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Policy

Senators propose bill to ensure independence of federal researchers

The Scientific Integrity Act, S. 338, 115th Cong. (2017).

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Senator Bill Nelson, back in his astronaut days (Image courtesy of billnelson.senate.gov).

This past Wednesday, Senator Bill Nelson (D – FL) introduced legislation to protect federal scientists from politically motivated manipulation or censorship. The Scientific Integrity Act, cosponsored by 27 other Democratic lawmakers, was written to ensure that unadulterated data and results obtained in government programs will be made available to politicians and the public. Sen. Nelson and his colleagues put this short bill on the docket in response to what they see as a troubling lack of commitment to scientific transparency on the part of President Donald Trump’s young administration.

The bill, if enacted, would do two main things: First, it will affirm the legislative branch’s commitment to independent scientific inquiry. And, perhaps more importantly, it would require the heads of all federal agencies that conduct research to develop a scientific integrity policy. These documents will detail how each department intends to ensure that “the scientific conclusions and personnel actions regarding scientists are not made based on political considerations.”

The actions required of executive branch officials in the Scientific Integrity Act are not new. Indeed, much of the language in the bill was pulled verbatim from Section 1009 of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act of 2007. The COMPETES Act as a whole was introduced to “invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States” by increasing funding for many agencies. Section 1009 in particular instructed executive branch administrators to ensure the integrity of the research being conducted at their facilities. The whole bill was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

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The first page of S.338 – The Scientific Integrity Act. See the full text here.

Sen. Nelson’s bill elaborates on Section 1009, giving specific instructions on how executive branch science organizations should guarantee the independence of their researchers. For example, the bill would require that scientists be allowed to review any press releases or other government material that makes use of their work. Researchers will then be able to check that any official statements are consistent with their findings.

The overarching theme of the whole shebang is that government scientists would be able to release their data and findings with minimal interference from political appointees. This is not a trivial exercise given the breadth of research that takes places under the auspices of the U.S. Federal Government. Consider that some of President Trump’s scientific appointees are prominent climate change skeptics or have deep ties to the industries they must regulate. Without the protections afforded by the Scientific Integrity Act, these administrators might alter or suppress findings that are not consistent with their worldview.

To me, this issue goes beyond party politics. Science should not be a partisan issue and should never be filtered through an ideological lens. Results, while often difficult to interpret, speak for themselves and are independent of anyone’s agenda. The fact that it is a conservative administration currently in a position to manipulate findings is immaterial; it is just as dangerous for left-leaning politicians to fiddle with or overstate any scientific conclusion.

Congress can be a confusing place. This brief guide will help you become better informed and more active. Credit: wikicommons.

U.S. Congress viewed from the National Mall (Image courtesy of wikicommons).

The Scientific Integrity Act is a long way from becoming law. It first must clear the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation before being voted on by the full Senate. It will then get passed to the House and, if it eventually makes it that far, to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law. As of today, Sen. John Thune (R – SD), the Senate committee chairman, has not indicated whether he will allow a hearing on the legislation.

Zoe’s post this past Saturday outlined several ways you can get politically engaged as an advocate for science. If this is an issue you care about, I encourage you to call your Senators and voice your support for the Science Integrity Act. Even if you do not really care about this particular issue, call anyway and tell them what you are concerned about. The more you call, the more pressure our leaders feel to listen to the will of their constituents.

We are fortunate to live in a country where we can freely voice our opinion. Be it by calling your representative or marching in the streets. Get out there and make yourself heard.


For more information on scientific integrity in the Federal government and how you can get involved, check out: The American Geophysical Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can get your Federal, State, and Local officials’ contact information using this tool. Many services like 5calls.org can also assist in finding your representatives.

Eric Orenstein
Eric is a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His research in the Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging focuses on developing methods to quantitatively label image data coming from the Scripps Plankton Camera System. When not science-ing, Eric can be found surfing, canoeing, or trying to learn how to cook.

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