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Biden Orders Review of Federal Scientific Integrity Policies

FEB 05, 2021
President Biden has set in motion a wide-ranging review of federal scientific integrity policies and directed agencies to bolster their efforts to support evidence-based decision making.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture
adria-schwarber.jpg
Science Policy Analyst
President Biden outside the Oval Office in January.

President Biden outside the Oval Office in January.

(Image Credit – The White House)

President Biden signed a memorandum on Jan. 27 titled “Restoring trust in government through science and integrity and evidence-based policy making,” ordering a review of federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies and their plans for integrating evidence into decision-making. The memo places an emphasis on preventing “improper political interference” and requires every agency, including ones without scientific portfolios, to designate a lead “scientific integrity official” if they have not yet done so.

The memo builds on the Obama administration’s push to implement scientific integrity policies across agencies as well as on the requirements of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 . Before signing the memo, Biden remarked that it would reinforce his administration’s commitment to “protect our world-class scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research, and speak freely and directly to me, the vice president, and the American people.”

At the same time, Biden also signed an executive order to formally reconstitute the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The council will have up to 26 members and be led by MIT planetary geologist Maria Zuber, Caltech biochemist Frances Arnold, and Biden’s science advisor, geneticist Eric Lander.

Retrospective review to inform further action

The integrity memo assigns primary responsibility for monitoring scientific integrity across the government to the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Biden has picked Lander to fill that position, which requires Senate confirmation unlike his parallel role as science advisor. Pending his confirmation, Lander will be tasked with ensuring that agencies have scientific integrity policies in place that “ban” improper political interference. To that end, the memo requires him to form a special interagency task force to review the effectiveness of existing policies in preventing such interference.

The review, due within 120 days of the task force’s creation, will cover both internal agency activities as well as the work of external advisory panels. It will include an analysis of “any instances in which existing scientific integrity policies have not been followed or enforced, including whether such deviations from existing policies have resulted in improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and the collection of scientific or technological data; led to the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results; disproportionately harmed federal scientists and researchers from groups that are historically underrepresented in science, technology, and related fields; or impeded the equitable delivery of the federal government’s programs.”

The task force is further directed to identify effective policies for protecting scientific independence during internal review processes and approaches for handling allegations of misconduct, as well as effective practices for handling federal scientists’ and relevant contractors’ interactions with the media. It is also instructed to compile “promising opportunities to address gaps in current scientific integrity policies related to emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine-learning, and evolving scientific practices, such as citizen science and community-engaged research.”

After it completes the review, the task force will then produce a framework for subjecting integrity policies to “regular assessment and iterative improvement.”

Under the Obama administration, 24 science agencies developed or updated scientific integrity policies in response to a 2010 OSTP memorandum that established guidelines for what such policies should cover. An independent review of the policies commissioned by OSTP in 2016 found that most addressed the memo’s guidelines, but it also identified various opportunities for further action.

The Government Accountability Office revisited the subject in 2019 in response to a request from congressional Democrats, who aired concerns about potential violations of scientific integrity policies by the Trump administration. In its final report , GAO did not comment on whether any violations had occurred but identified some shortcomings across agencies. For instance, it concluded five of the nine agencies it audited did not adequately monitor implementation of their scientific integrity policies and that two did not have documented procedures for addressing alleged violations. Separately, an independent task force report by the Brennan Center for Justice recommended that Congress implement more active measures to prevent political appointees from undermining scientific integrity at the agencies they oversee.

Democrats in Congress have already been pushing to provide a stronger legislative underpinning for existing scientific integrity policies. This week, 162 Democrats and one Republican from the House reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would codify minimum standards for such policies.

Agencies to appoint chief science and integrity officials

Following the completion of the task force review, the memo instructs federal agencies to work with OSTP to update their integrity policies within 180 days, and agencies that have not previously had integrity policies will submit draft policies within that same timeframe.

In addition, while the review is in progress, all federal agencies that “fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research” will designate a senior agency employee as chief science officer, science advisor, or chief scientist. That official will be responsible for overseeing the implementation and “iterative improvement” of agency scientific integrity policies, as well as more broadly ensuring the agency’s research programs are “scientifically and technologically well-founded and conducted with integrity.”

Furthermore, every federal agency is charged with designating a senior career official to be its scientific integrity official, who is responsible for that agency’s integrity policy. For science agencies, that official will report to the chief science officer. In stipulating that all agencies should designate such an official, regardless of whether they have scientific portfolios, the memo states that “science, facts, and evidence are vital to addressing policy and programmatic issues across the federal government.”

Order promotes evidence-based decision making

Outside of their scientific integrity policies, Biden’s memo directs agencies to bolster their “plans for forming evidence-based policies.” Within 120 days, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the OSTP director, is instructed to consider whether agencies’ evidence-building plans should include a broader set of methodologies from data science and the social and behavioral sciences.

Agencies are further directed to incorporate scientific integrity principles into their data governance and evaluation approaches, as administered by officials designated in the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. In addition, agencies are instructed to “expand open and secure access” to federal data that is “routinely collected” through the administration of government programs.

Within 90 days, agencies are also required to “review their current and future needs for independent scientific and technological advice from federal advisory committees, commissions, and boards.” The review is to assess whether committees should be rechartered or recreated and whether agency policies are in place that prevent or inhibit “relevant and highly qualified” external experts from serving on them. In addition, agencies will consider whether the membership of these bodies should be adjusted to ensure that current and future members “reflect the diversity of America” in a variety of ways, including in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and geographical location.

The review comes in the wake of an executive order by President Trump that mandated a sharp reduction in the number of federal advisory committees. In the end that order resulted in the termination of relatively few science advisory panels and it has since been rescinded by Biden. The Trump administration also made controversial changes to the composition of the Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory committees, barring holders of EPA grants from serving them, and that policy was later struck down in court.

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