Legislation to protect scientific integrity in U.S. federal agencies was approved by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on 17 October in a 25–6 vote that included bipartisan support.
The policy requirements for agencies covered by the bill would prohibit any individual from “engaging in dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, or other scientific or research misconduct.” Among other measures, the bill also would prohibit “suppressing, altering, interfering with, delaying without scientific merit, or otherwise impeding the release and communication of, scientific or technical findings.”
“There are many specific principles [in the bill] addressing openness, transparency, and due process. At their essence, they are about protecting federal science and scientists from undue political influence and ensuring that the public can trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions,” committee chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said at a markup of the legislation, which currently has 218 cosponsors. “This is important legislation, regardless of which party is in the White House.”
Committee member Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who introduced the legislation, said at the markup, “The fact remains [that] whether a Democrat or a Republican sits in the speaker’s chair or the Oval Office, we need strong scientific integrity policies. This bill, H.R. 1709, would do just that, insulating public scientific research and reports from the distorting influence of political special interests by ensuring strong scientific integrity standards at America’s science agencies.”
Tonko said that although more than 20 federal agencies already have some form of a scientific integrity policy, “the policies are uneven in their enforcement and in their scope.”
The legislation “is very timely,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), a member of the committee. “Last month, weather forecasting and science became contentious during Hurricane Dorian, and it jeopardized the safety of our communities,” she said, referring to an incident during which President Donald Trump publicly presented outdated hurricane forecasting information. “I want to acknowledge the public servants in the National Weather Service Birmingham [Alabama] office who helped defend scientific integrity in what unfortunately became a very political moment.”
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the committee, also supported the legislation. “We all agree [that] government scientists should be able to conduct their research free from suppression, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation,” he said. “Federal scientists, like all other federal employees, enjoy many protections in the workplace. In addition to these protections, research agencies already have specific scientific integrity policies in place through a standing executive order. Still, there’s room to improve our federal research enterprise.”
“A Critical Issue”
Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, told Eos in a statement that the group supports the bill “because scientific integrity at federal agencies is a critical issue and presently, federal scientific integrity policies are piecemeal at best. Current agency scientific integrity policies were largely implemented under the Obama administration, and are designed to preserve scientific objectivity and protect science from being misrepresented. Unfortunately, agency policies have been inconsistently written and unevenly applied, agency scientific integrity officers (when they even exist) do not always operate with transparency, and scientists filing integrity complaints often do not have any clear right of appeal.”
She added that the bill “would help ensure that agency scientific integrity policies meet necessary minimum criteria regardless of changes in administration, and would help ensure that scientists have clear recourse if an agency fails to enforce its own policy.”
In a statement, Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, praised passage of the legislation but said it was disappointing that some language about scientists communicating with the media was removed from the bill’s original version. “The legislation is unfortunately silent on the right of experts to respond to interview requests from reporters. This is a mistake,” Halpern noted.
Lucas explained during the markup that a section in the initial legislation that allowed covered individuals to respond to media interview requests “got into the weeds on how scientists manage their media requests.” Lucas said that an amendment he presented, and Tonko agreed to, “strikes those provisions and simply leaves it up to the agencies and administrations to manage their own media policies. Many agencies already have media procedures in place as a 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.”
Overall, however, Halpern welcomed the committee’s approval of the bill. “Today, the remarkable happened: The Scientific Integrity Act passed the House Science Committee with support from both Republicans and Democrats,” he stated. “This is the first time this kind of legislation has passed out of a House committee. This is also the first time this kind of legislation has received public support from Republicans still in office.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer