House Covid-19 Hearing Underscores Need to Defend from Political Interference in Government Science

The House Select Subcom­mit­tee on the Coronavirus Crisis is hold­ing a hear­ing Friday dedic­ated to a recent Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office report docu­ment­ing how polit­ical inter­fer­ence at four public health agen­cies hampered the federal govern­ment’s pandemic response. The report recom­mends that the agen­cies adopt clear defin­i­tions of polit­ical inter­fer­ence in scientific decision-making, as well as proced­ures for report­ing and address­ing it.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion should adopt most if not all of these sugges­tions, but it can do even more to protect scientific integ­rity by promot­ing greater trans­par­ency and strength­en­ing enforce­ment of key safe­guards. But over the long term, as the Bren­nan Center noted in a letter submit­ted to the Commit­tee, exec­ut­ive actions are no substi­tute for congres­sional action to protect the govern­ment’s scientific enter­prise.

By now, it is well docu­mented that politi­ciz­a­tion of govern­ment science has hindered our abil­ity to manage the Covid-19 pandemic effect­ively. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion manip­u­lated guid­ance from the Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion, side­lined govern­ment scient­ists who raised concerns about the pandem­ic’s sever­ity and vari­ous treat­ments’ effic­acy, and denig­rated public health meas­ures like test­ing and mask wear­ing. Similar abuses of power occurred at the state level, too. For instance, top aides to former New York governor Andrew Cuomo changed data to drastic­ally under­re­port nurs­ing home deaths.

These incid­ents are part of a much broader prob­lem that is not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic and has spanned Repub­lican and Demo­cratic admin­is­tra­tions, from the Obama admin­is­tra­tion’s rejec­tion of over-the-counter contra­cept­ives for minors — which a federal judge called “polit­ic­ally motiv­ated, scien­tific­ally unjus­ti­fied, and against agency preced­ent” — to the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s repeated efforts to down­play data show­ing the connec­tion between carbon emis­sions and climate change, as well as research on the dangers climate change poses.

Such abuses increased dramat­ic­ally under Trump, with offi­cials across many differ­ent depart­ments manip­u­lat­ing research and data for polit­ical reas­ons — some­times brazenly, as when Pres­id­ent Trump presen­ted an altered map of a hurricane to support his false claim that it would hit Alabama and the secret­ary of commerce then reportedly threatened to fire National Ocean­o­graphic and Atmo­spheric Admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials if they did not refute the National Weather Service’s assess­ment of the hurricane’s actual traject­ory (“Sharpie­gate”).

Within one week of assum­ing office, Pres­id­ent Biden sought to turn the page on such incid­ents by issu­ing a memo and an exec­ut­ive order announ­cing his admin­is­tra­tion’s commit­ment to evid­ence-based decision-making. In Janu­ary 2022, a scientific integ­rity task force convened by the admin­is­tra­tion released a report recom­mend­ing the adop­tion of addi­tional safe­guards, which, like the GAO’s recom­mend­a­tions, would improve scientific integ­rity if imple­men­ted.

But the Biden admin­is­tra­tion has faced its own contro­ver­sies, includ­ing with respect to the pandemic. While there are no reports of it manip­u­lat­ing data or retali­at­ing against scient­ists, it has, for instance, been accused of succumb­ing to polit­ical pres­sure to shorten the CDC’s recom­men­ded isol­a­tion period for infec­ted people over the objec­tions of groups repres­ent­ing front­line work­ers like nurses and flight attend­ants. And the White House has occa­sion­ally clashed with career scient­ists, as when two senior vaccine regu­lat­ors left the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion over disagree­ments about the approval of booster vaccines.

Such policy disagree­ments are not neces­sar­ily indic­at­ive of scientific integ­rity viol­a­tions — the pandemic has often required poli­cy­makers to make hard trade-offs with incom­plete data. But when poli­cy­makers do weigh other factors along­side scientific advice, they should do so trans­par­ently, allow­ing key stake­hold­ers and the broader public to more accur­ately judge the merits of decisions that impact all of our lives.

Strong safe­guards to ensure that poli­cy­makers never pres­sure scient­ists, manip­u­late data, or alter conclu­sions to justify preferred policy outcomes are crit­ical in this regard. The recom­mend­a­tions from the GAO and the admin­is­tra­tion’s own scientific integ­rity task force, some of which have already been adop­ted, are an excel­lent start. And there is even more the admin­is­tra­tion can do to craft broader safe­guards to prevent polit­ical manip­u­la­tion of data and intim­id­a­tion of govern­ment scient­ists, create mech­an­isms for hold­ing viol­at­ors account­able, and estab­lish proto­cols for making govern­ment research publicly access­ible.

But a differ­ent admin­is­tra­tion could roll all these initi­at­ives back on day one. The only way to ensure compre­hens­ive, endur­ing safe­guards for evid­ence-based poli­cy­mak­ing is for Congress to take legis­lat­ive action. The Scientific Integ­rity Act, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tonko (D) of New York, would create key guard­rails to prevent abuse, includ­ing ensur­ing scientific find­ings are not suppressed or altered, protect­ing scient­ists from retali­ation, prohib­it­ing efforts to delay the release of scientific conclu­sions, and estab­lish­ing proced­ures for invest­ig­at­ing scientific integ­rity issues.

The bill received bipar­tisan support in the House Science, Space, and Tech­no­logy Commit­tee in 2019 and when the House passed it in 2020. It also aligns with recom­mend­a­tions from the Bren­nan Center’s bipar­tisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Demo­cracy, a group of former senior govern­ment offi­cials who served in both Repub­lican and Demo­cratic admin­is­tra­tions. The task force and the Bren­nan Center have both endorsed the bill.

Passage of this legis­la­tion is the best way to ensure that the govern­ment’s decisions about public health, the envir­on­ment, food and work­place safety, and much more are informed by accur­ate science, free from manip­u­la­tion for polit­ical gain.