Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking

Lessons from the Past Two Administrations and What’s at Stake under the Trump Administration

Published Jan 11, 2017


Every day, policymakers use science to inform decisions that affect our health and safety. And in order to be useful, science must be independent and impartial. If the scientific information policymakers rely on has been distorted for political reasons, their ability to make effective decisions is compromised—and we all lose.

This isn't a hypothetical concern. Scientific integrity abuses reached unprecedented levels of pervasiveness and severity during the George W. Bush administration. Recognizing the importance of the issue, President Obama in his first inaugural address promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Over the past eight years, UCS has monitored the Obama administration's progress toward fulfilling that promise. 

Our 2017 report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policy Making, assesses that progress and offers President Trump our recommendations for carrying it forward. 

What scientific integrity is—and how it's abused

"Scientific integrity" refers to processes in which independent science fully and transparently informs policy decisions, free from inappropriate political, ideological, financial, or other undue influence. 

Principles of scientific integrity in federal policymaking include:

  • independent sciencewhich encompasses elements such as peer review, conflict-of-interest disclosure, public availability of research findings and methodology
  • transparent decision making: public access to the science itself (allowing for privacy and confidentiality constraints), to the scientists responsible for it, and to information about how it is used to make policy
  • scientific free speech: the freedom of government scientists to share their research, to express personal views on science and policy with appropriate disclaimers, and to report abuses without fear of retaliation
  • statutory compliance: using the best available science to make policy decisions wherever the law requires it

Scientific integrity does not mean that science must be the only factor considered in policy decisions (unless this is legally required). Other factors, such as cost or public sentiment, may also be relevant. But if a policy decision is made in spite of what the science says, the science should not be manipulated to disguise this fact. 

Abuses of science take many forms, including falsification, fabrication or suppression of evidence; selective editing; exaggerating uncertainty; tampering with scientific procedures; intimidating, censoring, or coercing scientists; allowing conflicts of interest in decision-making processes; and letting political considerations drive advisory board appointments.  

The Bush administration: a pattern of abuse 

Political interference in science has been going on for a long time; just ask Galileo. The report points to several examples in US history from the Coolidge, Nixon, and Clinton administrations.

However, George W. Bush's administration politicized science to an unprecedented degree. This became apparent early on, as Bush demoted his science advisor and appointed regulatory agency heads who had worked for the industries they were supposed to regulate. Soon, reports of political interference with agency scientific work began to circulate.

As the scope of the problem became clear, UCS began mobilizing the scientific community to speak out for scientific integrity reform. At the same time, our Scientific Integrity Program (forerunner of the Center for Science and Democracy) began bolstering the case for reform by compiling dozens of case studies of scientific integrity violations. Our surveys of federal scientists also helped confirm that scientific integrity abuses were serious and widespread.

The Obama administration: progress and unfinished business

Scientific integrity policies

In March 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum directing federal agencies, under the supervision of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to develop scientific integrity policies. Almost two years later, OSTP director John Holdren sent agency heads a directive with a more detailed rubric for these policies and their implementation.

Over the six years that followed, more than 24 agencies developed scientific integrity policies. They vary greatly in strength, scope, and completeness (see table below). Some provide strong and specific protections; others contain broad statements but fall short when it comes to adequately protecting scientists. 

Progress on Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies

Agency names in the table below link to the agency's scientific integrity policy (except the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which as an independent agency is not required to create one). Full references for this table can be found in Appendix B.

StrongSome progressNonexistent or poor

 Scientific Integrity PolicyPeer Review PolicyMedia PolicySocial Media PolicyProcedure for AllegationsPublic Reporting of AllegationsDiffering Scientific Opinions PolicyScientific Integrity OfficialWhistleblower Certification
Dept. of Commerce                  
Dept. of Energy                  
Dept. of the Interior                  
Dept. of Labor                  
Dept. of Transportation                  
Dept. of Agriculture                  
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention                  
Consumer Product Safety Commission                  
Environmental Protection Agency                  
Fish and Wildlife Service                  
Food and Drug Administration                  
National Aeronautics and Space Administration                  
National Institute of Standards and Technology                  
National Institutes of Health                  
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration                  
National Science Foundation                  
Nuclear Regulatory Commission                  
US Geological Survey                  

The challenge of culture change

Writing a policy is only the beginning; to create a culture of scientific integrity, agencies must make a real commitment to implementing their policies. In 2015, UCS surveyed 7,000 government scientists across four agencies to assess how well the agencies had succeeded in this task. The survey found progress, but also continuing problems in scientific integrity policy implementation, with many respondents reporting that political influence was still too high and that fear of retaliation for reporting abuses was still widespread.

Beyond agency policies and their implementation, the report assesses Obama administration progress on three key components of scientific integrity reform:

  • Promoting independent science. The Obama administration took steps to reduce special-interest influence, and made solid gains in raising awareness of the problem, though loopholes and loss of focus ultimately weakened the effort. The administration also expanded the role of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in ways that have delayed and complicated science-based rulemaking.
  • Increasing government transparency. President Obama's public embrace of transparency in government was an important change, and his administration instituted some valuable innovations in public access, such as releasing visitor logs and creating, a searchable online database for government datasets. However, implementation has been a work in progress, with much information still unavailable to the public. Access for journalists has likewise seen genuine improvements in some areas and backward steps in others. 
  • Enhancing public participation. The Obama administration took several steps to enhance public participation in federal decision making, particularly through improvements to the website and through initiatives to improve public-facing federal IT services. The new administration has an opportunity to build on this progress—for instance, by using social media to engage new segments of the public and using advanced analytics to integrate social media participation into the rulemaking process.

Recommendations for the Trump administration

President Trump stated, in answer to a question posed during the 2016 campaign, "Science is science and facts are facts. My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias. The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration."

We should all hope—and demand—that the Trump administration delivers on this promise. Our report is accompanied by an appendix containing detailed recommendations for promoting scientific integrity, including the following topline recommendations.

President Trump should:

  1. Create a culture of scientific integrity by quickly issuing a memorandum directing agency heads to bolster their scientific integrity efforts; by affirming whistleblower protections; and by appointing an assistant director within OSTP with specific scientific integrity responsibility. Agency heads should make public scientific integrity commitments—and Congress should ask for such commitments during confirmation hearings.  
  2. Promote independent science by following through on his promise to "drain the swamp" of former lobbyists; by holding political appointees to strict ethics standards; by appointing a widely respected scientist to serve as science advisor to the president and head of the OSTP; by directing the OMB not to interfere in agency scientific work; and by working with Congress to reform and strengthen the federal scientific advisory committee system. He should also take steps to ensure that international trade agreements do not undermine science-based safeguards.
  3. Increase government transparency by improving conflict-of-interest policies for government employees; by publishing basic information online about all scientific advisory committee members; by affirming broad disclosure of government records under the Freedom of Information Act; by making more government datasets publicly accessible; and by allowing journalists to interview relevant experts rather than directing them to other agency employees.   
  4. Enhance public participation by making federal agency rulemaking processes more accessible to the public; by innovating better methods for providing information to the public and receiving feedback; by making federal websites more consumer-oriented and user-friendly; by ensuring full disclosure of funding sources and organizational affiliations by public commenters during rulemaking; and by requiring agencies to post their visitor logs online. 

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