Political interference in scientific decision-making is back on the agenda yet again
The Government Accountability Office, the US’s congressional watchdog, has an honourable history of ferreting out federal wrongdoing and mismanagement and dragging it into the light.
So a GAO report published in late April, identifying zero formal reports of politically motivated meddling in the work of four of the most important agencies involved in research, should be something to celebrate.
Unfortunately, that number doesn’t tell the whole story.
Interviews and an anonymous hotline set up by the GAO identified federal employees at Department of Health and Human Services agencies who saw things they thought were wrong between 2010 and 2021 but who didn’t say anything. The agencies covered in the GAO report were the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
There were three main reasons identified as to why staffers kept schtum about their concerns: uncertainty about how to make reports; a belief that leaders were already aware of any issues; and—perhaps most worryingly—fear of retaliation for speaking out.
The GAO found that the four agencies did “not have procedures that define political interference in scientific decision-making or describe how it should be reported and addressed”.
It is this “absence of specific procedures”, the office says, that “may explain why the four selected agencies did not identify any formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in scientific decision-making from 2010 through 2021”.
Assuming that no reports means there was no problem would be a mistake. There is a long and dark history of political interference in science in the US, going back long before 2010.
One study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, published in the Journal of Science Policy and Governance in 2018, identified violations of scientific integrity by every presidential administration since the 1950s.
Up until the Trump era, the George W Bush administration was “widely regarded as the most antagonistic toward science and science policy in modern history”, authors Emily Berman and Jacob Carter stated.
Between 2001 and 2009 under Bush the Younger, the Union of Concerned Scientists documented nearly 100 instances of political attacks on science by the administration—such as rejecting experts selected by federal research agencies to discuss issues such as water lead poisoning standards, in favour of installing more industry-friendly figures.
When he came to power in 2009, Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place”, to the delight, or perhaps relief, of many researchers. But Obama’s idealism did not always survive collision with the mucky realities of politics, and his administration moved only slowly to develop scientific integrity policies. For example, the administration repeatedly undercut work by regulators at the Food and Drug Administration to make the Plan B contraceptive drug more widely available.
Under the Trump administration, efforts to undermine research were blatant.
Along with his much publicised interference in climate and weather science, Trump took what could at best be called a non-evidence-based approach to healthcare.
He very publicly exalted hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for Covid-19 back in 2020, despite the absence of proper evidence of its efficacy. A few weeks earlier, Trump had suggested that his top scientists should investigate the benefits of injecting bleach into the body to fight Covid-19. This might have led many to decide Trump was not a trusted health guru, but his hydroxychloroquine assertions still led to Trump staffers reportedly demanding that New York and New Jersey be “flooded” with the unproven anti-malarial drug.
Rick Bright, a former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which was heavily involved in developing Covid-19 vaccines and medical countermeasures, has spoken publicly about his demotion from this position in April 2020, and his belief that he was punished for resisting political pressure to promote unproven Covid-19 treatments. The Department of Health and Human Services rebuffed these claims, and Trump repeatedly dismissed Bright as “disgruntled”.
Bright, and a host of other “disgruntled” former federal employees, are featured in Alex Gibney’s excellent (if hurried) documentary Totally Under Control, which explored the Trump administration’s early response to the pandemic. Contrary to the documentary title, that early response could generously be described as shambolic.
In contrast, Biden has begun in much the same way as his former boss Obama did—with a public declaration of the importance of scientific integrity.
But while his pandemic response and noises on climate change appear to be much more evidence-driven than Trump, his science policy has not been without problems so far, with questions raised over his officials and their integrity (albeit some of the complaints were deeply partisan).
More positively, as we’ve previously noted, the White House’s multi-agency Scientific Integrity Task Force is moving slowly to draw up universal guidelines that will hopefully do more to protect whistleblowers and punish political interlopers.
The GAO’s latest foray into this field yields a number of specific recommendations too.
At an overarching level, there is the eminently sensible suggestion that the agencies in question should “develop procedures for reporting and addressing allegations of political interference and train staff on how to report such allegations”.
There are seven specific recommendations for the Department of Health and Human Services and the agencies covered in the report.
Four recommendations address specific points for the heads of these bodies: “The [person in charge] should ensure that procedures for reporting and addressing potential political interference in scientific decision-making are developed and documented, including adding a definition of political interference.”
