Monday, March 8, 2021

Biden orders sweeping review of government science integrity policies

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President Joe Biden (right) unveiled his new memorandum on scientific integrity today at a White House event attended by Vice President Kamala Harris (center) and climate envoy John Kerry.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Joe Biden today created a task force that will conduct a 120-day review of scientific integrity policies across the U.S. government, including documenting instances in which “improper political interference” interfered with research or led to the suppression or distortion of data.

The review is part of a lengthy memorandum from Biden on his plans for “restoring trust” in government by emphasizing scientific integrity and the use of evidence in policymaking. The memo also calls on federal research agencies to name Chief Scientific Officers, and for all agencies to spend 90 days reviewing the role of dozens of panels that provide scientific advice to government. Agencies will also determine if they want to recreate technical advisory panels dismantled under former President Donald Trump.

“Scientific and technological information, data, and evidence are central to the development and iterative improvement of sound policies,” states the memo. “Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists or other scientists who support the work of the Federal Government and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the Nation.”

Today’s memo largely restates policies outlined in laws passed by Congress and in memos released by former President Barack Obama in 2009 and by his science adviser, John Holdren, in 2010. In general, those policies attempt to create uniform practices across the federal government for handling and sharing data, using technical evidence, and insulating researchers from political concerns.

The Obama-era memos were prompted, in part, by concerns that former President George W. Bush’s administration had muzzled federal scientists. Similarly, Biden’s memo appears to be an indirect rebuke of the Trump administration, which was widely criticized for attempting to silence federal researchers and suppress data that conflicted with its policy agenda.

Research advocacy groups, especially the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), have been urging Biden to reemphasize the need for firm federal scientific integrity policies. They greeted today’s memo with cautious optimism.

“This is a huge move right out of the gate for the Biden administration,” tweeted Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “This is a huge chance to assess and learn from what went wrong under Trump,” Goldman tweeted about the review by the new task force, to be led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “How can we better protect science and scientists from political interference? Lots to study here.”

Others applauded the pending review of science advisory panels. Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies disbanded some panels, and dramatically reshaped others by rewriting their responsibilities or revamping who could serve on them. Science and environmental groups complained that the Trump administration stacked some panels with researchers aligned with industry, and reduced the role of scientists working in academia or the nonprofit sector. The Biden order “means agencies can restore committees that were arbitrarily disbanded… & work to undo damaging process changes enacted at agencies like the EPA,” tweeted Genna Reed, an analyst at UCS.

Some analysts cautioned that, although well-intentioned, Biden could struggle to achieve the goals outlined in his memo. They note that past efforts to ensure transparency in federal research and insulate scientists from meddling have met with mixed success, regardless of the party holding the White House. Many agencies have been slow to develop and adopt integrity policies, for example, and some have never completed the task. For scientific integrity policies to truly take hold, some observers believe Congress will need to pass new laws. Biden’s memo “is very good, but legislation is still needed,” tweeted Roger Pielke Jr., a policy specialist at the University of Colorado who has testified before Congress on the issue.

Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the UCS center, said in a statement that his organization will continue to press for lasting changes in federal research practices. And he said that “Over the next four years, scientists, public health experts and community advocates will be watching closely to make sure that the Biden administration upholds its promise to heed the science.”

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