Federal Science and the Public Good (2008)

Published Jul 14, 2008 Updated Jan 26, 2009


A strong and sustained U.S. investment in independent science has brought the nation significant economic progress, science-based public policy, and unequaled global scientific leadership. As the country faces extraordinary challenges in the coming years, a robust federal scientific workforce and public trust in government decision making are even more critical. The federal government runs on vast amounts of information, and makes policy decisions every day that affect the health and well-being of all Americans. Although science is rarely the only factor driving public policy, scientific input should always be weighed from an impartial perspective. Unfortunately, numerous independent investigations have documented a pattern of suppression, manipulation, and distortion of federal science before it enters the policy process. Under the George W. Bush administration, political interference in science became pervasive and systemic.

Furthermore, recent changes in the structure of the federal government impair the ability of federal scientists to fulfill their responsibility to serve their agencies and the public interest. Federal scientists find themselves under growing surveillance and control. Administration officials have curtailed public access to scientific information, and subtle systemic changes have sidelined scientists and advisory committees that previously helped inform the policy-making process. In too many cases, these officials have used tainted science to justify misguided policies.

The consequences of these practices are profound. Policy makers cannot make informed decisions without access to the best available scientific information. Even worse, the misuse of science threatens our nation’s ability to respond to increasingly complex public health, environmental, and security challenges. Such interference significantly decreases the effectiveness of federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency. It risks demoralizing the federal scientific workforce and raises the possibility of lasting harm to the federal scientific enterprise. And it makes our government less accountable to the citizens it is supposed to serve.

President Barack Obama and the 111th Congress should act immediately to halt these abuses and implement reforms and safeguards to prevent them from recurring.

In this report we provide detailed recommendations for restoring scientific integrity to federal policy making. These reforms include enacting whistle-blower protections for government scientists and researchers, increasing government transparency, reforming the regulatory process to protect independent science, improving scientific advice to the government, and strengthening monitoring and enforcement. Improving the way that science informs the decision-making process will require strong leadership at the top of the executive branch, as well as the persistent and energetic engagement of Congress, the scientific community, and the public.

Chapter 1 of this report outlines our detailed recommendations to President Obama and the 111th Congress for restoring scientific integrity to federal policy making. Chapter 2 of this report briefly explores the ways that the George W. Bush administration directly misused science during his tenure. Chapter 3 delves into the systemic changes that have made it more difficult for federal scientists to serve the public interest.

This report is intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive. Improving the way that science informs the decision-making process will require the persistent and energetic engagement of Congress, the executive branch, the scientific community, and the public.

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