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Several Agencies Fall Behind on Steps to Ensure Scientific Integrity

GAO gives good report for most in carrying out policies to prevent politicization.

At a time when the Trump administration is under fire for shunting aside agency science, a survey by the Government Accountability Office found that most in a review of nine relevant agencies are implementing long-standing White House guidance for enforcing scientific integrity.

“Assuring the public of the integrity of federally funded science that informs public policy decisions depends, in part, on agencies having sound scientific integrity policies, ensuring that the objectives of their policies are achieved, and addressing alleged violations, GAO wrote in a report released on April 4.

All agencies and sub-agencies in a performance review between March 2018 and April 2019 had established policies generally consistent with directives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the 2007 America COMPETES Act, said the report requested by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.  But there were exceptions, particularly in offices that deal with energy and climate.

The directive requires education and training of staff and assuring the requisite skills in avoiding political bias, as well as the appointment of designated officials to monitor efforts.

The agencies studied include the Agricultural Research Service in the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Office of Fossil Energy in the Energy Department, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

GAO found that seven of the nine selected agencies have taken actions to educate and communicate to staff about their scientific integrity policies, but Energy and the Institute of Standards had done so only by posting policies on their websites, a move the auditors found inferior to formal training.

Eight of the selected agencies designated a scientific integrity official, or the equivalent, who oversees implementation of their scientific integrity policies, GAO noted, but the Office of Fossil Fuels has not because the parent department “has not established steps or a time frame to designate the official.”

Four of the nine selected agencies have taken steps to evaluate and monitor implementation of their scientific integrity policies, the report said. But there has been no action yet from the Office of Fossil Fuels, the FAA, NIST, NOAA, and USGS. Seven of the nine had documented procedures for identifying and addressing violations of scientific integrity, but neither the Fossil Fuels office nor NASA had done so. Without such monitoring, “DOE and NASA do not have assurance that all staff have a clear understanding of how to report allegations and that investigations will be conducted consistently,” GAO said.

GAO made 10 recommendations for improving staff training and education, oversight, policy implementation and procedures for addressing violations.

All nine agencies agreed.

On Capitol Hill, legislation titled the Scientific Integrity Act (S. 775)  was introduced last month by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. It aims to spell out standards to give agency scientists the right to share their research with the public, ensure the accuracy of government communication of science and protect against political interference in policy decisions.

“President Trump’s multi-agency assault on environmental standards has hinged on efforts to distort, bury and even rewrite credible public scientific findings, including his absurd denial of the growing climate crisis and efforts to cover up evidence that the American people are being exposed to dangerous toxins,” Schatz and Tonko said in their joint statement.

As examples, the two Democrats said, “In its first two years, the Trump administration has buried reports on public health risks from perfluoroalkyl substances, falsified scientific claims to justify restrictions on birth control access, prohibited the Centers for Disease Control staff from using the words “evidence-based” and “science-based” in budget documents, and scrapped an EPA-recommended ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide proven to impair brain development in young children.”

Their bill drew quick support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight, and the National Partnership for Women and Families.