Washington (September 27, 2023) — At state and local agencies across the country, scientific research is vulnerable to manipulation and suppression by political officials, according to a report released today by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). State officials have silenced government experts and dismissed scientific evidence when making policy decisions, among other abuses. The report, “Safeguarding Science in State Agencies,” finds that states lack policies and laws necessary to safeguard science at government agencies from manipulation and politicization, and makes recommendations for reform.
“State governments are making decisions every day that affect people’s lives, health, and safety,” said Jacob Carter, senior scientist at the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “But few states have any rules in place to make sure these decisions are based on the best scientific evidence.”
The first-of-its-kind report reveals three broad trends in scientific abuse at state and local agencies, including:
- The suppression of important data, like climate change impacts or COVID-19 infection rates
- Political officials intimidating or censoring scientists, or pressuring them to alter or remove findings
- Ignoring scientific data, or relying on junk science, to make regulatory and policy decisions
“Safeguarding Science in State Agencies” catalogs examples of these trends. Some recent incidents:
- Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo altered a state report on COVID-19 vaccines to introduce false information about vaccine safety.
- In California, the state’s Geologic Energy Management Division falsified government records to issue oil-drilling permits without the required water-safety review.
- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration suppressed data about COVID-19-related deaths in nursing homes.
- In Texas, the state Department of Environmental Quality ignored the overwhelming body of evidence and relied on a shoddy study to justify a lighter standard for the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide.
The authors of “Safeguarding Science in State Agencies” write that such abuses can put people in real danger, disproportionately impacting people of color and low-income communities.
The report states, “While any single episode discussed in this report should inspire reform, the sheer number of episodes, the repetition of tactics, officials’ brazenness, and their near total impunity for misconduct point to the urgent need for comprehensive measures to prevent the further erosion of science-based policymaking so that state governments can effectively protect public health, the environment, and much more.”
Only two states have publicly available policies that safeguard science in the policymaking process, often referred to as “scientific integrity policies.” Twelve states don’t have protections for employees who disclose threats to health, public safety, or the environment. And a majority of states don’t have rules requiring state agencies to use the best available science in decision making.
The report calls on state legislatures and executive branches to implement scientific integrity rules, protect government experts from politically motivated removal, ensure publicly funded data is transparent and accurate, reduce conflicts of interest, require government officials to consider impacts on underserved communities when setting policy, and other measures to restore trust in the messages and actions taken by leaders at the state level. It also lays out measures the federal government can institute to raise standards for work state agencies perform in conjunction with federal mandates.
“Whether it’s Covid-19 or another Flint, state governments can’t meet any of the challenges they’re facing unless they have the science—and can act on it without political interference,” said Martha Kinsella, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.