For Strong Pandemic Responses, Scientific Integrity Safeguards are Essential

Guest blog by Liz Borkowski, Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, George Washington University.

One of the great success stories of the Biden administration’s first months is the fact that more than one in four adults has received the COVID-19 vaccine, and one of the key factors in vaccine uptake is public trust in the government that’s authorizing, promoting, and distributing these lifesaving interventions. Because trust is so crucial, the first principle of the “Pandemic Preparedness and Response” chapter of the Accountability 2021 Agenda reads:

“In order to protect the health and wellbeing of the public during and after the coronavirus pandemic, government decisions must be transparent and informed by science, and expert opinion must be shared with the public and not be constrained by political interference, fear of retribution or suppression.”

Different presidents and their appointees can have widely varying levels of commitment to science and transparency. And even an administration that’s generally committed to science can face temptations to bury or twist information that it deems harmful to its political priorities. To ensure appropriate use and sharing of scientific information consistently, we must strengthen the infrastructure that supports scientific integrity—starting with scientific integrity policies.

Scientific Integrity Policies

During his first term in office, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum directing that federal agencies “have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process” as well as “procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.” A memorandum from the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy then directed agencies to develop policies that “Ensure a culture of scientific integrity … Strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of Government research … Facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information … Establish principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the public … [and] develop public communications policies that promote and maximize, to the extent practicable, openness and transparency with the media and the American people while ensuring full compliance with limits on disclosure of classified information.”

As instructed, many agencies developed scientific integrity policies. A 2017 Union of Concerned Scientists analysis of 18 agencies’ policies found that their quality varied substantially. And their limitations became apparent as soon as Trump administration officials started removing references to climate change (or humans’ role in it) from reports, mischaracterizing evidence on contraception, burying analysis of the impacts of a proposal on worker tips, and suppressing the free flow of information between scientists and the public.   

Scientific Integrity During a Pandemic

The deadly consequences of abuses of scientific integrity became particularly apparent when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. At a time when the public urgently needed to be able to hear from and trust government scientists, the Trump administration halted CDC press briefings and appearances by top CDC officials. The Union of Concerned Scientists submitted a letter noting that these actions were at odds with the “Responses to Media Inquiries” subsection of CDC’s scientific integrity policy; they received no response, and realized that the policy, as well as the related “Release of Information to News Media” policy, had been removed from its former spot on the agency’s website. As COVID-19 cases and deaths mounted, the Trump administration interfered with CDC guidance on reopenings, schools, and COVID-19 testing; muzzled scientists; shifted hospitals’ COVID-19 data from a publicly available CDC database to an inaccessible one; and delayed and tried to distort publications in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, the agency’s flagship publication that serves as an essential resource for scientists and health officials around the world.

Under the Biden administration, scientific integrity on COVID-19 matters is imperfect but improving. CDC’s scientific integrity policy is once again easy to find on the agency’s website, though the Washington, DC chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists reports that its members still experience barriers to communicating with CDC employees. CDC undertook a review of its COVID-19 guidance to ensure it is “evidence-based and free of politics”; the review identified problems with the guidance documents on reopening, schools, and testing and removed the ones that still remained on the agency’s website. In addition to avoiding distorted guidance, though, CDC must also update it to ensure it reflects the most recent science. The agency has so far not heeded the urging of public health experts, nurses, and others to update its guidance on COVID-19 transmission to recognize the role of aerosol exposure (i.e., that the virus spreads through tiny droplets that hang in the air) and provide recommendations for controlling it.

Good Signs from the Biden Administration and Congress

A week after he took the oath of office, President Biden issued a presidential memorandum that sets up a process for substantially strengthening agencies’ scientific integrity policies. It instructs the OSTP director to convene an interagency task to review the effectiveness of existing scientific integrity policies, collect stakeholder input, and develop a framework to support their assessment and improvement. Agency heads will then submit new or updated policies to the OSTP director and develop and publish procedures for implementing their policies. Each agency must also designate a senior career employee as the agency’s lead scientific integrity official; agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research must also designate a chief science officer, science advisor, or chief scientist. All of these steps have timelines attached—generally, actions must be completed within 120 or 180 days of the preceding step’s completion. That President Biden would sign such a far-reaching order so early in his presidency demonstrates that he values scientific integrity and wants to see his administration protect it.

Crucially, the memorandum also specifies that OSTP is responsible for ensuring agencies establish and enforce their policies. Having scientific integrity policies in place didn’t prevent the many abuses that occurred during the Trump administration; it’s clear that enforcement and oversight are essential, too.

The best way to give scientific integrity policies teeth and staying power is to legislate them, and Congress has been working on that. In 2019, Representative Paul Tonko and Senator Brian Schatz introduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would require agencies to develop and enforce strong scientific integrity policies and to appoint a scientific integrity official responsible for implementation. The bill passed the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology with bipartisan support, and it was part of the HEROES Act that the House passed but the Senate failed to consider. On February 3, Representative Tonko and colleagues reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act, and the bill already has 162 cosponsors.

Whether these promising early moves translate into meaningful change will depend on how well OSTP and federal agencies implement the memorandum’s instructions, whether Congress passes the Scientific Integrity Act, and whether the federal government as a whole implements the other recommendations in Accountability 2021. Scientific integrity supporters will need to keep urging action, but I’m feeling more hopeful than I have for a long time. 

Liz Borkowski is the Managing Director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.