Evan Vucci / AP

Panel Meets to Unearth Meddling in Federal Scientists' Work, Contemplate How to Avoid Future Interference

President Biden is hoping to add more teeth to scientific integrity policies across government.

The White House on Friday held its first task force meeting to develop strategies for empowering career federal scientists, including through identifying incidents of interference in previous administrations. 

Several dozen scientists from across government attended the inaugural gathering of the Scientific Integrity Task Force, which President Biden created shortly after taking office. Headed by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Biden launched the panel to combat political interference in the scientific work by federal agencies’ career employees. In addition to reviewing each agency’s policy for protecting against interference, the task force will examine what went wrong in recent years. 

Representatives from 28 agencies and components participated in Friday’s meeting, which took place behind closed doors. In addition to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the task force is led by Francesca Grifo, the scientific integrity official at the Environmental Protection Agency; Anne Riccitui, a deputy director at the Commerce Department; Craig Robinson, head of the Science Quality and Integrity Office at the U.S. Geological Survey; and Jerry Sheehan, a deputy director at the National Institutes of Health. Biden created the task force as part of a presidential memorandum that also directed agencies to name a scientific integrity officer and review their own policies.

In its look backward, the task force focused its review on actions during the Obama and Trump administrations. It is examining whether current policies successfully prevent political interference in scientific research or data collection, prohibit suppression or distortion of findings and support all scientists free of discrimination. 

Employees at agencies like NASA, EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration previously spoke out over the unprecedented interference they said they faced from political leadership under President Trump, including rollbacks of previous work and tampering with research. Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. The issue was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic after repeated reports of political appointees altering or improperly influencing scientific and medical findings.

At the meeting, the task force set up working groups to tackle various priorities and review "lapses of scientific integrity." It discussed ways to engage stakeholders outside government and the structure of a request for information from the public. The scientists "expressed enthusiasm for the important work of restoring scientific integrity and an optimism for this whole-of-government partnership to affect real change," according to a readout from the White House. 

“Scientific and technological information, data, and evidence are key to the development of effective policies and equitable program delivery throughout government,” Office of Science and Technology Policy Deputy Directors Alondra Nelson and Jane Lubchenco and the task force co-chairs said ahead of Friday’s meeting. “As evidence-based policymaking becomes increasingly central to the work of the federal government, it is important to affirm, strengthen, and safeguard the policies, procedures, and diverse and inclusive communities of practice that facilitate the production of rigorous research evidence, free from interference or intervention.”

Per Biden’s memo, the task force now has four months to deliver initial findings. The Office of Science and Technology Policy will publicly post a summary of those findings and the task force will then develop a framework for ongoing assessment improvement of agencies' scientific integrity policies. Biden directed the task force to solicit input from outside stakeholders and the public. 

Several groups representing federal scientists praised the Biden administration for its efforts. Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said his organization will work with the task force to ensure front-line federal scientists are better protected in the future.

“Scientists in the federal government made a conscious choice to work for the American people, which means they are motivated by what is best for the public, not a corporation and not a politician,” Reardon said. “That principle should never be compromised.”

Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called on the task force to recommend more than just broad guidelines. Instead, he said, prohibitions on interference in research and data collection must be explicit, procedures for investigating misconduct clear and penalties for managers acting improperly spelled out. 

Jacob Carter, a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said every administration dating back to President Eisenhower has been guilty of political interference and the task force marked an opportunity to reverse that trend. 

“I cannot overstate the importance of this task force and their mission,” Carter said. “People’s very lives are on the line when our government makes decisions without using the best available information, particularly those from underserved communities.”

The task force is slated to meet again in two weeks.