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After Trump, US researchers urge Biden to block political meddling in science

The Presidential White House behind security fencing in Washington, D.C., US.

Researchers have called for safeguarding US science and scientific evidence against political interference.Credit: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty

US researchers and science groups appealed to President Joe Biden’s administration last week to protect government science from political interference and to empower federal scientists to speak to the media and public. They made this request during public listening sessions hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) — the first such sessions held since the science office kicked off a massive project to bolster scientific integrity in the federal government.

After four years in which former president Donald Trump’s administration sidelined science and scientists in government decisions, researchers were hopeful that Biden would safeguard independent scientific work and communication. In January, he made moves in this direction when he instructed the OSTP to review rules at all US agencies, with the goal of ensuring policies that “ban improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research” are in place. The OSTP convened a task force in May, comprised of nearly 50 representatives from several US agencies, to tackle the issue. The group has so far met in closed-door sessions and with scientific-integrity experts.

“This level of engagement has not really happened before in the federal government around the issue of scientific integrity,” says Alondra Nelson, OSTP’s deputy director for science and society, who co-chairs the task force.

The current effort expands on a push to protect scientific integrity that former president Barack Obama began a decade ago. Policies at US science agencies were the focus of that OSTP-led drive, Nelson tells Nature, but Biden's project further aims to guide the use of evidence at all government agencies.

Speaking up

During the three public listening sessions last week, attendees urged government agencies to be transparent about how science is used in policy and regulation, and recommended that scientists be enabled to pursue their work without political interference — and be free to speak about it.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that government scientists must be encouraged to speak directly to the public and media, including through social media. Critics have complained that it has become harder over the years to gain access to government scientists for information and insight, and that it became even more difficult when Trump took office. In its first days, the Trump administration issued restrictions on agency employees speaking about their work. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, top public-health officials, including infectious-disease chief Anthony Fauci, were restricted from addressing the public. “Agencies should not be scared of scientists speaking up,” Rosenberg said.

Alondra Nelson, deputy director of science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, at a podium.

Alondra Nelson is the OSTP's deputy director for science and society.Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

Since Trump was elected in 2016, the non-profit Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, both in New York City, have tracked anti-science actions by the US government, including state-level decisions and actions by individual members of Congress. That tally has now grown to nearly 500 entries.

Augusta Wilson, a staff attorney at CSLDF, said at one of the sessions that close to half of those cases involved censorship of scientific information. In her remarks, she asked that the OSTP “call on agencies to adopt strong, explicit protections against censorship and other interference with scientists’ ability to communicate about their work”.

The CSLDF and the Sabin Center are among groups that have created guidelines for keeping science free of political interference and ensuring that scientific evidence carries weight. Among such suggestions are integrity-policy training for agency employees and designating government offices and leaders to settle disputes; some have suggested that Congress should pass legislation that requires agencies to shore up their rules.

Tom Sinks, who worked at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for decades, told Nature there needs to be a ‘firewall’ established between scientific evidence and political leaders at agencies. “Creating a firewall that enables science to be science and politics to be politics — this is where scientific integrity plays a big role,” he said.

During one of the sessions, he suggested that to construct such a barrier, each agency should establish a senior scientist, who is not a political appointee, as the ultimate approver of scientific products such as publications. Sinks himself is no stranger to scientific-integrity conflicts. Before he resigned in 2020 as director of the EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor, he wrote a rebuke of the agency’s own ‘secret science’ rule, championed by then-administrator Scott Pruitt, a Trump appointee. Touted as a move towards transparency, the proposed rule would have prevented the EPA from using studies that rely on non-public data as a basis for regulations. But critics argued this would cut out foundational health data about the harms of environmental pollutants — and would ultimately weaken the regulatory agency’s power to curb polluters. The Biden EPA is currently reconsidering the rule.

The next steps

The new effort “reaffirms and builds on” Obama’s scientific-integrity work, according to President Biden’s January memo instructing the OSTP to take up this issue.

Obama had pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” during his inauguration, and his OSTP director, John Holdren, detailed a series of actions that agencies should take to protect the independence of scientists. This came after previous president George W. Bush and his administration blocked stem-cell science and downplayed climate research.

Sinks says the ‘Holdren memo’ protected some EPA science during the Trump years, allowing scientific reports to pass that might have otherwise faltered. But he hopes the Biden effort will go further.

A 2019 review by the US Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama-era memorandum was unevenly embraced across agencies and recommended further actions to strengthen the integrity of federal research.

The public comments collected at the listening sessions and received in writing will inform the Biden OSTP’s deliberations. “This is an issue that the public really cares about and is engaged in,” says Nelson.

The OSTP task force is due to deliver a review of existing agency-integrity policies in September.

Nature 596, 174-175 (2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02132-2

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