WASHINGTON (January 20, 2022)—A year ago, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as president and vice president of a country facing multiple crises—including the COVID-19 pandemic, a battered economy, and the ever-growing threat of climate change. They also took charge of a federal government whose scientific capacity had been badly eroded over the past four years.
A new analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) takes a close look at the administration’s first year and finds that, while the president and his administration have taken some important steps and offered encouraging pledges to improve the role of science in government, there’s still a lot of work ahead to keep their election-year promises, follow the science, and build a federal scientific enterprise capable of meeting the challenges we face.
“On the campaign trail, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris committed to building a stronger scientific foundation for the federal government,” said Taryn MacKinney, investigative researcher for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “They’re off to a good start, and they’re expressing the right priorities. There’s a lot of damage to undo, and they’ll need to work quickly to make sure they’re meeting those priorities.”
In the first year, President Biden has repealed many of the previous administration’s executive orders and regulations that undermined science-based policies, restored scientific advisory boards, and made new commitments to environmental justice, scientific integrity, and the fight against climate change. The new analysis from UCS takes a closer look at key science-based issue areas to evaluate just what has happened so far, and what still needs to happen to make science work better for the public.
The administration has begun the process of rebuilding the scientific workforce, but progress is mixed across agencies. While expert staffing numbers at CDC and FDA have increased over the past year (by nearly 18 percent and just over 7 percent, respectively), EPA actually has fewer experts on staff than it did in December 2020.
At the leadership level, the new administration is well ahead of its predecessor. Where President Donald Trump only announced 43 nominations—and had 28 confirmed—for scientific leadership positions in his first year, President Biden has announced 85 nominations and seen 72 of these leaders confirmed. President Biden elevated the role of White House science advisor to the cabinet level. And just last week, the White House’s task force on scientific integrity issued a report full of recommendations for advancing science and protecting scientists at the federal level, though these recommendations will take time and effort to implement.
“Compared to the previous administration’s attacks on the science process, the past year has been a refreshing change for scientists within the federal government and science supporters around the country,” said Jacob Carter, senior scientist at the Center for Science and Democracy. “It’s not enough, however, to just restore the pre-Trump administration status quo. We have an opportunity now to build a stronger and more effective science enterprise within the federal government. The federal government must be able to attract and retain a diverse scientific workforce, provide consistency across agencies, and respond effectively to the evidence and to the needs of the public.”
The administration has a mixed record on some of the most critical science-based issues. The new UCS analysis looks at this record on nine issue areas, including climate, environmental justice, COVID-19, transportation, agriculture, and nuclear weapons.
The report notes that the work of the federal government depends, of course, on the outcome of elections—and the U.S. can’t have an effective, responsive federal government without a healthy democracy, which includes free and fair elections. U.S. democracy is under real threat, with many state legislatures across the country limiting their own constituents’ voting rights. By October of 2021, 33 new restrictive laws had passed in 19 states, with many state leaders moving to lock in their own power through gerrymandered maps and new efforts to put elections under political control. Legislation that would protect and expand voting rights have been blocked in the Senate by repeated use of the filibuster. Without changes to the filibuster it will be nearly impossible for serious democracy reform bills to pass into law. For that reason, pressuring the Senate to eliminate the filibuster is the correct course of action during the president’s first year in office, according to UCS.
“Overall, the new administration is saying a lot of the right things, and they’ve taken some encouraging steps, but it’s just a start,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy and a former deputy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The science community needs to be vigilant and watch closely to make sure President Biden, Vice President Harris, and leaders across the administration follow through on these commitments. Scientists and science advocates have already clearly had a positive impact on the administration and must stay engaged in the years to come.”