Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the Senate version of the bill.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the Senate version of the bill. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

New Bill Aims to Protect Civil Servant Scientists From Undue Political Influence

Federal scientists are facing "increasing levels of censorship, research hindrances and misrepresentation of established facts," supporters say.

Democrats in both chambers of Congress are pushing new legislation to protect federal scientists and the data they collect from political influence, asserting that scientific work at federal agencies is facing "unprecedented" challenges. 

The Scientific Integrity Act (S. 775) would prevent agency officials from interfering with scientific research, including through putting their thumbs on the scale of findings or blocking the distribution of data or public communications. The measure would give scientists the right to review information their agencies distribute about their work to correct any technical inaccuracies. Federal scientists would be free to talk to the media if contacted, and agencies would be required to offer scientists the option to respond directly to press inquiries about their work.

The measure would prohibit agencies from allowing “political considerations” to impact scientific conclusions, impeding the “timely release” of scientific or technical findings, and coercing or intimidating employees to alter those findings. It would ensure agencies only select and retain candidates for scientific positions based on expertise, experience and credentials. Agencies would have to establish “enforcement processes” that provide federal scientists with the opportunity for a hearing and an appeal when they feel their rights under the bill have been violated.

All agencies involved in scientific work would develop policies bringing them in compliance with the bill and submit them to Congress and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They would also appoint a “scientific integrity officer,” a career scientist who would be responsible for overseeing those policies, creating training programs to inform employees of their new rights and reporting all violations to Congress annually.

Any agency with an existing scientific integrity policy would have to update it to meet all the new requirements of the bill.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who introduced the measure in his chamber, said recent events compelled him to “answer the call of our times and stand up for science.”

He added: “These are challenging and unprecedented times for science. Our bill would protect government science from political interference. It would make data and findings off-limits for political appointees and managers, and make sure scientists follow careful processes for review.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey earlier this year that found many federal employees in scientific jobs were feeling stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees. About 20 percent of respondents said that influence of political appointees, or of the White House itself, was a top barrier to science-based decision-making. And 50 percent of scientists surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that political considerations are hindering agencies’ ability to make science-based decisions. Nearly one in three respondents reported that the presence of “senior decision makers…from regulated industries” has inappropriately influenced agencies' actions.

Employees at agencies like NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have told Government Executive they are facing unprecedented interference from political leadership, including rollbacks of previous work and meddling in research. Scientists reported being left out key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale.

An array of science groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, quickly heaped praise on the new legislation.

“Scientists should be able to follow their research wherever it leads, and speak honestly about it to the press, the scientific community and the public,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy. “And the public deserves the full benefit of the scientific work of federal agencies. No administration should alter or suppress scientific findings for political ends.”

Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, praised the bill for improving the legal options for federal scientists facing “increasing levels of censorship, research hindrances and misrepresentation of established facts.” Government watchdog groups, such as the Project on Government Oversight and the Government Accountability Project, applauded the bill for holding accountable those who violate civil service protections and meddle with impartial scientific research.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who introduced the bill in the House, said the current administration’s policymaking has depended on fudging scientific conclusions reached by civil servants.

“President Trump’s multi-agency assault on environmental standards has hinged on efforts to distort, bury and even rewrite credible public scientific findings,” Tonko said. “Distorting or suppressing public science undermines our ability to protect the health and safety of the American people.”