Scientific integrity, or more hot air?

President Biden announces his multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal in Pittsburgh
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On Jan. 27, President Biden issued a more than 10-page executive memo to all agencies on the topic of scientific integrity.  

In an accompanying fact sheet, the White House claimed this action sends “a clear message that the Biden-Harris Administration will protect scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research, and speak freely to provide valuable information and insights to the American people.”

Unfortunately, the memo does not actually contain any protections for scientists or rules allowing them to publish research findings. Instead, it lays out a roughly year-long process — assuming all deadlines are met — for a newly created Task Force on Scientific Integrity and agency heads to conduct reviews, write reports, compose a framework and eventually adopt new scientific integrity policies.   

As the memo underscores, this process is designed to bolster the agency Scientific Integrity Policies promulgated after President Obama issued a similar executive memo back in March 2009. The Biden memo appears to concede that the Obama policies did not work, as the early work of the new task force will be to figure out (through public comments, a listening tour and a “virtual stakeholder summit”) what went wrong with the Obama policies and determine how to correct those flaws. It is as if the Biden people are embarked upon a “Where’s Waldo?” style search for what scientific integrity is and how to achieve it.  

The unspoken misconception behind the Biden initiative is that scientific integrity is a Republican problem that can be fixed by high-minded Democrats. In fact, it is a problem of curbing executive prerogative no matter who occupies the Oval Office. 

Notably, both Obama and Biden pursue an agency-by-agency approach. That resulted in Obama-era policies that were uneven and incomplete, since the White House did not reject a single agency policy, no matter how lacking.  

As a result, the Obama policies ended up being so weak that the Trump team saw no need to roll them back and they remain largely unchanged. How weak? Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Scott Pruitt publicly endorsed that agency’s anemic policy — likely confident in the knowledge it would not impede him in the least and he proved it. 

In doubling down on the failed Obama approach, the risk is the Biden plan will result in updated policies that contain many of the same defects as the Obama policies. That is the expected outcome of relying upon political appointees to self-regulate their efforts to control the official record in order to bury inconvenient facts.  

Implementing cogent scientific integrity practices across federal service should not require reinvention of the wheel, however wobbly. Biden could and should take some simple steps, such as ending agency practices of censoring the administrative record and hiding “draft” or pre-decisional documents. 

Apart from more executive edicts, the Biden White House should also enlist Congress to strengthen the integrity of government science and enact protections for scientists. For example, scientists should not face punishment for participating in the peer-review process and Congress could confer enforceable statutory protection for both authors and reviewers.  

Congress could also codify requirements for reliance upon “best available science” in agency decision-making and statutorily require presentation of the entire administrative record — warts and all. These new laws would be enforced by the courts, providing an external check the current system lacks. Presidential support for these measures would likely enhance their prospects for passage. 

Overall, the big concern about the Biden scientific integrity initiative is that it will launch an elaborate bureaucratic procession that meanders for months without moving beyond lofty language into specific protections. If so, the resulting scientific integrity policies will continue to provide a beacon of false hope for scientists. Further, these Potemkin policies will continue to support the fiction that federal agencies do not politicize the scientific works under their control despite more than ample evidence to the contrary.  

Jeff Ruch is Pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and served as its executive director for 22 years.

Tags biden administration Biden executive order Biden memo Joe Biden peer-review science-based scientific integrity Scientific Integrity in Policymaking Scott Pruitt Task Force on Scientific Integrity

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