The Biden administration is calling on government agencies to strengthen their policies against inappropriate political influence when it comes to the science that guides decision-making, according to a new report.
The report was written by the administration’s interagency scientific integrity task force and first obtained by CNN on Tuesday. It found that instances of political influence are relatively infrequent in federal policymaking, but – when they do occur – they tend to do the most damage in eroding the public’s trust in government.
The task force used the report to point to examples of when scientific integrity policies were undermined during the Trump administration, including in the administration’s response to the Hurricane Dorian map scandal and its push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
“Although violations of scientific integrity are small in number compared to the magnitude of the Federal Government’s scientific enterprise, they can have an outsized, detrimental impact on decision-making and public trust in science,” the task force report notes. “As illustrated by high-profile cases, political intrusion into the conduct, management, communication, and use (or misuse) of science has a severe impact on public trust in Federal science.”
While the report warns against violations of scientific integrity, the task force’s review was not meant to investigate specific actions, explained White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Deputy Director for Science and Society Dr. Alondra Nelson, who co-leads the task force.
“The work of the task force was not to do an investigation of prior administrations,” Nelson told CNN, emphasizing the “forward-looking” nature of their work to mitigate potential violations in the future.
The report is the product of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Scientific Integrity Task Force, which the Biden administration formally launched last spring to review the federal government’s scientific policies and whether they prevent improper political interference.
President Joe Biden issued an executive memorandum within his first week in office instructing the task force to examine the effectiveness of scientific integrity policies, and his administration has repeatedly emphasized bringing science back to the forefront of policymaking and restoring faith in government.
The report also expands on scientific integrity principles outlined during the Obama administration by including new recommendations for agencies to periodically update and modernize their scientific integrity policies.
OSTP Deputy Director for Climate and Environment Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who also co-leads the task force, underscored the historic nature of the interagency group’s report.
“It’s the first comprehensive assessment that we’ve had across the entire federal government of what needs to be done to ensure scientific integrity in our government,” said Lubchenco in an interview with CNN. “We’ve seen that when we don’t have good policies in place, and when they aren’t enforced, that bad information can get out, and that undermines public trust in government.”
“And so, we need to get back to a place where the public can trust that the government used good science and evidence and that they can believe what the federal government is telling you,” added Lubchenco, who previously led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Obama administration.
Tuesday’s report was authored in collaboration with dozens of representatives across 29 federal agencies, many of whom “brought first-hand knowledge of instances in which existing scientific integrity policies were not followed or enforced and the implications of those lapses in scientific integrity,” according to the report.
The report also incorporated feedback from public engagement sessions over the summer, in which the White House asked the public along with federal employees for their thoughts on how to best restore scientific integrity to the federal government. The administration listened to more than 1,000 people through listening sessions and roundtables over 30 days who made it clear that the Biden administration needs to work to bolster science in the wake of the Trump administration, which they said politicized and discredited it.
During Trump’s four years in office, both he and many of his political appointees were notably hostile toward science, particularly the science around the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Trump often shunned science during his term, including when he touted a hurricane projection map doctored with a Sharpie in the Oval Office and once speculated during a press briefing about the benefits of ingesting bleach to battle Covid-19.
Among other actions taken during the previous administration were several changes to various Environmental Protection Agency websites. In many cases, climate change language was stripped from them. At the time, the Trump administration’s EPA said language was being updated to “reflect the approach of new leadership.” The changes were later reversed by Biden’s EPA.
In Tuesday’s report, the task force provides additional recommendations for how agencies should address scientific integrity policy violations and enforcement mechanisms to both correct the scientific record and hold violators accountable. The report notes that violations of scientific integrity policies by high-level officials, including political appointees, are typically the “most problematic and difficult to address.”
But strengthening scientific integrity policies are not just for federal agencies commonly associated with science, the task force suggests.
“All Federal agencies – not just those that fund and conduct scientific research – need to develop, implement, and periodically review and update scientific integrity policies,” the report notes.
The task force also recommended agencies designate senior officials to handle scientific integrity issues, in accordance with Biden’s executive memorandum aimed at restoring trust in the government through scientific policymaking.
Nelson described the report as a “first step” toward creating a broader framework for agencies to bolster their scientific policymaking.
“I hope that the American public will be encouraged – certainly by the process – but by this report that is thoughtful and is comprehensive and is only just the beginning of what is a deeply committed effort to ensure that lapses that have occurred in the past won’t happen again,” Nelson told CNN.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that the President issued an executive memorandum giving the task force their assignment.