Science protections must be enforceable

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The old bromide that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own set of facts” has certainly lost almost all currency in the kaleidoscopic world of Trump.

Manipulation and suppression of science was supposed to have been solved in the last administration. When the George W. Bush era ended, years of blatant alteration of science — on topics ranging from climate change to reproductive health — forged a political consensus that such abuses should not recur. The solution announced by the Obama White House in March 2009 was to direct agencies to adopt policies to protect the integrity of scientific information as well as the scientists who face reprisal for doing this work. 

Because this effort relied upon agencies to set aside their own institutional agendas and to self-police, the Obama initiative was largely a failure. Different agencies produced a hodgepodge of aspirational goals with little follow-through or enforcement. One indication of how weak this effort was is embodied in an EPA Scientific Integrity Policy that is so limp that it was repeatedly embraced by Scott Pruitt, secure in the knowledge that the policy would not impede him in the slightest, no matter how hard he put his thumb on agency scientific scales. 

A key lesson we should draw from this experience, amplified by the Trump administration’s evermore ham-handed interventions to contort government science is simply this: Counting on self-restraint or self-enforcement from the executive branch in safeguarding the integrity or accuracy of official science is utter folly.

Consider the science integrity legislation previously introduced. Congress appears poised to make the same mistake again. Merely mandating that agencies develop and somehow enforce scientific integrity standards appears destined to produce rhetorical results, as there is no enforcement mechanism to correct deviations from vague legislated standards of “integrity.”  Instead, Congress should consider measures that are both absolutely clear and are judicially enforced.

A basic challenge is that federal scientists and their work products presently have scant legal protection. To remedy this deficiency, Congress should consider two proposals calculated to make real differences:

One would protect scientists by classifying participation in the peer review process, whether as an author or reviewer, as a protected activity enforced in the same way and through the same legal processes employed by the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.  

Since federal scientists are not typically reporting waste, fraud or abuse, government scientists often find themselves — and their work — with little legal protection. Instead, these scientists are simply doing their jobs too well, on issues with  political “sensitivity.”  

Congress could change this by declaring that scientific work is itself legally protected activity. Significantly, this proposal would extend legal protection from reprisal to scientists targeted due to the political implications of their work — for compiling data or reaching findings that conflict with official talking points.

Protecting participation in the peer review process would also provide the scientific community, the public and Congress with an unvarnished and ongoing view of the best available science as it evolves, trumping current agency restrictions. 

The second proposal would protect science by statutorily requiring that all scientific or technical work, whether still in draft form or even if officially rejected, be included in the administrative record made available to litigants in any court challenge. Demands for production of the full record would be judicially enforced through the discovery process.

This proposal would accomplish two critical functions: one, undo Trump-ordered censorship of records to exclude dissenting information or reports kept in prolonged “draft” status; and two, empower specialists to supplement the record with “inconvenient” facts for which the agency would have to account in litigation. To the extent that official censorship of the record becomes legally futile, the organizational incentive to try to suppress information would be diminished. 

Since the beginning of the Republic, high government officials have sought to control the message and prefer to hide information that undermines that message. But today, these engrained bureaucratic tendencies are now not just tolerated but encouraged to run rampant. Not only is Congress itself a victim of the executive branch’s scientific manipulation, but leaving these dynamics unchecked threatens to further erode public confidence in the truthfulness of their government. 

Recognizing that things have gotten so out of hand, Congress must enact new, strong enforcement mechanisms to free us from the grip of “alternative facts.” Failure to do so will mean we did not learn the hard lesson of the Trump experience and we have left the door open for it to be repeated.

Jeff Ruch is the Pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Follow the organization on Twitter @PEERorg.

Tags anti-science Obama policies Obama-era Peer review Science Scientific Integrity in Policymaking scientist protections scientists Scott Pruitt Trump administration trump policies

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