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Proposed Scientific Integrity Act Would Help Reverse Trump’s “War on Science”

Technology Policy Brief # 54 | By: Henry Lenard | July 15, 2021

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Policy Summary

In response to the so-called ‘War on Science’ by the previous presidential administration of Donald Trump, Rep. Paul Tomko (D-NY) has reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act. The bill currently has 169 co-sponsors.

The proposed legislation would help prevent undue political influence over federal science by establishing uniform standards at U.S. agencies to adopt or strengthen existing scientific integrity policies. It would protect policy decisions from political interference, ideology or financial conflicts of interest. More than 20 federal agencies have developed some form of scientific integrity policy, but standards remain inconsistent.

Further, it requires any federal agency addressing science to designate a scientific integrity officer, develop a scientific integrity policy that includes a set of minimum standards, provide scientific integrity and ethics training, and mandates that federal departments develop a transparent, internal review process for scientific papers.

Similar legislation was introduced in both chambers of Congress in the 2017 and 2019 sessions but failed to reach either floor for a full vote.

This bill is in the first stage of the legislative process. It was introduced into Congress on February 4, 2021 and referred to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where it now sits. It will typically be considered by the committee next before it is possibly sent on to the House as a whole. If passed, it would then move on to the Senate for similar approval before going to President Joe Biden.

If it became law, it would complement President Biden’s “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking”, issued on January 27, 2021. Directed to the heads of all executive departments and agencies, the memo stated it is the policy of the Biden administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.

This memorandum also reaffirms and builds on former President Barack Obama’s Memorandum of March 9, 2009 on Scientific Integrity and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Memorandum of December 17, 2010 on Scientific Integrity.

Policy Analysis

Calls for a Scientific Integrity Act grew out of the regular interference in and denial of the work of government scientists during former President Trump’s administration.  This included censorship of scientists, appointing industry insiders to head key agencies and failing to fill vital government science roles. This has led to a mass departure of scientists in the employ of the U.S. government.

A report prepared earlier this year by majority staff of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology details that decline in the federal scientific workforce, particularly at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The report, “Scientific Brain Drain: Quantifying the Decline of the Federal Scientific Workforce”, singled out former President Trump.

Photo taken from: Union of Concerned Scientists

“The four years of the Trump administration were devastating for the federal scientific workforce. Throughout many of the Federal Government’s civilian scientific agencies, career scientists experienced political interference, bureaucratic obstruction, and personal retaliation,” the report said.

According to the findings, the combined civil service workforces of the EPA, DOE, and NOAA declined by 4,874 employees between 2009 and 2020. The EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s workforce declined by 7.6 percent during the Trump administration and 17.2 percent between 2012 and 2019, losing nearly one-fifth of the office’s total workforce in seven years.

At NOAA that interference included the infamous “Sharpiegate” where Trump altered a weather map with a Sharpie marker to prove his comment that Hurricane Dorian was tracking toward Alabama. He then had NOAA publish an unsigned statement in support of that claim and appointed  two climate change deniers to top positions at the agency.

Trump also regularly contradicted the CDC and government scientists on matters related to COVID-19, pushing unproven treatments and undercutting the experts at seemingly every turn.

“This type of political bullying compromised scientific integrity and caused morale among career scientists to plummet,” according to the staff report. Citing a 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists survey of federal scientists, the report said “political interference, censorship and a fear of retaliation had weakened the morale of scientists in a number of critical agencies.”

In a separate report, the Union of Concerned Scientists tracked 190 attacks on science from within the Trump administration. That compares with 22 during the Obama administration and 98 under the George W. Bush administration, both in office twice as long as Trump.

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Although there were cuts during the Obama administration, the “political marginalization of science” occurred under Trump and was most acute, the report added, when science conflicted with the administration’s political objectives. Government scientists who balked at suppressing climate change threats or industry deregulation proposals “found themselves at the center of the fiercest scientific clashes of the Trump era.”

Our country continues to grapple with the worst pandemic in over a century and a mounting climate crisis. Data shows that the American electorate trusts scientists to address the pandemic and other serious challenges we face more than those of people from other professional backgrounds.

Despite the attack on scientists by Trump and his political allies, public trust in the scientific community remains as strong as ever, according to a poll released last November by the Pew Research Center, confirming polling results dating back to the 1970s.

Thirty-eight percent of those polled in Pew’s survey in the U.S. say that they have a lot of trust in scientists to do what is right for the public. Pew’s data show respondents only ranked the military as more trustworthy than scientific institutions, while ranking lower trust in others like the national government, news media and business leaders.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

H.R. 849 Scientific Integrity Act official summary:

https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/849

January 27, 2021 Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking from President Joe Biden:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking/

Union of Concerned Scientists statement in support of Scientific Integrity Act of 2021:

https://www.ucsusa.org/about/news/science-group-urges-passage-scientific-integrity-act

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