U.S. Public Health Research to Face New Restrictions

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Wednesday, August 16, 2023
Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028

U.S. Public Health Research to Face New Restrictions

Impending Ban on HHS Scientists Raising Policy Implications of Research


Washington, DC —Scientists working within U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agencies may soon be forbidden from saying or writing anything that “could be construed as being judgments of, or recommendations on, HHS or any other Federal Government policy”, per a draft HHS Scientific Integrity Policy recently submitted for public comment. If finalized, this new stricture could facilitate censorship of controversial research across an array of public health topics, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

This new restraint is in its final stage of review, having already won approval from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. It would apply across the entire $1.7 trillion HHS, its 12 divisions, and nine separate public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health, and Food & Drug Administration. Altogether, these agencies have roughly 78,000 employees, most of whom perform scientific or technical work that would be covered by the new policy.

In public comments filed today, PEER urges HHS to remove this nebulous prohibition from its policy for fear of creating a broad chilling effect on scientific work involving hot button topics, such as birth control. climate change, and fetal tissue research. PEER cites the chilling effect that stopped gun violence research at CDC for more than 20 years, stemming from a more limited Congressional ban on the use of research funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” That Congressional language, called the Dickey Amendment, was finally clarified in 2019.

“This poorly worded language would place needless and confusing political constraints across the entire spectrum of federal public health research,” stated PEER Pacific Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that similar language in effect at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been used to stifle research on topics such as harmful impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides, genetically modified crops, and other industrial agricultural practices. “Adopting this broad prohibition at HHS would be like putting the Dickey Amendment on steroids.”

This language is offered as part of an effort to rewrite the Scientific Integrity Policy at HHS. Ironically, parts of this proposed policy purport to promote publication and sharing of scientific data. Rather than serving a political agenda from the White House or HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, PEER contends that this provision is the product of mid-level bureaucrats seeking to maintain some control of the clearance process for research publications.

The further irony is that the Biden directive driving the revision of all federal scientific integrity policies was motivated by the censorship and suppression of science that occurred during the Trump years, during which the current scientific integrity policies inaugurated under President Obama proved useless.

“Can you imagine how this Biden-sponsored language would be used during a DeSantis or second Trump presidency?” asked Ruch, noting that the comment period on this proposed policy revision ends September 1st. “We strongly urge Secretary Becerra to put on his lawyer glasses to read this language and consider the potential implications.”

The PEER comments also outline the draft policy’s lack of provisions for independent and transparent investigations of scientific misconduct complaints, legal protections for scientists engaged in controversial research, and sanctions for political appointees who violate the policy, among other shortcomings.


Read the PEER comments 

View the draft HHS Scientific Integrity Policy 

Look at origins and past use of this functional gag order 

Examine other concerns about the Biden drive to rewrite scientific integrity policies 

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