Government Executive: First Revamp Science Policy Falls Short of Fulfilling Biden’s Promise to Protect Scientists, Watchdogs Say

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

The first agency within the Biden administration to rewrite its policy to protect career federal scientists from political influence as required by the White House has taken some positive steps, according to a conglomerate of watchdog groups, but is still falling short of ensuring its workers do not face reprisal and bad actors are held accountable.

The Health and Human Services Department became the first agency to publicly update its Scientific Integrity Policy, following an edict from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to strengthen its protections for civil servants working in science and research. HHS included requirements to protect scientific processes, allow scientists to speak freely without political interference, boost accountability and shield employees from retaliation. Still, according to groups including the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the plan left open significant gaps that political appointees could easily exploit to silence scientists or alter their work.

OSTP unveiled its model scientific integrity policy in January, which included steps for every federal agency to take to ensure research is conducted freely and science and data are presented without bias. The document largely follows guidelines put forward last year by President Biden’s Scientific Integrity Task Force, which he created by executive order shortly after taking office. Agencies in January were given six months to rework their policies, solicit feedback from OSTP and publicly release the updated documents, but HHS and OTSP itself appear to be the only agencies to have met that timeline.

In public comments on HHS’ draft policy update, the watchdog groups noted HHS has violated standards of scientific integrity at instances ranging from the Obama administration’s age restrictions on emergency contraception to the Trump administration “halting important research and interference” related to COVID-19.

“HHS should design its scientific integrity policy to provide protections against such meddling and effective avenues for correction when interference occurs,” the groups said. “HHS should also consider the possibility of individuals acting in bad faith using the policy to harass scientists who are doing their jobs, and HHS should erect barriers to such bad-faith attempts.”

Among their demands, the groups said HHS should extend its protections to grant allocation and grant recipients themselves. The department should prohibit the cancellation of funded research for any reason other than a breach of contract or gross mismanagement, and similarly should bar grantees from receiving contracts for two years if they are found to have violated any integrity policies.

The groups praised HHS creating informal, formal and investigative steps through which scientific employees can raise concerns, as well as for providing appeals processes for all sides. They added, however, that the department should create an independent appeal process to avoid any undue influence within the department. Any appeals should have timeliness requirements, the organizations said, and investigators in certain instances should be able to coordinate with the inspector general’s office. Otherwise, they said, department officials could meddle in the investigation itself.

The policy allows federal scientists to speak out in their personal capacities, but still places some limitations. The groups highlighted a provision of the policy that prohibits employees from making any statement that “could be construed” as judgments of or recommendations regarding HHS policy, saying the vague language could be “weaponized by bad-faith actors.”

“A bad-faith actor seeking to harass a scientist whose work they find distasteful could claim to have ‘construed’ virtually any statement as a judgment of government policy,” the groups said in asking HHS to remove the wording.

The new policy creates a path for corrective actions against those who violate it, but the watchdogs advocate for HHS to craft specific penalties for those who fail to come into compliance ranging from warnings to firings. Any political appointee who violates the policy should be publicly identified, they said.

“Nothing about this proposed policy would prevent a return to the reign of ‘alternative facts’ should Trump be reelected,” said Jeff Ruch, director of PEER’s pacific region. “Under this proposed policy, every aspect of enforcing scientific integrity principles would remain a captive of the political process inside the agencies.”

President Obama first issued a memorandum on scientific integrity in 2009, but critics have since said the directive did not go far enough, lacked specificity and was inconsistently implemented. Biden assigned his scientific integrity task force with devising ways to better combat political interference in the scientific work by federal agencies’ career employees. In addition to reviewing each agency’s policy for protecting against interference, the task force examined what went wrong in recent years.

An HHS spokesperson said the draft policy “prohibits political interference, facilitates the free flow of scientific information, and establishes clear procedures for reporting and handling allegations of scientific integrity violations, including those involving alleged political interference,” but added the department was open to making changes.

“HHS requested public comment on our draft Scientific Integrity Policy to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to help us refine and strengthen it,” the spokesperson said. “We appreciate these organizations’ review of our draft policy and will take their comments into consideration. We plan to finalize the HHS Scientific Integrity Policy in early 2024.”

OSTP did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman told Government Executive earlier this year the policy framework would “ensure that scientific information communicated to the public is always reliable—including ensuring that federal scientists can fully participate and communicate scientific information, free of interference.”