need for codifying scientific integrity policies. “Political interference in science happens under all presidential administrations, although the recent level of attacks on science is unprecedented,” he said.
“I hope that today will serve as an example to all that there can be a bipartisan commitment to promoting responsible conduct in federal scientific agencies regarding the developments and communication of scientific information,” Halpern noted. “There’s not Democratic science, there’s not Republican science. There’s just science. Decision makers and the public want to hear directly from the experts, and they deserve that access.”
Another witness at the hearing was Joel Clement, a former executive at the Department of the Interior (DOI) who was a whistle-blower about the Trump administration’s climate and science policies.
“While every federal scientist hopes to influence policy with their work, it is never guaranteed. What they do expect, however, is the ability to conduct and communicate their research and findings without interference from politicians, to advance their careers with publications and presentations, to engage with peers both within and outside of the federal science enterprise, and to ensure that their findings are available to the American public that paid for the research,” said Clement, who was reassigned to an accounting position by then DOI secretary Ryan Zinke. Clement currently is an Arctic Initiative senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Clement added, “Unfortunately, some agencies have had difficulty assuring even these fundamental workplace conditions and establishing a culture of scientific integrity.”
The Legislation “Offers a Good Start”
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, testified at the hearing that the legislation “offers a good start.”
Pielke, who was invited to testify by Republicans, stressed that the legislation would be beneficial for both parties. For Republicans, “this is an investment in your future,” he said. “For Democrats, it’s an investment in today to oversee the Republican administration. But this is where I think the interests of Congress have to outweigh the party affiliation, which makes [the legislation] so difficult.”
At the hearing, several Republican members of the committee expressed strong support for science integrity policies, though they complained that there was no bipartisan deliberation in preparing for the hearing.
“We must have rigorous policies on scientific integrity, research misconduct, conflict of interest, and data transparency. This instills public trust and confidence in taxpayer-funded research,” said Rep. Jim Baird (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Research and Technology Subcommittee.
Baird said, however, that there is a difference between the findings of scientific research and public policy decisions. “Science is science. But politics, as all of us on this side of the dais know, is more complicated. Two people may look at the same scientific data and relevant information and come to two totally different policy conclusions,” he said. “You may disagree with the current administration, but let’s stick with the facts of what is happening with science at our federal agencies, not rumor and exaggeration.”
Looking for Republican Support
At the hearing, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) called for inviting all Republicans on the committee to cosponsor the legislation. Addressing his Republican colleagues, Beyer said, “If you can’t [cosponsor], please tell us why you can’t and what the specific objection is to, because I think this [bill] is something that should unite us as we move forward.”
After the hearing, Tonko told Eos that he looks forward to Republicans joining Democrats as cosponsors on the bill. Scientific integrity is a bipartisan issue, he said. “Throughout history, we have seen where administrations of whatever stripe have shown that there’s a need for this sort of legislation.”
Clement told Eos that there have been concerns in many administrations about supporting scientific integrity “because the temptation if you’re a policy maker is to override the science because it doesn’t coincide with your views.”
Clement said that civil and political discourse generally corrects those problems over time. However, he said that the Trump administration is different. “The only transparent thing they’ve done in the Trump administration is be absolutely anti-science,” he said. “There is no comparison with any previous administration.”
However, Clement drew some hope from the hearing, which he said was an honest exchange that helps to make it clear that there is some bipartisan interest in the validity and the integrity of the federal science enterprise.
“Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom—I hope we’re at rock bottom—in order to start making the changes that need to happen,” he said. “My hope now is that we’re at rock bottom and we can do better.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer