New scientific integrity policy lacking teeth, critics warn

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.