"Nothing about this proposed policy would prevent a return to the reign of 'alternative facts' should Trump be reelected," said one critic.
A coalition of public health and science advocacy groups on Tuesday called on the Biden administration to strengthen its proposed scientific integrity policy, warning that the proposal does little to solve the problem of the political interference that was rampant in the federal government under former Republican President Donald Trump.
Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order pledging to "protect scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research, and speak freely to provide valuable information and insights to the American people," followed by a requirement for federal agencies to review how such interference can be avoided through policy changes.
More than two years later, the White House Office of Science and Data Policy joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in releasing a draft policy which, if finalized, would cover all scientists working within the department and could serve as a template for other federal agencies.
But without provisions for independent investigations into alleged misconduct, legal protections for scientists doing certain types of work, and with "few safeguards against scientific work being altered or suppressed," the coalition said the draft "leaves a lot to be desired."
"Scientific integrity problems at HHS have ranged from unwarranted age restrictions on emergency contraception during the Obama administration to halting important research and interfering with Covid-19 guidance during the Trump administration."
Groups including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Government Accountability Project, and the Center for Reproductive Rights wrote to the administration to warn that both Democratic and Republican administrations have stood in the way of scientific integrity, calling for vigilance from the Biden White House.
"Scientific integrity problems at HHS have ranged from unwarranted age restrictions on emergency contraception during the Obama administration to halting important research and interfering with Covid-19 guidance during the Trump administration," wrote the groups in their public comments on the policy. "HHS should design its scientific integrity policy to provide protections against such meddling and effective avenues for correction when interference occurs. HHS should also consider the possibility of individuals acting in bad faith using the policy to harass scientists who are doing their jobs, and HHS should erect barriers to such bad-faith attempts."
The groups listed a number of areas in which they believe the new draft policy is lacking, including:
- Protections and accountability for grantees;
- Specifics that delineate scientists' ability to communicate with the media and public about their areas of expertise, without leaving scientists vulnerable to bad-faith attacks;
- Specific protections from retaliation for those engaged in certain scientific activities; and
- Penalties sufficient to deter wrongdoing and hold accountable all violators of scientific integrity, including political appointees.
PEER pointed out that the lack of specific guidance for grantees is a "major gap" in the policy, as much of the scientific work at agencies such as the National Institutes of Health is completed by scientists who receive grants.
The group's comments notes that the right-wing Trump administration canceled teen pregnancy prevention grants and terminated federally funded research using fetal tissue, yet the policy draft does not include "specific protections against early termination of both research and service grants for political reasons."
The policy's "'Protecting Scientific Processes' section could include a prohibition against terminating intramural or extramural research funding for reasons other than breach of contract, abusive behavior, or gross mismanagement," the groups said.
"Nothing about this proposed policy would prevent a return to the reign of 'alternative facts' should Trump be reelected," said Pacific PEER director Jeff Ruch. "Under this proposed policy, every aspect of enforcing scientific integrity principles would remain a captive of the political process inside the agencies."
The policy also includes "the extremely broad statement that HHS scientists 'shall refrain from making or publishing statements that could be construed as being judgments of, or recommendations on, HHS or any other federal government policy,'" reads the letter. "A bad-faith actor seeking to harass a scientist whose work they find distasteful could claim to have 'construed' virtually any statement as a judgment of government policy."
"For instance," the groups added, "a scientist who makes a factual statement about the effect of a policy—for instance, explaining how a Trump administration directive to stop procuring fetal tissue halted work on an HIV study—could be accused of criticizing that policy decision. We recommend that HHS remove this text from its scientific integrity policy to avoid creating a weapon for bad-faith actors."
The watchdogs applauded the administration for taking steps to protect government scientists from retaliation, "rather than relying on existing whistleblower protections alone."
But the policy, they said, should include language assuring scientists that they can work "free from reprisal or concern for reprisal" and should "specifically provide protections against blocklisting/blacklisting and retaliatory investigations and offer an affirmative defense to whistleblowers who are subjected to civil or criminal lawsuits."
When Biden announced an overhaul of scientific integrity policies to protect scientists in 2021, groups including PEER said the move was a "welcome change from the Trump administration."
On Tuesday, however, Ruch warned that "little about this proposed policy would restore public faith in the credibility of government science."