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climate justice

Rise and Resist activist group marched together to demand climate and racial justice on 09/20/2020. (Photo: Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Strong Scientific Integrity Policies Can Protect America's Most Underserved Communities

The people that face some of the worst impacts from a departure of science-based policies are underserved communities—communities that are already overburdened with cumulative stressors such as air and water pollution.

Science is at the heart of all our public health and environmental laws in the United States. Therefore, if we are serious about supporting the rights of underserved communities to live, work, and play in an environment free of pollution and other hazards, we must also advocate for strong scientific integrity policies at federal agencies.

President Biden appears to be keen on this approach. The president issued an executive order calling on a "whole-of-government" approach to advance racial equity and justice for communities, and his memorandum on restoring trust in government through scientific integrity repeatedly mentions the need to have an "equitable delivery of policies, programs, and agency operations." Therefore if you are writing a public comment or attending a listening session hosted by a federal agency we urge you to press the Biden administration to honor their commitment to scientific integrity and racial justice.

Science can be an ally for equity and justice

For decades, underserved communities—communities of color, low-income communities, and Indigenous communities—have faced systemic inequities and discrimination that have dirtied the air, polluted the water supply, limited the availability of nutritious food, and made the workplace more dangerous for communities.

However, communities are actively fighting against this type of injustice and science is proving to be a powerful ally. Science can provide evidence of health harms from environmental sources, which can corroborate the concerns and experiences of disenfranchised community members worried about the impacts of pollution and other stressors on their neighbors, friends, and families. Science-based solutions, inclusive of and alongside the viewpoints and experiences of impacted community members, increases the chances that decisionmakers will enact policies that are both equitable, evidence based, and tailored to communities' needs.

In particular, independent scientific data that are able to highlight evidence of health inequities is of vital importance. If federal agencies fail to collect, disaggregate, or analyze data on demographic features associated with historically disenfranchised communities—such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and geographical location—how else will they know about, and be able to act upon, local conditions that are causing disproportionate health burdens in communities? That evidence must be explicitly called for, evaluated, and become a routine part of the science that informs government decisions. And sidestepping or sidelining such evidence should be considered a violation of scientific integrity.

Scientific processes need to be community-focused

Everyone, no matter their social position, should benefit from science-based protections. However, underserved communities typically have less influence on the policymaking process. This can stem from a variety of reasons, from gerrymandering or voter ID laws that depress voter turnout to language, childcare, or transportation issues that prevent engagement in the political process to corporations having more resources and access to influence decisionmakers. But the outcome is that communities are further impacted when democratic, science-based protections are dismantled. Therefore, it is imperative that agencies identify and address the barriers that prevent members of marginalized communities from engaging meaningfully in rulemaking processes.

However, far before the rulemaking process begins, federal agencies should take a hard look at their scientific processes to ensure that it is fully, and from the very beginning, incorporating equity and justice into its framework. It is not enough for federal agencies to simply carry out data collection efforts on health disparities, they must ensure that the entire processes guiding the science is robust, community-focused, and free from political interference. Agencies should develop protocols that allow community input throughout the research process. This would not only provide agencies with a mechanism to receive community input on ongoing research but would also help hold agencies accountable for prioritizing the interests of public health. Furthermore, agencies should also allow enough time for communities to comment on these processes. Public comment periods need to be long enough such that grassroots organizations have the time to respond and engage with agencies.

Community science (also called citizen science) is one promising way to ensure that scientific processes at agencies are more community-focused and employ research designs that are developed in partnership with communities. Community science allows for scientific collaborations between scientists and interested members of the public and therefore can lead scientific institutions to employ more robust, open, and democratic decisionmaking processes. Because community science allows community members to exert a high degree of control over research, focuses primarily on addressing community concerns, and forms a strong collaborative process between scientists and community members, it has great potential to serve as an important tool that federal agencies can employ to help meaningfully engage with underserved communities. Agencies should develop clear guidelines on how to encourage innovative community science projects, provide standards and tools for communities to best inform the process, and help agencies determine how and when to use and prioritize community science to support regulatory decisionmaking.

Communities deserve science-based protections

The people that face some of the worst impacts from a departure of science-based policies are underserved communities—communities that are already overburdened with cumulative stressors such as air and water pollution. Strengthening scientific integrity policies would be a step in the right direction in helping ensure that the most marginalized in our nation receive strong science-based protection to protect their health and safety. It would also provide communities with the ability to fight against the policies that put political considerations above the science.

Under the Trump administration, we recorded over 200 attacks on science. These attacks involved censoring scientists, suppressing scientific information, or undermining science-based decisionmaking, the consequences of which fell disproportionately on underserved communities. However, every administration dating back to the Eisenhower administration has engaged in similar actions to achieve their politically-motivated goals. Therefore, we need the Biden administration to issue strong protections to prevent future attacks on science that could jeopardize the health and safety of people across America, especially for the nation's most disenfranchised individuals.

You can take action by letting the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) know how important it is that they prioritize equity and justice as they seek to strengthen scientific integrity policies across the federal government. The deadline for written comments is coming up fast on July 28 and you see my colleague Taryn MacKinney's excellent blog post for more details on how best to write a public comment or attend a listening session.

© 2021 Union of Concerned Scientists

Anita Desikan

Anita Desikan is a research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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