After four long years of a presidential administration that was openly hostile to science — that sought to undermine federal agencies' ability to protect the public from everything from pollution to a pandemic — the U.S. government is once again listening to scientists. Earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would help guard federal science against political interference. This legislation, together with President Biden's January 27 memorandum addressing scientific integrity, could represent the strongest protections for federal scientists we have ever seen.
One could easily get the impression that, almost overnight, science has been restored to its rightful place and the work is done.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but distrust of science does not appear to be fading. And very real, if subtle, climate denial has already reared its head in the newly seated Congress. Future presidential administrations and future Congresses, backed by the financial power of polluting industries, could easily push the pendulum back in the anti-science direction.
Such dramatic policy swings exact significant costs on the environment and economy, both at home and abroad. How can we ensure that, when power shifts again, the U.S. government remains fundamentally grounded in empirical reality and committed to pursuing policies that are informed by the best available science?
In the near term, it will be important to establish strong congressional oversight, reverse anti-science rules from the Trump era, and ensure that the civil service remains a well-qualified and nonpartisan work force. But those steps can be relatively easily undone if political winds shift. The Scientific Integrity Act, if it becomes law, will have more staying power. But even legislation can be repealed or left unenforced.
To truly guard against anti-science ideologies, our federal agencies must fundamentally strengthen the culture of scientific integrity among their ranks. Career staff must get consistent and thorough training about scientific integrity policies, including clear guidance on what constitutes a violation and what scientists should do if they believe they are aware of a violation. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that that four of the nine agencies it examined — the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Office of Fossil Energy — offer no such training to their employees and affiliates, and the latter two agencies have not taken any actions at all to promote their scientific integrity policies with their staff. If scientific integrity training becomes a habit, it will empower both current and future federal scientists to speak up when they see politics interfering with science.
Several federal scientific agencies must also take steps to strengthen their scientific integrity policies. The current policies at some important scientific agencies, such as the Department of the Interior, NASA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, either do not unambiguously deem political interference a breach of scientific integrity or do not apply that standard to everyone covered by the policy. My organization, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, has developed guides to the scientific integrity policies of key federal agencies, as well as model language for agencies looking to strengthen their policies.
Building a lasting culture of scientific integrity will also require better enforcement of scientific integrity policies. Too often, agencies have found excuses to avoid confronting violations of the policies they already have. After National Park Service officials tried and failed to censor reports by then-NPS climate scientist Maria Caffrey, the officials went unpunished on the grounds that the censorship attempt was unsuccessful. (The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund provided pro bono legal support to Caffrey.) When Scott Pruitt, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, publicly asserted, contrary to scientific consensus, that there is "tremendous disagreement" about carbon dioxide's influence on climate, and that we don't yet know if "it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see," a scientific integrity committee cleared him of wrongdoing on the dubious theory that he was simply expressing an opinion. When an independent panel found that the acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had violated the agency's scientific integrity policy by succumbing to political pressure to support then-President Trump's bizarre assertion that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama, no one was disciplined.
To ensure decisions are independent and discipline is administered appropriately, agencies must see to it that their policies address scientific integrity violations even by officials in the highest rungs of power. More broadly, agencies must commit to demonstrating to their scientists that scientific integrity is a priority. A 2020 survey by the EPA's Office of the Inspector General found that hundreds of EPA employees were aware of scientific integrity violations but did not report them. Many of the employees said they chose not to report because they believed it wouldn't matter. Agencies must show new generations of scientists that reports of political interference and other violations of scientific integrity will be taken seriously.
Collectively, these steps would foster a culture of scientific integrity among career civil servant scientists that could outlast any one administration, and they would help the federal government as a whole remain grounded in policy based on the best available science. We don't know what countervailing forces may come into political power in the future. But the time to prepare for them is now.
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Augusta Wilson (@AugustaCFWilson) is an attorney with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.