Washington Update

House Science Committee Holds Contentious Hearing on Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies

By: Edna Chiang
Thursday, July 25, 2019

On July 17, the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology and the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight met to discuss how the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1709) can protect federal scientists from political interference and restore public trust in science.

Introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), the legislation requires federal science agencies to establish scientific integrity policies that prevent policymakers from suppressing science. It provides scientists employed by the federal government the right to interact with the scientific community by publishing articles and participating in events and scientific organizations; to review and revise agencies’ public statements about their research; and to communicate with members of the media without prior approval.

The act also requires agencies to appoint a scientific integrity officer; to implement scientific integrity training programs for employees and contractors; to establish a process for responding to alleged integrity violations; and to present an annual misconduct report that’s available to the public. The bill has a Senate companion bill (S. 775), endorsements from 60 organizations, and 199 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

In their opening statements, subcommittee leadership concurred that scientific integrity is a bipartisan issue. “We should refrain from weaponizing science to score political points,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC). But partisan support for the bill became clear as Rep. Norman criticized his Democratic colleagues for lack of transparency in scheduling the hearing and for not including an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official nor a PhD scientist as witnesses.

Rep. Hayley Stevens (D-MI) defended the subcommittees’ actions, explaining that the EPA’s top scientific integrity officer had been invited to testify, but the agency declined and proposed a different witness. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressed her disappointment in that EPA decision and said she hoped to converse with the integrity officer in the future.

The witness panel consisted of John Neumann, Managing Director of Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO); Michael Halpern, Deputy Director of the Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists; Roger Pielke, PhD, Professor at University of Colorado Boulder; and Joel Clement, Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. Neumann presented results from the GAO report “SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY POLICIES: Additional Actions Could Strengthen Integrity of Federal Research.” GAO evaluated federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies implemented in response to the 2010 Scientific Integrity Memorandum from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Of the 24 agencies that created policies, the report focused on nine with the highest intramural research funding.

Mr. Neumann reported that agencies have implemented those policies to varying degrees. He noted important areas for improvement, including proper education and training for staff, evaluation of policy effectiveness, and establishing procedures for investigating integrity complaints.

Dr. Pielke and Mr. Clement provided their perspectives as victims of political interference. Dr. Pielke was publicly criticized by former OSTP Director John Holdren and Mr. Clement was coerced into resigning because of his climate change expertise; he subsequently became a whistleblower. They argued that, though the Scientific Integrity Act is a good start, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting federal scientists’ rights.

A major impact of the bill would be its requirement that each federal science agency appoint a scientific integrity officer. No existing law or regulation prevent agencies from eliminating these officers, making it difficult for them to carry out their duties due to fear of retaliation.

Representatives engaged in lively discussion on a range of topics, including scientific integrity surveys from the Union of Concerned Scientists; the brain drain resulting from hostile environments at some federal agencies; the importance of harmonizing scientific integrity policies with existing research misconduct policies; and the role of science in informing policy, but not dictating it.

“[There is] a culture of fear, censorship, and suppression that is keeping incredibly capable federal scientists from sharing important information with the public or participating as professionals in their field. Americans are not getting their money’s worth as long as these conditions persist,” said Mr. Clement.

A video of the hearing, opening statements, and witness testimonies can be found here.