Biden’s Scientific Integrity Task Force Not Up to the Task
Overdue Report Admits Systemic Problems but Lacks Any Specific Remedies
Washington, DC — In a long-overdue report, an ad-hoc interagency Task Force concedes federal scientific integrity policies do not work but offered only general suggestions as to how to strengthen them, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A key finding of this Task Force is scientific integrity policies lack basic implementation and enforcement, but it does not lay out specific steps agencies must take or a timeline for doing so.
In one of his first acts, President Biden created a Task Force to fix scientific integrity safeguards that failed badly during the Trump years. This 57-member group consists largely of officials who oversaw the ineffectual policies they are now charged with reforming; no members are from outside the Executive Branch.
Within 120 days after being appointed on May 10, 2021, the Task Force was supposed to issue a report: 1) assessing “whether existing Federal scientific-integrity policies prevent improper political interference”; 2) “an analysis of any instances in which existing scientific-integrity policies have not been followed or enforced”; and 3) identifying “effective policies that protect scientific independence.” Yesterday, on January 11, 2022, some 210 days after its appointment, it issued a 53-page report (including appendices) long on generalities but short on specifics.
The report did admit that current policies do not work but did not summarize all instances where these policies failed and ignored complaints about new or ongoing scientific integrity violations. It identified the type of policies that agencies ought to consider adopting, but –
- Lacked any specific protocol for how agencies are supposed to investigate or adjudicate reports of scientific misconduct;
- Omitted any discussion of what “added protections” for scientists are appropriate; and
- Failed to explain why agencies have vastly different policies and even different definitions of scientific integrity.
“This report is underwhelming,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, calling it more than a day and a dollar short. “The report lacks specificity, all but ensuring the Biden administration will fall short on its effort to strengthen federal scientific integrity policies.”
In early 2009, President Obama directed the adoption of the first federal scientific integrity policies and left it to his Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to oversee final policies. More than a year later, OSTP issued a vague report that enabled agencies to adopt incomplete, inconsistent, and ineffective policies.
Under the Biden order, OSTP also is charged with shepherding the adoption of stronger policies. It remains unclear what, if any, specific changes OSTP will require or whether, as before, it will leave the specifics up to agency discretion.
“Violations of scientific integrity did not end with Trump’s departure,” added PEER Scientific Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Blatant scientific integrity violations within EPA are ongoing and constitute serious threats to public health and safety.”
Among a number of specific reforms, PEER is advocating the adoption of new legislation so that protections for scientists and transparency requirements are externally enforced.