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Scientific integrity is crumbling under Trump

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Every day, we benefit from the work done by scientists in the federal government. Farmers and business owners depend on weather monitoring. Families shopping at the grocery store have federal science to thank for food safety inspection and nutrition information. The laws that protect our air and water are based in science. Local governments and first responders rely on federal agencies to track potential disasters and help their communities recover. And accurate, up-to-date scientific information will be vital as we address the increasing risks of climate change.

This isn’t work that stays in the lab. We all rely on federal scientists — and we need to be able to trust that we’re getting the best available science.

But there’s a problem here: Federal scientists often face political pressure that undermines their research and their ability to share it with the public. Political leaders have buried critical reports, keeping the public in the dark about real threats. They have prevented scientists from publishing their research or attending scientific conferences. They have disciplined scientists for talking about their findings to journalists.

Most insidiously, this political interference can push scientists to self-censor, hedging their evidence or declining to pursue research entirely if they fear becoming a political target. A recent survey of federal scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that scientists see political pressure as a major problem for their work, with more than 2,000 scientists pointing to political influence as the biggest barrier to science-based policymaking.

These misuses of science can have real consequences. For instance, EPA scientists wrote a report in 2017 about the health risks from exposure to formaldehyde, a common chemical, but the agency has yet to release this report to the public. Strong evidence-based rules have been set to limit how quickly poultry facilities can process chickens, yet last year USDA gave out waivers to allow much faster line speeds, exposing workers to injury and consumers to unsafe chicken. When the government sidelines science, we all lose out.

We need strong, serious checks in place to make sure scientists can do their jobs, and all of us can benefit from their work. The Scientific Integrity Act, introduced this March by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), would go a long way to advancing this goal.

This new legislation would codify the principles of scientific integrity, making sure that scientists can follow their research wherever it leads, and that they can talk honestly about their research to the press, the scientific community and the public. And it would prevent agency leaders from altering, manipulating or suppressing scientific information, and make it illegal to coerce or retaliate against scientists over their work. Scientists — not political appointees — should get the last word on their findings.

It’s not just scientists who stand to benefit from this law. We all do. With strong scientific integrity protections in place, federal researchers will be less likely to self-censor or avoid potentially contentious areas of research. When there’s scientific evidence that matters to our health and safety, the researchers who understand it best can share it with the public, without political gatekeepers picking and choosing what information we get to see. We can be more confident that the evidence informing policies is reliable and honest, which will lead to stronger, smarter rules.

Every administration faces the temptation to put their thumb on the scale — to shade the facts and put their political goals ahead of truth. Politicization of government research and data is detrimental to democracy.

While many agencies have scientific integrity policies in place, these policies don’t have the force of law. That’s why the Scientific Integrity Act is such an important opportunity. It would demonstrate our commitment to science and to the public interest by protecting scientific work from political games, not just for one presidential administration, but for all future presidencies.

The Scientific Integrity Act isn’t a cure-all. But it’s a very important step in the right direction. No administration, Republican or Democratic, should be able to put up barriers between the public and the scientists working on their behalf. That’s something everyone in Congress should get behind.

Ken Kimmell is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and has more than 30 years of experience in government, environmental policy and advocacy. 

Christine Todd Whitman is co-chair of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy. She is a former Republican governor of New Jersey and the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tags Christie Todd Whitman EPA Ken Kimmell Paul Tonko Public health Research Science

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