Scientists and government oversight watchdogs are expressing alarm over new language in the White House's "scientific integrity" framework, which one group said amounts to a "gag rule" that would harm federal researchers' ability to study issues including the climate emergency and public health threats.
As The Guardianreported Friday, a new draft of the revised Framework for Federal Scientific Integrity Policy and Practice was released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) last month, but went largely unreported by the press.
The policy reads:
[Agency] scientists shall refrain from making or publishing statements that could be construed as being judgments of, or recommendations on, [an agency] or any other federal government policy, unless they have secured appropriate prior approval to do so. Such communications shall remain within the bounds of their scientific or technological findings, unless specifically otherwise authorized.
Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said in a statement after the framework was released that the policy is "unconstitutional" and "serves no discernible purpose" other than muzzling federal scientists whose research pertains to issues that the scientific community has criticized President Joe Biden and previous administrations for, such as allowing planet-heating fossil fuel extraction to continue.
"This restriction on discussing the implications of research has no place in a scientific integrity policy," said Ruch in a statement late last month. "Typically, it is only scientific research that has policy implications that is at risk of suppression or political manipulation."
"Government scientists should not need to cast a profile in courage to openly discuss the implications of their research," Ruch added.
Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease professor at Emory University, and Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, both noted that the policy could discourage scientists from working at federal agencies.
"Science is a method that inherently depends on transparency: reproducibility, open disclosure of data, peer review, etc." said Rasmussen. "Preventing scientists from discussing their findings—including implications for policy—hinders them from effectively doing their job... OSTP must reconsider this rule immediately."
Calling on the OSTP to rescind the policy, Ruch late last month outlined a number of scenarios in which the rule "could be used to threaten scientists or stifle controversial research across a wide range of topics," including:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) research showing that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or "forever chemicals" are migrating off of military bases due to inadequate controls could be construed as criticism of Pentagon environmental policies or of EPA enforcement oversight at military facilities;
- Centers for Disease Control and prevention research showing that dangerous viruses and other pathogens are at risk of release from federal wildlife research laboratories could be construed as criticism of weak biosafety policies;
- U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research showing that water degradation is caused by overgrazing resulting from Bureau of Land Management permits on its livestock allotments could be construed as criticism of the bureau for lax permit and health standards; and
- USGS research showing that fish mutations can be traced to rising levels of unregulated emerging chemicals in our waterways could be construed as a judgment on EPA's weak approach on endocrine disrupters.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had a similar policy in place during the Obama administration. As The Guardian reported Friday, a USDA entomologist who was part of a 2014 study on protecting biodiversity among insects was barred from speaking at a conference about the issue.
"Citing the rule, the USDA's political leadership, then under Tom Vilsack, an Obama appointee, ordered Lundgren to remove his name from the study," the newspaper reported.
In addition to the new "gag rule," PEER said, the White House neglected to include in the revised framework procedures that would protect career scientists for "retaliation for presenting findings that may conflict with an administration's agenda."
"In the past, agencies could suppress unwelcome scientific research and blackball the researcher because there was no rule against it," said
Paula Dinerstein, general counsel for PEER. "The White House has the opportunity to create enforceable safeguards for scientific integrity but appears to be blowing it again."