White House Memo Creates Chief Science Officers at Federal Agencies

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The presidential memo on scientific integrity calls for new officials and an update to policies established over the last two administrations. 

The Biden White House is doubling down on scientific and data-based efforts from the last two administrations with a new order on scientific integrity.

The presidential memo, signed Wednesday by President Joseph Biden, builds on scientific integrity policies from the Obama administration and the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act passed and implemented under President Trump.

“It is the policy of my administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data,” the memo states, calling for a slew of new reports, updated policies and new leadership positions at most federal agencies.

The memo looks to inject more science and data into the policymaking process and, conversely, ensure “findings should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations.” That will be accomplished through the establishment of new policies, frameworks, guidance documents and a White House-level task force, as well as a new position for many federal agencies: chief science officer.

The new role—required for any agencies that “fund, conduct or oversee scientific research”—will act as the lead adviser on science and research issues and “ensure that the agency’s research programs are scientifically and technologically well-founded and conducted with integrity.” That work will be supported by a separate “Scientific Integrity Official,” who will report up to the chief science officer.

In line with the broader goals of the move, the memo sets the same standard for appointing chief science officers as it does for the scientific process writ large.

“Heads of agencies should ensure those designated to serve in the roles described in this section, along with their respective staffs, are selected based on their scientific and technological knowledge, skills, experience, and integrity, including experience conducting and overseeing scientific research and utilizing scientific and technological information and data in agency decision-making, prioritizing experience with evidence-based, equitable, inclusive, and participatory practices and structures for the conduct of scientific research and the communication of scientific results,” the memo states.

The memo also gives agencies 90 days to set up scientific advisory committees to support the newly minted chief science officers.

But the effort won’t fall solely on those new positions. The memo namechecks the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and charges the director to be the chief champion for scientific rigor and actively root out political interference.

“This responsibility shall include ensuring that executive departments and agencies establish and enforce scientific-integrity policies that ban improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and in the collection of scientific or technological data, and that prevent the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results,” the memo states.

At the agency level, the memo requires leaders to review “activities associated with scientific and technological processes” to ensure they meet standards set in the early years of the Obama administration. Specifically, the memo calls out:

Six principles from a 2009 White House memo on scientific integrity:

  • The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate's knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.
  • Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency.
  • When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards.
  • Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, executive order, or presidential memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions.
  • Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.
  • Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decision-making or otherwise uses or prepares.

Four foundational elements outlined in a 2010 memo from then-OSTP Director John Holdren:

  • Ensure a culture of scientific integrity.
  • Strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of government research.
  • Facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information.
  • Establish principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the public.

Federal agencies’ level of success in meeting these goals will be reviewed by a new Task Force on Scientific Integrity, convened by the OSTP director “to conduct a thorough review of the effectiveness of agency scientific-integrity policies.”

“The task force shall ensure its review considers whether existing federal scientific-integrity policies prevent improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and the collection of scientific or technological data; prevent the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results; support scientists and researchers of all genders, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds; and advance the equitable delivery of the federal government’s programs,” the memo states, giving the task force 120 days to produce a report.

The report will also focus on how federal agencies can increase engagement with the scientific community.  

Once the report is submitted—and posted publicly on the OSTP website—each agency will be expected to go through its portion and correct any deficiencies. Agency leaders will also be expected to submit an updated “scientific-integrity policy” within 180 days of the report being published.

The memo also calls for agencies to cooperate with the OSTP director and task force on this effort, publish their integrity policies and actively disseminate them on social media and other avenues.

After the report is released, the task force will shift gears and develop a framework for improving scientific integrity over time and further inoculate the scientific process from political ones. This framework will be due 120 days after the report is published.

With the integrity policies and frameworks in place, the work shifts to the Office of Management and Budget, which is directed to push out guidance on how agencies can use these to improve the use of data in evidence-based decision-making. The memo goes into detail on how it overlaps with the 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, including the appointment of key leadership positions and policies on the use, storage and sharing of data.

“The memorandum is the first notable statement by a president recognizing the role of chief data officers, evaluation officers, and senior statistical officials in our government,” Nick Hart, president of the Data Foundation, told Nextgov in a statement.

Hart lauded the memo but said it will take additional efforts—in the form of personnel and funding—to show results.

“It will be imperative that President Biden and Congress also ensure the resources are made available to federal agencies to build a lasting science and evidence ecosystem, enable the production and publication of open data assets, and realize the vision of a more evidence-based society,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to clarify that the document released Wednesday is a presidential memo.

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