A year ago today, President Biden was inaugurated, after pledging to follow “science and truth” when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, as well as other public health and environmental emergencies. His record is already better than that of his predecessor, but there is still significant work to do, and Congress must help carry the load.
First, the positives: In its first year, the Biden administration has taken some important steps to correct the anti-science actions of the previous four years. For example, under Biden, the U.S. rejoined the World Health Organization and is working with it to combat COVID-19 and other health threats. The U.S. is also once again leading international efforts to advance action on climate change. At home, Biden pushed Congress to increase funding for climate and other research, and directed executive agencies to “listen to the science” when making policy and other decisions. To help ensure that happens, the president added an impressive roster of scientists to top-level positions.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot to be done, especially cleanup work. The Trump administration caused immense, potentially permanent, damage to science.
We’ve been recording government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research and discussion in our Silencing Science Tracker. The tracker documents 328 anti-science actions taken by the Trump administration. Most (68 percent) involved the suppression or misrepresentation of climate-related information, such as burying studies on the damages caused by climate change or inserting climate misinformation into government reports. During 2020, there was a considerable increase in other forms of anti-science behaviors, namely regarding COVID-19, such as when a vaccine expert was dismissed after questioning former President Trump’s promotion of unproven treatments.
However, the Biden administration has, so far, only reversed or reconsidered nine of the Trump-era actions — a little less than 3 percent of the total. At this pace, it would take 36 years to fully undo all of the Trump administration’s anti-science actions. Depressingly, this is even slower than at the 100 day mark, when we estimated it would take the Biden administration roughly 27 years.
Of course, some of the Trump administration’s actions cannot be undone. The many personal attacks on scientists, misrepresentations of scientific facts and other falsehoods advanced by Trump administration officials have already accomplished their presumed goal — to spread misinformation and distrust that furthered Trump’s political agenda. This has created strong headwinds against Biden’s attempts to restore scientific integrity.
But difficulties are not excuses. To quote another president — John F. Kennedy Jr., speaking about aspirations to send astronauts to the moon — ambitious goals are set “not because they are easy, but because they are hard … [and] because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
Biden has promised change. In January 2021, the president vowed that his administration would “make evidence-based decisions, guided by the best available science.” Ensuring that science-based decision-making continues in future administrations will require major, systemic changes across the federal government. While the Biden administration has made a start, after one year in office, it has too little to show for its efforts.
Sadly, there is limited evidence that the Biden administration is planning to meaningfully pick up speed. A specially-created Scientific Integrity Task Force last week released a report on how to better protect federal science, over three months later than Biden directed (in addition to earlier delays). Much of the report could be summarized as “more details to come at a later date.”
Congress could help but, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been unwilling to do so. In February 2021, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) introduced a “Scientific Integrity Act” that would, if passed, require federal agencies to adopt and enforce policies to prohibit censorship and other political interference in research. The bill died in committee, having never received a vote, although Tonko continues to promote it.
Congress has recognized that it is a long process to re-staff the federal scientific agencies after a “brain drain” that goes back beyond just the previous administration. Unfortunately, congressional plans to restore the scientific workforce — such as by increasing federal scientific spending — have yet to materialize.
The Biden administration — and Congress — must move faster on the hard challenges. Immediate action is needed to tackle climate change, mitigate the pandemic and institute structural reforms to protect science in a future science-hostile administration — potentially as soon as 2024. More critical than the original moonshot, solving these mounting crises cannot be postponed any further.
Lauren Kurtz is the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.
Romany Webb is a senior fellow and associate research scholar at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.