Biden makes shift from Trump on science
President Biden is taking steps to restore scientific integrity to government actions after several controversies in which advocates say science was sidestepped or ignored by the Trump administration.
Biden this week created a task force to review agency scientific integrity policies. He’s also requiring that all federal research agencies have a chief science officer, and that all agencies have a scientific integrity official.
The steps come after the Trump administration was mired in several controversies, including accusations its COVID-19 policies didn’t always follow science.
The New York Times reported in September that federal guidance stating it wasn’t necessary to test people without COVID-19 symptoms wasn’t written by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists, and was posted online despite objections from government scientists. Politico reported that politically appointed aides have also sought to review and change CDC reports.
Separately, a recent inspector general investigation found that the White House pushed for a correction of a National Weather Service tweet that contradicted then-President Trump’s assertion that Hurricane Dorian in 2019 was endangering Alabama.
Much more broadly, Trump was criticized for refuting science that humans are contributing to climate change.
Biden has sought to send a signal that his government will listen to scientists on the need to fight climate change and other issues.
In his first week in office, the president directed the top official in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to start the scientific integrity task force. It is to review and publish findings on the effectiveness of scientific integrity policies at government agencies.
Chief science officers required by Biden to serve within federal research agencies will oversee the implementation of the policies impacting research that is funded, conducted or overseen by each individual agency.
For both research and other agencies, the new requirement that each as a science integrity official will ensure someone is overseeing implementation of policies and helping to settle disputes from a scientific perspective.
The memo requiring that agencies have a scientific integrity official says it is being done “because science, facts, and evidence are vital to addressing policy and programmatic issues across the Federal Government.”
Joel Clement, a former Interior Department official and whistleblower who believes he was reassigned due to his work on climate change, said he was particularly optimistic that the new administration and its policies would prevent political interference in the grant process.
“I think we’re all celebrating because of how low the executive branch sank during the Trump years, but of course, as always there’s more that has to be done to really get scientific integrity right,” said Clement, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard.
The Washington Post reported in 2018 that year that the Interior Department had told staff to make sure that grants for outside groups “promote the priorities” of the Trump administration and subjected some grants to political review. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly had a similar policy.
Democrats later accused the department of delaying important grants while it conducted its reviews.
“Grant-making around the federal government is an awful lot of money that can flow more easily now and will flow more quickly toward important new research and obviously climate change is going to be the focus of a lot of that work” Clement said.
Vijay Limaye, a former EPA air pollution scientist who is now a climate and health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council praised the administration for including a provision that will ensure scientific advisory committees are diverse and full of people with expertise.
He particularly raised concerns about the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), where a panel of scientists were removed from their advisory roles on a major air pollution standard.
“There’s a whole lot of work to do in terms of elevating the voices, and the work of really solid science that’s been happening all along within the federal government, but also a project to restore the confidence of those federal scientists themselves that their work will not be sidelined or censored or ignored, when it comes to shaping policies around the evidence,” he said.
Biden has also appointed a chief science adviser to his Cabinet, and this week re-established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group of advisors on science, technology, and innovation.
“It’s a great step, which in addition to the appointment of a science adviser early on, the rechartering of PCAST really signals that this administration is really serious about science advise,” said Genna Reed, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’s Center for Science and Democracy.
“Under the Trump administration they had been left vacant for nearly three years before being chartered and I that just really, I think, signaled the lack of interest, the almost disdain for science advice that was a bug of the Trump administration,” Reed said of PCAST.
Some scientists, while praising Biden’s initial steps, said action by Congress is needed to make sure that scientific integrity within government is long-lasting.
In the last Congress, lawmakers introduced a bill that would require certain agencies to have scientific integrity policies, appoint a science integrity officer and adopt a process for resolving disputes.
“You’re not going to raise a concern about science during an administration that doesn’t care about science, you’re just risking your job for no reason, so there needs to be teeth,” Clement said.
“The key move is going to happen on the Hill. Congress is going to need to pass the Scientific Integrity Act and have to put some accountability in there,” he said.
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