TEK IMAGE / Getty Images

The Federal Health Agencies Must Do More to Address Political Interference, Watchdog Says 

The Biden administration has initiated efforts to better protect government scientists.

The major federal health agencies should beef up their policies on political interference with science, a watchdog said on Wednesday. 

Gaps in these policies could have led to underreporting of incidents, the Government Accountability Office added in its report that focuses on the major health-based agencies. The report follows allegations by lawmakers and others as well as news reports of political interference in the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic response under President Trump and in science work before that as well. President Biden pledged to follow and respect the work and findings of federal scientists when he took over, although some Republicans have said otherwise.

“[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health] procedures for reporting and addressing internal allegations of scientific integrity policy violations do not define political interference in scientific decision-making or describe how to report or address it, which may have resulted in underreporting of such issues,” said the report. Meanwhile, “[the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response] relies on [the Health and Human Services Department’s] scientific integrity policy, which does not include any such procedures.” 

This is despite a 2009 presidential memorandum that requires agencies to have procedures to identify and address situations in which scientific integrity might be compromised. Additionally, the four agencies “did not identify any formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in scientific decision-making between the years 2010 through 2021, but respondents we interviewed at CDC, FDA, and NIH told us they observed but did not report such issues,” said GAO. 

Rather, agency officials said that allegations of political interference can be reported and handled internally on a case-by-case basis, or employees can file complaints through the HHS inspector general or Office of Special Counsel, said GAO. 

“A few respondents from CDC and FDA stated they felt that the potential political interference they observed resulted in the alteration or suppression of scientific findings,” said the report. “Some of these respondents believed that this potential political interference may have resulted in the politically motivated alteration of public health guidance or delayed publication of COVID-19-related scientific findings” 

CDC, FDA and NIH employees told GAO that some of the reasons they didn’t report possible political interference were for fear of retaliation, uncertainty over how to report the issue and thinking agency leaders already knew about the issue. 

As for training, all four agencies train staff on some topics related to scientific integrity, but “only NIH includes information on political interference in scientific decision-making as part of its scientific integrity training,” said GAO.

NIH’s training materials don't define political interference––as officials told GAO that “NIH has not experienced political interference”–– but the agency says employees may report allegations if they have concerns. Yet, “this information is not specified in NIH’s scientific integrity policy,” said the watchdog. 

GAO made seven recommendations as a result of its review on shoring up reporting procedures on political interference and strengthening training at the four agencies. HHS, which houses them all, agreed with the recommendations. 

Shortly after Biden came into office he established the Scientific Integrity Task Force as part of his efforts to “protect our world-class scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research and speak freely and directly to me, the vice president and the American people,” as he said at the time. Then in January of this year, the task force released guidelines for agencies to either develop or update their scientific integrity policies to better protect scientists from any undue influence. GAO noted that its review, which spanned October 2020 to April 2022, happened as these two things were being implemented, so agencies’ plans weren’t finalized yet. 

“The lifesaving work of scientists at our public health agencies must never be corrupted for the perceived political benefit of the president or for any other reason,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, in reference to the report. “The report’s recommendations should be adopted to help ensure that no matter who sits in the Oval Office and no matter what public health emergencies arise in the future, these scientists’ work and the communication of their findings to the American public can proceed without interference.”

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who heads GAO, and other experts will testify before the subcommittee on April 29 about this issue.