A draft policy meant to curtail improper interference in federal scientific work falls far short of what is needed, according to a warning issued this month by a group of public health and science advocacy groups.
The draft issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the first to come from a key federal agency in answer to a call by President Joe Biden for federal agencies to strengthen policies meant to protect the integrity of their research. HHS is expected to release its final policy by February 2024.
The HHS oversees government entities that play critical roles in evaluating harmful chemicals, tracking and analyzing data on important public health threats, and conducting research into human health and disease, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The HHS works to “enhance the health and well-being of all Americans depends on the development and use of accurate, complete, and timely scientific and technical information,” HHS states in the draft policy.
But according to a letter sent to HHS this month by 11 advocacy organizations, the draft policy would do little to stem what has become a systemic problem in key federal agencies whose work is supposed to protect the public but too often is swayed by political and/or corporate interests.
“Under this proposed policy, every aspect of enforcing scientific integrity principles would remain a captive of the political process inside the agencies,” Jeff Ruch, the Pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said in a press release.
Among the other signatories are the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Complaints for years
There have been numerous examples over many years of interference and improper influence on scientists working for federal agencies. Shortly after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he ordered agencies to provide rigid protections for the work of federal scientists following years of complaints from scientists about their work being censored or shaped to benefit favored organizations or issues.
But complaints about interference continued through Obama’s two terms in office and through the Trump Administration and into the Biden era.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, has repeatedly been accused of censoring its own scientists when their work conflicts with the interests of influential industries.
In 2021, four EPA scientists working within the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention reported to Congress that their scientific work was being changed or covered up by managers and colleagues within the EPA. They alleged deliberate tampering with chemical risk assessments.
And last year, documents obtained by PEER showed that the EPA had kept several major scientific integrity misconduct cases open for years without resolution, leading the EPA’s Office of Inspector General to name “safeguarding scientific integrity principles” as a top challenge in fiscal year 2023.
“When individuals with political motivations meddle in research or undermine decisions that should be based on science, the health of communities across the nation, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, can suffer,” the 11 organizations said in their comments on the HHS policy.
Scientific integrity problems within HHS have impacted issues such as age restrictions on emergency contraception medication and interference with COVID-19 guidance, the organizations said.
“HHS should design its scientific integrity policy to provide protections against such meddling and effective avenues for correction when interference occurs,” the groups said. “HHS should also consider the possibility of individuals acting in bad faith using the policy to harass scientists who are doing their jobs, and HHS should erect barriers to such bad-faith attempts.”
Among their recommendations, the advocacy groups said HHS should provide more explicit procedures for investigating misconduct, including requirements for independent investigators outside of the agency to review the findings of such investigations.
Advocates also recommended more specific language in the policy to protect scientists’ ability to communicate with the media and the public on topics within their areas of expertise.
HHS also should impose penalties for staff members found to have violated scientific integrity that are “sufficient to deter wrongdoing and hold accountable all scientific integrity violators, including political appointees,” the groups said.
“Little about this proposed policy would restore public faith in the credibility of government science,” Ruch said in a press release. “Under the guise of scientific integrity, the bureaucratic need to control information has clearly prevailed in development of this proposal.”
(Featured image: Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, speaks at a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Credit: Jenn Ackerman)