Regardless of President Trump’s fate in the impeachment inquiry, his presidency has exposed serious fissures in our system of government that require repair — especially when it comes to the integrity of government research. Nothing illustrates that better than “SharpieGate,” an absurd incident in early September during which the White House reportedly ordered top weather officials to back the president’s claim that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama.
This isn’t the first time this administration has retaliated against scientists for doing their jobs. The Agriculture Department recently decided to relocate an entire staff of career economists from Washington to the Kansas City area after they published reports on the financial harms of Trump’s trade policies. The Interior Department moved a climate scientist to an accounting role after he stressed the dangers of climate change to Alaska’s Native communities. A recent tally by the Union of Concerned Scientists listed more than 120 attacks on science by the Trump administration.
Clearly, the informal rules and guardrails that used to rein in political attempts to interfere with data and research can no longer be trusted. Congress must turn these norms into law.
Government science matters. It put Americans on the moon. It helped create the Internet. And today, it helps the government protect the environment, improve our water and food safety, and provide the economic data that help businesses and investors make wise financial decisions. It provides advance warning when we’re in Mother Nature’s dangerous path.
How can we protect the integrity and rigor of government science and research from executive abuse in these polarizing times? Today, the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, a nonpartisan group of former government officials and policy experts that we co-chair, released a report on protecting the integrity of government science and research, complete with narrowly tailored recommendations for codifying these norms into law.
The Trump administration’s abuses are extreme, but this White House is far from the first to lay siege to government scientists. Our new report documents how the current and previous administrations have manipulated the findings of government scientists, suppressed government research they did not like from reaching the public, retaliated against career government scientists for upholding the integrity of their work and invited special interests to help shape government research.
For instance, political officials at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration made last-minute changes to a report highlighting the dangers of fracking on drinking water by playing down the risks. Fortunately, the EPA scientists pushed back, and the edits were removed from the final report. In 2008, NASA’s inspector general published a report describing how the agency’s public affairs office suppressed climate-change science and barred a top scientist, James Hansen, from speaking to the media. During this episode, a politically appointed public affairs officer rejected an NPR producer’s request to interview Hansen, arguing that his job was “to make [President George W. Bush] look good.”
In response to these and other abuses, our task force proposes concrete ways for legislators to protect and preserve scientific integrity from executive power.
First and foremost, Congress should pass scientific integrity standards for the executive branch and require agencies to create policies that guarantee these standards. These policies would apply both to employees and contractors who conduct research for the federal government directly, as well as federally funded research and development centers. At their most basic, these standards would ensure that the science conducted at these agencies is free from politics, ideology and financial conflicts of interest.
Congress must also protect scientists and their work from interference by political appointees. It can do this by requiring agencies that conduct scientific research to articulate clear standards for how political officials interact with career researchers about their work and establishing mechanisms for transparency and accountability in those interactions.
And if political appointees break the rules, their misconduct cannot be tolerated. To ensure accountability and deter corruption, Congress should pass legislation that makes it unlawful for government officials to tamper with or censor federally funded scientific research or data for personal, financial, or partisan political gain. Congress should also prohibit officials from disseminating scientific information that they know is false or misleading, and legislators must bar retaliation against government researchers for doing their work.
Reforms like these and others outlined in the report are crucial to a society that values the scientific method as critical to the public good.
No one political party has a monopoly on science. Congress should demonstrate as much by shielding government scientists and their work from politicization. Our collective futures depend on these reforms, no matter who occupies the White House in the future.