On the road to becoming US president in January 2021, Joe Biden promised to “listen to the science”. Many scientists Nature spoke to say he has largely made good on that pledge: the White House is no longer questioning the threat of COVID-19 and global warming, as it did during the administration of his predecessor, Donald Trump. But as Biden’s first year comes to a close, researchers also say that just because the president has embraced science doesn’t mean his administration has always acted swiftly or sensibly on it.
“They’re saying the right things, and calling on programmes to do the right things on a whole range of issues,” says Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But there’s an awful lot of work to do.”
Biden has scored highly with researchers by elevating his science adviser, geneticist Eric Lander, to the White House’s inner circle — the cabinet — and by quickly moving to reverse many of the most stringent anti-science policies implemented by Trump. But frustrations are also mounting about how much the administration has been able to accomplish: its pandemic response has been hindered by vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and widespread mistrust of government. And its ambitious climate agenda has stalled because of political opposition in Congress.
Biden is operating in a difficult political environment, with scepticism in government institutions at an all-time high, says Susan Hyde, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Simply appointing the right people to the right positions won’t solve the problem, she adds. “How do you restore trust once a bureaucracy has been politicized? That’s an uphill battle for anybody.”
Biden aimed early in his administration to distinguish his science policy from Trump’s. For instance, just one week after Biden’s inauguration, he released a memorandum on “restoring trust in government through scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking”. But it took months longer than expected to accomplish one of the most basic aims of that memorandum — to have a task force review scientific-integrity policies across the government and recommend how they might be strengthened to safeguard against political interference.
Last week, the task force finally released the report. It analysed some of the most egregious breaches of scientific integrity during the Trump administration, at agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and concluded that the US government needs to standardize its policies across agencies and bring more accountability to those found to have violated the rules. It also recommends creating an interagency council on scientific integrity that could help to investigate violations.
But critics say that it does not go far enough. “While this report does a good job of setting the stage, there is also a lot more that needs to be done to actually guarantee protections for federal science,” says Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund in New York City. For instance, there are no details on what sort of consequences might be appropriate for those found to have violated scientific integrity. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, which led the report, says that it will be working to help implement the recommendations in the coming months.
Science watchdogs will be tracking how the White House handles this and a range of other issues, including environmental justice, nuclear weapons and thorny questions about foreign interference in US research. They’ll also be monitoring efforts to re-staff government agencies that lost thousands of scientists during the Trump administration. So far, those efforts have been remarkably successful at US agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. But other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which shed more than 700 scientists under Trump, have struggled to make up lost ground.
Uncensoring public health
Biden’s promises to restore trust in government and listen to scientists were welcome goals in January 2021, as a wave of COVID-19 infections was hitting the United States hard. The year before, Trump had contradicted recommendations made by public-health researchers at the CDC, and his administration sidelined that agency and meddled with its scientific reports.
Researchers aren’t being obstructed at the CDC anymore, says Sam Groseclose, a former associate director of science at the CDC, who retired in December 2018. “They are encouraged to use science, so that’s a much better environment,” he says.
Still, some researchers say that in its decision-making, the CDC is neglecting what researchers have learnt from the social sciences and implementation science, which studies how health interventions are best applied in communities. For example, the CDC committed a blunder in May by recommending that vaccinated people no longer needed to mask in public places, says Helen Chu, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle. The advice was sound at the time, if you had considered virology data in a vacuum, Chu says, but it “didn’t incorporate what we know about human behaviour”. As many researchers predicted would happen, unvaccinated people also stopped wearing masks indoors, and COVID-19 cases rose before the CDC reversed its decision in late July.
Many researchers also say that the CDC has muddied the distinction between science and policy. Data can help officials to formulate policies, but policies are often based on other factors, too, such as keeping children in school and businesses running, says Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist and a top biodefence adviser to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. At times, he says, CDC director Rochelle Walensky has failed to make this distinction clear to the public, which undermines trust.
A prime example of this is the CDC’s guidance last month that people who test positive for COVID-19 isolate for only 5 days — down from 10 — if they don’t have ongoing symptoms. Initially, the CDC suggested that the recommendation was based on evidence about when the virus is most transmissible. But in the following days, Walensky clarified that the choice was based on what the agency felt people would “tolerate”, and on a need to keep the country running in the face of an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 infections. “If she had said this clearly at the start, and stated that it was a trade-off of risks, people might have appreciated that,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. “Don’t say you’re following the science when you can’t point to the evidence.”
Former CDC director Tom Frieden agrees, suggesting that Biden might be almost too eager to show that he is not censoring science, by allowing the CDC to act independently. The White House and other agencies should not interfere with public-health science, Frieden says, but they should help to shape policies and should communicate them in a clear and unified way to avoid a flurry of confusion.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment from Nature. But in an interview this week with the Wall Street Journal, Walensky said she is being coached by a media consultant who will help her communicate CDC policy more clearly.