The other three recommendations are addressed to the same people, except the NIH head, whose agency is in slightly better shape in this regard than the others: “The [person in charge] should ensure that [their] employees and contractors performing scientific activities are trained on how to report allegations of political interference in scientific decision-making.”
Though specific to the four Health and Human Services agencies, implementing similar recommendations would probably be useful at all federal research agencies pondering how to improve their political interference policies and procedures—which, given recent and not-so-recent events, is sorely needed.
Health and Human Services concurred with the GAO recommendations, and the watchdog says: “When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.”
At present, all seven recommendations are marked on the GAO website as ‘open’, listed next to a series of red dots. We wait to see how many are completed and turn green before the next president is in charge.
Nasa has barely scratched Mars’s surface but already the agency is fielding proposals for its next flagship mission. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s recently published decadal survey, Nasa’s next big stop should be Uranus.
While tiresome sniggers about the proposed Uranus Orbiter and Probe (yes, probe) are already circulating, the target launch date of 2032 seems less certain. The academies’ report, published only once every 10 years, helpfully outlined possible budget cuts if Nasa should face budgetary constraints (which it likely will). Delaying the Uranus mission by up to six years was at the top of that list.
If the mission is pushed to 2038, it’ll mean a slower 15-year journey to the seventh planet, with an estimated arrival date of 2053. That’s just 31 years until we get to see Uranus up close and find out if the next generation of space enthusiasts will still find the jokes funny.
Highlights from Research Professional News this week
Andrew Silver reports that Republican members of the House and Senate have written to the White House to reiterate calls for new leadership of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They also expressed concerns about alleged financial conflicts of interest in the office.
Robin Bisson has news that American and European business lobby groups have urged the US and the EU to support research collaboration on key emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and semiconductors.
In the US news roundup, the Department of Energy has announced over $3 billion to support battery manufacturing.
In the news
The New York Times says that Stanford University has received $1.1bn for a climate school.
The Washington Post looks at how popular merit college scholarships have perpetuated racial inequalities, and an opinion piece says that new graduates should actually go into the office.
Politico has a feature on whether people would send their kids to college in a state where abortion was a crime.
In The Wall Street Journal, universities have returned in person but some disabled students don’t want to go back, and Stanford has received $1.1bn for a climate and sustainability school.
The Associated Press says that West Virginia University is receiving $11 million in federal cash for research on incurable eye diseases, the California Institute of Technology is setting up a sustainability research centre, medical schools of Historically Black Colleges and Universities are to tackle organ transplant disparities, a Nasa climate research scientist has won the World Food Prize, and there’s a look at how climate scientists are keeping hope alive as the damage worsens.
Science reports that pandemic delays will afflict polar science until late this decade, a maths professor has been found guilty in the latest China Initiative trial, and a biologist accused of sexual harassment has quit his New York University job quest.
A column in Nature looks at how to balance research integrity with people’s welfare, and scientific collaborations are said to be precarious territory for women.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports on a $1.1bn gift for Stanford University to create a school for sustainability, and college fundraisers are confident they’ll meet their goals, but they’re also stressed out.
In the Los Angeles Times, Californians have said in a poll that the University of California and California State University are unaffordable, and that a four-year degree isn’t the only way to succeed.
The week ahead
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold the first of two day-long workshops today to discuss how the Environmental Protection Agency measures the potential impact of a chemical on human health.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will host a workshop on high-temperature materials and their potential applications.
Various subcommittees of the House Committee on Appropriations will review FY23 budget requests for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Defense.
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s subcommittee on investigations and oversight will meet to discuss open-source software cybersecurity and its role in securing the digital commons.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will discuss amending multiple bills, covering topics such as environmental conservation, weather predictions and volcanic activity detection, as well as the creation of an Alaska Salmon Research Task Force.
The Senate Committee on Appropriations’ subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programmes will discuss global food security and Covid-19.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will host an in-person and online event discussing equitable community participation in federally funded research with Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health is hosting its sixth Annual Vivian W Pinn Symposium, focusing on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the careers of female scientists.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology will host a discussion on US leadership in semiconductors.
The House Committee on Appropriations’ subcommittee on energy and water development will review the FY23 budget request for Department of Energy Science programmes.
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