The plan to ‘protect Trump’ from American science against political meddling

White House in Washington DC on a clear summer afternoon.

President Joe Biden promised to restore the scientific integrity of the US government when he began his term in the White House.Credit: Getty

The administration of US President Joe Biden has revealed its plan to protect government science from political interference. The guidance released by the White House on January 12 sets out the standards for the policies that federal agencies have been asked to develop in the coming months.

“Maintaining the highest standards of scientific integrity across the federal government is vitally important to keeping the entire United States safe, healthy, and protected,” Arati Prabhakar, science adviser to Biden and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House (OSTP), he wrote in an attached memo to federal agencies. “Scientists must have a seat at the table and scientific information must reach decision makers without undue influence.”

Coming at the start of Biden’s third year in the White House, the document was crafted in part as a response to the downplaying of science and the marginalization of scientists in various federal agencies during the administration of former President Donald Trump. It also comes in the wake of controversy in the Biden administration itself. Eric Lander, a former science adviser to the president and director of the OSTP, resigned in February 2022 after media reports that he mistreated staff. And in August of last year, the US National Academy of Sciences sanctioned Jane Lubchenco, OSTP’s deputy director for climate and environment, for violating conflict of interest rules while editing an article in the journal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which he co-authored with a former student, who is now his brother-in-law.

The OSTP did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Lubchenco apologized for the “misjudgment,” which occurred before he joined the White House.

Government watchdogs hailed the White House’s 66-page guidance document as an important and long-awaited step forward. However, they say, more steps will be needed to ensure the role of scientists and science in government decision-making and to prevent the kind of political meddling that occurred under Trump.

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“This really should be heralded as a great achievement for federal science, but there is always room for improvement,” says Jacob Carter, director of research at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in in Cambridge. Massachusetts.

restoring trust

Biden began his term in the White House with a promise to restore scientific integrity and promote science-based policymaking throughout the federal government. He wanted to avoid the kind of meddling that had occurred under Trump, including the alteration of public health recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic, and an incident at the that Trump made false statements about a 2020 hurricane forecast that were supported by officials he had appointed to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Following an initial report issued in January 2022 on how to protect scientific integrity in government, the OSTP has now published a framework outlining ways to strengthen, expand, and to some extent standardize scientific integrity policies across agencies.

It’s not the first time the White House has cracked down on scientific integrity: Former President Barack Obama’s administration made a similar effort in 2010, and 24 federal agencies crafted their own policies in that time. However, the policies varied greatly in terms of quality and detail, and some observers have said that the Obama administration did not do enough to push and guide implementation after that initial push.

“Only now in this administration are we really seeing the follow-up that this problem needs,” says Francesca Grifa, who is in charge of scientific integrity policy at the US Environmental Protection Agency. “This is really new territory.” .

John Holdren, who led the effort under Obama as director of the OSTP, said in an email to Nature that the agency worked hard around 2010 to ensure that strong scientific integrity policies were designed and implemented, efforts that subsequently stalled under the Trump administration. “It’s great that the Biden administration has restored the proper focus on scientific integrity that good governance requires,” he added.

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The new guidance includes a model scientific integrity policy for federal agencies to use as a template. Agencies now have 60 days to submit their own policies for OSTP review, and are expected to post their proposed policies for public comment within 6 months. The agencies then have another 3 months to finalize their policies. The plan also calls for the National Science and Technology Council to establish a panel, made up of scientific integrity officers from various agencies as well as White House officials, that would have the authority to review the agencies’ policies. The panel would also investigate possible violations by senior officials and political appointees.

details to come

There’s a lot to like about the OSTP’s new guidance, advocates say, but the framework is vague on things like enforcing penalties for people who break the rules, as well as protocol for scientists seeking to speak to journalists or the public. about your work. Those details will be left to the discretion of each agency.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity,” says Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, a New York City-based advocacy group. Although the policy seeks to strengthen scientific integrity operations and create an independent panel that can provide consistency from administration to administration, Kurtz cautions that these efforts are not guaranteed to withstand future political meddling. A hostile administration could wipe out the entire framework, as well as the policies of individual agencies, with a single stroke of the pen.

A permanent solution would be to enact a federal law making it illegal for government officials, now and in the future, to violate scientific integrity policies. So far, efforts to introduce such a bill in Congress have fallen short, but Carter remains hopeful.

“Eventually all of this has to be codified into legislation,” he says.

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