White House Charts Course for Better Protections of Civil Servant Scientists

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New report calls for improved policies prohibiting interference and clearer punishments for those who meddle in scientific work.

The Biden administration unveiled its guidelines this week for policies agencies should implement to protect the work of their scientists from undue interference, calling for robust protections and clear punishments for any violators. 

Scientific integrity is vital to promote a healthy work environment, retain top talent and ensure the best possible policy making, a White House panel that President Biden created in his first days in office found in a new report. Violations of policies meant to protect scientists have been on the rise in recent years, the panel found, and while still small in number they have a large impact in undermining the trust the public has in its government’s decision making.  

The Scientific Integrity Task Force, which President Biden created shortly after taking office, was made up of several dozen scientists from across government. Headed by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Biden launched the panel to combat political interference in the scientific work by federal agencies’ career employees. In addition to reviewing each agency’s policy for protecting against interference, the task force examined what went wrong in recent years.

“Protecting scientific integrity contributes to better government decision-making, which leads to better policies that help people and communities across the nation thrive,” the task force said. 

The task force provided broad guidelines for agencies as they create or update their scientific integrity policies, highlighting the need to protect employees from harassment and discrimination. Agencies should ensure proper training for their career scientists, as well as political appointees and senior executives, to familiarize them with both prohibited practices and their recourses. Career scientists should be afforded opportunities for professional development, the task force said, including enhanced opportunities for career growth, ability to attend conferences and recognition for their accomplishments. 

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander said the federal government could not properly deliver for U.S. citizens without sound science.  

“This report is a comprehensive federal assessment of what’s needed to protect science—and scientists and technologists—within the U.S. government, and a clear governmentwide policy statement calling for decision-making at all levels to be informed by science without interference,” Lander said. 

Violations of scientific integrity can happen at several stages, including during the scientific work itself or in the management of scientific workers, the communication of research findings and policy-making. The task force identified examples of each in its look back over the last two administrations. Such violations can lead to altered scientific data, improper analysis, suppression of results or delays in the release of findings, the panel said, with offenders engaging in intimidation, coercion, obstruction and interference. Those outcomes can in turn hamper decision-making and hurt recruitment and retention of scientists. 

All agencies—not just science-forward offices—should update their scientific integrity policies, the panel said. They also must proactively detect, adjudicate and remedy violations in order for the policies to carry any weight. President Obama first issued a memorandum on scientific integrity in 2009, but critics have since said the directive did not go far enough and was inconsistently implemented.

“Well-considered policies, while necessary and challenging to achieve, are not enough,” the task force said. “Additional efforts are needed to identify and implement good practices for policy implementation that can achieve measurable outcomes and impacts.” 

In conducting investigations, agencies may find supervisors engaged in perfectly valid edits over reasonable concerns, or have simply reached a different policy decision than a scientist preferred. Agencies should take care to differentiate “science-based” decisions, such as adding an animal to the endangered species list, and “science-informed” decisions. They must also establish clear channels for both informal complaints of potential interference and formal reports of violations. Agencies should protect those who make reports, offer anonymity where practical and eliminate any conflicts of interest for investigators. They must also create clear consequences for those found to have violated policies, the task force said.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who has written legislation to further codify scientific integrity policies at federal agencies, praised the Biden administration for its work to “keep public science independent from political or special interests.” 

“This [Office of Science and Technology Policy] report presents a powerful step forward to restoring public trust in government and upholding vital standards of scientific integrity,” Tonko said. 

The report did not win unanimous plaudits, however, with groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility saying it was too broad and failed to detail how agencies should protect their employees or adjudicate misconduct. 

“This report is underwhelming,” said Tim Whitehouse, PEER’s executive director. “The report lacks specificity, all but ensuring the Biden administration will fall short on its effort to strengthen federal scientific integrity policies.” 

On Wednesday, the Homeland Security Department announced it was launching a new program to promote science within its workforce. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the formation of the Climate Change Professionals Program to help “develop the next generation of climate experts.” The two-year program, which will focus on initiatives to help DHS improve its resiliency to climate change, is aimed at both recent graduates and current federal employees. 

At the governmentwide level, the Office of Science and Technology Policy will form a plan in the coming months to assess and improve agencies' scientific integrity plans and will work with agency leadership on implementation.