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Politics and Scientific Integrity Clash at House Hearing

JUL 19, 2019
Congressional Democrats seeking to codify federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies argued at a hearing that such steps would be necessary under any administration, while highlighting “abuses” in the Trump era.
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Science Policy Analyst

On July 17, the House Science Committee convened a hearing to examine the status of scientific integrity in the federal government. The committee focused in particular on the potential role of the pending Scientific Integrity Act in shoring up agencies’ integrity policies.

Opening the hearing, Research and Technology Subcommittee Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) insisted the matter is principally about ensuring transparency and accountability in government decision-making and government-supported research. “This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s not about one administration or another. It is about ensuring public trust in the conduct, dissemination, and use of scientific research in the federal government,” she said.

Nonetheless, partisan politics loomed over the proceedings. In her opening statement, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chair Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) spotlighted concerns that Trump administration officials at the Environmental Protection Agency had sought to “sideline” assessments of the health effects of chemicals in its regulatory work. Meanwhile, that subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC), suggested the hearing was an example of how Democrats are “politicizing” scientific integrity as an issue.

Political interference concerns Democrats

Rep. Paul Tonko

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) speaking at the March for Science event in Albany, New York, in 2017.

(Image credit – Office of Rep. Tonko)

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), the lead sponsor of the Scientific Integrity Act in the House, noted in his own opening statement that he first started working on the bill in the summer of 2016 when he thought the next president would be a Democrat. He said the bill, which would codify minimum standards for agency integrity policies, was motivated by unevenness in the enforcement and scope of existing policies and would be needed under any administration. However, he added, “the abuses directed by this president and his top officials have brought a new urgency to the issue.”

One of the hearing’s witnesses, Joel Clement, testified about conditions he had experienced as director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Department of the Interior. Clement filed a whistleblower complaint and resigned after the department reassigned him, he alleges on account of his work on the impacts of climate change on Alaska Native communities.

Clement asserted that his and others’ sudden reassignment “sent a message for other career civil servants to keep their heads down on issues that run counter to the Trump administration’s anti-science and pro-fossil-fuel rhetoric.” Next Thursday, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to specifically examine scientific integrity concerns at the Department of Interior.

Another witness, Michael Halpern, a senior official at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an advocacy organization, stated that violations of scientific integrity have occurred under all recent presidential administrations. However, asked by Stevens about reports that federal scientists have been “banned” from using certain terms, he pointed to the results of a survey that UCS and Iowa State University conducted in 2018.

“The surveys that we have done at federal agencies found hundreds and hundreds of scientists reporting either being told not to talk about climate change or self-censoring and deciding they’re not going to step into that space to begin with,” he said.

A third witness, Roger Pielke Jr., who is a science policy scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder, observed that the movement to develop scientific integrity policies began during the George W. Bush administration and continued under President Obama, albeit slowly. “These worthwhile efforts to develop and implement such policies for federal agencies have not been continued under the Trump administration,” he reported.

Agency policies only one facet of the issue

In April, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the implementation of scientific integrity policies at nine federal agencies. Testifying about the report at this week’s hearing, GAO official John Neumann told committee members that some of the agencies had not sufficiently trained personnel in the policies and the Department of Energy had failed to designate a scientific integrity official to oversee its policy. Five of the agencies had not evaluated their policies to ensure their objectives were being achieved.

Norman noted that, although GAO audited EPA as part of its examination, the agency was not identified as among those needing improvements. He suggested that committee Democrats’ attention to EPA, and their unsuccessful attempt to secure a particular witness from the agency, indicated their intent to subject it to a “partisan pummeling.” EPA’s relationship to its external science advisors was the subject of a separate hearing the Science Committee held this week.

Clement, Halpern, and Pielke all said that scientific integrity policies are important but not infallible methods of protecting scientific integrity at agencies.

For instance, Clement noted that in analyzing policy implementation GAO’s report “barely scratched the surface of the dysfunction” that he says exists. He urged that, in addition to implementing such policies and the Scientific Integrity Act, it is also necessary to pursue “broader ethics, integrity, and anti-corruption measures.”

Pielke stressed that amid the vast body of science that exists, decisions to highlight or not highlight any given study in agency communications will necessarily be “influenced by politics, including which studies support the agency’s or administration’s policy goals.” He suggested that, since “rigorous assessments” are a more important avenue for conveying scientific results than individual studies, legislative attention should be directed toward the integrity of bodies that produce such assessments. In addition, he urged, “Elected officials or political appointees should not use their positions to go after individual scientists or studies.”

Legislation seen as an important step

Although none of the witnesses regarded policies as a guarantee of scientific integrity, they did see enshrining integrity standards in law as an important step.

Halpern said such codification is necessary because it helps prevent policies from being rolled back and provides recourse if they are violated. He also lauded a particular provision in the Scientific Integrity Act that ensures federal scientists may speak with the media about their research, saying that such communication has become increasingly difficult.

Clement agreed that codification could help whistleblowers overcome the intimidation presented by a “hostile leadership situation.” He also pointed to the importance of the scientific integrity officers that the bill would require agencies to hire. He said employees have places to turn for complaints about civil rights violations, sexual harassment, and threats to public health and safety, but not necessarily scientific integrity. “Right now, you really have an unreliable process,” he said.

Pielke said scientific integrity policies are needed because “science and matters of scientific integrity have become increasingly popular arenas for partisan battles.” He urged that legislation place integrity under congressional oversight and help standardize definitions, policies, and procedures across federal agencies. He also recommended improvements to the Scientific Integrity Act, suggesting the sponsors sharpen its definitions of scientific integrity and consider including language covering congressional testimony.

In general, all the witnesses and committee members agreed that scientific integrity should be protected from partisan politics. However, although the Scientific Integrity Act currently has 199 cosponsors, all of them are Democrats.

Pointing to the bill’s large number of Democratic sponsors, Norman speculated, “Perhaps that’s because my colleagues across the aisle had no interest in gaining bipartisan support,” adding, “Fortunately, there is ample room for improving communication and deliberation moving forward.” Tonko, for his part, insisted he has “reached across the aisle many times over.”

Pielke pointed out near the end of the hearing that scientific integrity policies represent “a new tool with which to have oversight over the executive branch,” and would at any given point “hit one party or the other.” He concluded, “But this is where I think the interests of Congress have to outweigh the party affiliation, which makes it so difficult.”

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