If the CDC fails to improve its handling of recommendations, researchers predict that Biden won’t be able to deliver on his promise of rebuilding trust in the government’s COVID-19 response and in the CDC.
Highs and lows for the FDA
After the Trump years, Biden also hoped to bring some normality back to the beleaguered FDA, which scientists had derided in 2020 after its controversial emergency authorizations of hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma as COVID-19 treatments. For the most part, Biden has returned things to how they were before, says Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington DC. Since Biden took office, the agency’s transparent review of antiviral drugs for emergency use, and its continued vigilance in monitoring for side effects from COVID-19 vaccines, serve as a model for what regulatory agencies should do in the face of a global pandemic, Lurie says.
Still, the FDA could do more to combat misinformation about vaccines and other products within the agency’s purview, says Joshua Sharfstein, a vice-dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. A deluge of misinformation about COVID-19 shots has contributed to a situation in which one-third of Americans have not been fully vaccinated. The FDA has been stuck in an “old way of communicating”, says Sharfstein, who served as the agency’s principal deputy commissioner during former president Barack Obama’s administration. It typically communicates with the public only when it is making a formal announcement, he says, and “that’s a lost opportunity”.
Erica Jefferson, the associate commissioner for external affairs at the FDA, responds that despite the agency’s efforts, “there continues to be an army of people both in the United States and abroad, that have continued to aggressively push misinformation that is inflicting significant harm”.
But experts say that Biden’s FDA will probably be remembered for a serious misstep last June, when it approved the use of aducanumab for people with Alzheimer’s disease — after an independent advisory panel had recommended that the drug be rejected because clinical-trial data had not definitively demonstrated that it could slow cognitive decline. Lurie says that the “deeply embarrassing” approval “shows that the agency is capable of making mistakes, even without the heavy hand of Trump”.
In response, Jefferson points out that the FDA used an ‘accelerated approval pathway’ for aducanumab “to allow earlier access to patients while we continue to acquire data on the drug’s benefit”. The agency required an additional clinical trial for the drug, to be completed within 9 years, as a condition of approval. “Our review has been thorough,” she adds.
When it comes to the environment, Biden pledged not only to advance an ambitious climate agenda, but also to rebuild a beleaguered EPA, which Trump took aim at early on in his presidency. One of the first decisions for Biden’s EPA administrator, Michael Regan, was to disband and reconstitute the agency’s main science advisory board, which had been stacked with industry-friendly scientists under the previous administration.
It was an unprecedented decision to start from scratch, says Chris Zarba, who managed that advisory board before retiring in 2018 and joining the Environmental Protection Network, an advocacy group created by former EPA employees. “They just went in and did what needed to be done.”
The administration has also been busy on the rules and regulations front. For example, Regan reversed a controversial ‘secret science’ rule put in place under Trump that would have prevented the agency from considering non-public data when crafting regulations. Health data, such as information collected when studying the impact of air pollution on people, is often protected for privacy reasons. Many scientists say that the rule would have worked in industrial polluters’ favour.
But much remains to be done. Scientists and advocacy groups say that Regan still faces challenges in rooting out improper industry influence: whistle-blowers have recently raised concerns about continued efforts to downplay evidence of dangerous health impacts in chemical assessments, for instance. And the agency’s work on climate change is just beginning. Although the administration has announced regulations targeting cars and methane emissions, the EPA has yet to address the impact of power plants, which could be crucial to meeting Biden’s climate goals. The EPA did not immediately respond to Nature’s request for comment.
After Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, Biden signed an order on 19 February to bring the country back in, and made climate change a fundamental part of his social and economic agenda. The administration’s renewed emphasis on climate helped encourage other countries to commit to bolder emissions reductions at the United Nations summit in Glasgow in November, says Surabi Menon, a climate scientist who works with ClimateWorks Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in San Francisco, California.
Implementing Biden’s domestic climate goals — including a pledge to limit US greenhouse-gas emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2030 — has proved more difficult. The Democrats’ hallmark climate legislation — a roughly $2-trillion spending bill that includes hundreds of billions in proposed climate investments — is currently languishing in the US Senate. And environmentalists lamented the hypocrisy of the Biden administration authorizing oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico just days after the Glasgow summit.
As is the case with creating pandemic policies at the CDC, many scientists and observers acknowledge that there is a difference between heeding climate science and crafting climate policies, which are subject to broader considerations and political pressures. “I do see the administration following the science,” Menon says, “but when it comes to actual implementation, it might just take a little bit more time.”