Career federal scientists are increasingly prohibited from doing their jobs freely, report finds, imperiling U.S. democracy.
The system for protecting federal scientists from political interference is both incomplete and broken, according to a bipartisan group of former government officials that called for new legislative and administrative actions to install strict integrity standards across all agencies.
Federal science is growing increasingly politicized as norms and barriers have eroded in recent years, according to a report from the Brennan Center, leading to a “crisis point” in which data is tampered with, career researchers are retaliated against for political purposes and non-governmental groups have undue influence on the scientific process. The report’s authors, led by Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney, and Christine Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, also called for new standards for certain Senate-confirmed political positions while easing the process for other appointees.
The authors—which also include former Republican senator and Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel and former Gov. Mike Castle, R-Del.—noted political interference in federal science dates back more than a century, but they argued that acts of malfeasance have ramped up in recent administrations. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations flagrantly violated standards of scientific independence, they said, though the instances have particularly accelerated under President Trump. The authors cited more than 40 previously reported incidents of the current administration improperly meddling in scientific work, manipulating research or restricting access to federal data.
Examples included prohibiting scientists from attending conferences, instructions to avoid phrases such as “climate change” and alterations to federal environmental impact studies. 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 interfering in research. Scientists reported being left out key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. A Union of Concerned Scientists survey last year found federal employees felt stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees, including 50% who said political considerations were hindering agencies' ability to make science-based decisions.
The Brennan Center report emphasized that administration officials reserve the right to make their own interpretations and policy decisions, and even “challenge” the methods scientists use, but “accurate, nonpolitical, government-supported research and analysis should be protected.” As former federal officials, the authors said they have personally seen how political interference can “contribute to government dysfunction and undermine democratic values.”
“We have seen efforts to recast the scientific and research communities as little more than special interest groups whose conclusions carry no more weight than those of other such groups,” they said, adding such efforts can lead to “flawed government policy.”
Existing protections for science are inadequate, they explained, as reports from inspectors general and Freedom of Information Act releases that could unveil wrongdoing are often made public too long after the fact. The bipartisan group applauded President Obama for signing an executive order requiring scientific integrity policies at every agency across government, but noted that work remains incomplete. Lawsuits under the Administrative Procedures Act are time consuming, it said, and many “egregious cases of politicization” are not illegal under the law.
The group called for a uniform set of scientific integrity standards, and for agencies to create protocols to ensure the standards are met for federal employees, contractors and grant recipients. Agencies should give scientists the opportunity to review information that has their names attached, separate scientific endeavors from any political motivations, and establish a clear and consistent process for approving participation in conferences, the authors said. All government offices should also create barriers that insulate career researchers from political appointees, with designated officials serving as a go-between. Agencies should maintain a log of all contacts between politicals and career scientists, the report said, and make those logs public.
Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to accomplish many of those goals.
The authors called on Congress to pass a law clearly designating any tampering with science or research as illegal and prohibiting any discrimination against scientists. Scientific advisory committees should have clearer criteria for selection, institute for-cause removal provisions and reserve some slots for individuals meeting certain educational and professional requirements. Lawmakers should also codify the presumption that all government research and data is disclosed publicly and that those who block those efforts are disciplined.
More competent and ethical political appointees would also help right the ship, the authors said, suggesting Congress impose certain qualification requirements for top-level positions. They suggested nepotism laws be extended to the White House and called for an overhaul of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to eliminate a loophole enabling presidents to bring in individuals from outside government to serve on an acting basis. The confirmation process should be streamlined with fewer positions requiring Senate approval, they said, and for nominees to have an easier time getting background investigations.
Ultimately, the former officials said, the issues they are seeking to address are existential threats.
“We have big problems to solve in this nation,” they said. “If we cannot agree on the facts underlying potential solutions to those problems, and we do not have qualified and dedicated people in place to develop and execute on them, we will imperil the future of our democracy.”