A new dawn for US science policy and America’s scientific integrity

With willing partners in the Biden White House, there’s momentum to ensure that federal science can always be trusted

President Joe Biden’s executive actions have elevated the role of science across our federal government, Tonko writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden’s executive actions have elevated the role of science across our federal government, Tonko writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 8, 2021 at 6:00am

On Jan. 20, as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in at the Capitol, America marked a grim anniversary: It had been one year since the first confirmed COVID-19 case on our shores. As Biden and Harris spoke, our nation’s duly elected leaders looked out over the National Mall where nearly 200,000 American flags fluttered in the breeze — a tribute to more than 400,000 Americans lost to this pandemic already.

Historians will write many books about why America struggled to control this crisis, but for me, our greatest downfall has been our failure to respect and act on science. From the start of the pandemic until his final days in office, President Donald Trump lied about the danger and contradicted the science. His administration made mask-wearing a political issue, even as science told us widespread mask use would save millions of lives. Public health notices from the CDC, school and business reopening guidance, and other federal information were manipulated or censored to feed a political, not a public health, agenda. Trump openly speculated that bleach and bright light could save us.

In many ways, 2020 was a year cast in darkness. Yet less than three weeks since the peaceful transition of power and that painful COVID-19 anniversary, our nation, emboldened by new leadership and a renewed spirit of possibility, has already started building the foundation for a new birth of honest, accountable governance. And that rebirth promises to be driven and supported by some of the world’s best and most visionary life-saving science.

It’s not happening by accident. 

Within a week of taking office, Biden signed executive actions that would restore scientific integrity standards, direct agencies to make decisions guided by the best available science and data, and elevate the role of science across our federal government. Federal and federally funded scientists are now protected from political interference, under a presidential memorandum, and can collaborate, research, and speak freely.

In simple terms, this means Congress and the American people can look to them again for trusted and timely information and insights. Biden’s actions, including his moves on tackling the climate crisis, are powerful steps that move us light-years forward in rebuilding and strengthening science-based decision-making across the federal government.

On their own, these executive actions sent a resounding signal that science has returned, and it didn’t stop there. Just recently, a federal judge in Montana struck down the Trump EPA’s 11th-hour gambit to fast-track their controversial “secret science” rule intended to restrict the use of public studies in assessing the public health, environmental and climate impacts of toxic pollution. At the Biden administration’s request, the judge later vacated the rule and sent it back to the agency — acknowledging that the justification for its hasty publication was legally indefensible.

As an engineer with an enduring respect and love of science, strengthening federal scientific integrity standards has been a longstanding priority for me. Even before the Trump administration, I was pushing my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to implement strong scientific integrity standards. With willing partners now back in the White House, I am excited to build on this growing momentum to deliver the lasting structural reforms we need to ensure our federal science can always be trusted and free from meddling by political operatives or special interests.

We took another step forward last week when I reintroduced the Scientific Integrity Act. This bipartisan bill has been honed over the years, including through the worst abuses of the last administration, to build a high wall around public scientific research and reports, protecting them from any undue influence by political or special interests and ensuring scientists, members of Congress, and the American people can have confidence in the results.

The need for scientific integrity transcends politics, party and presidential administration. Science does not serve political power or special interests. It plays an intrinsic role in a forward-thinking society — creating new knowledge, improving education and increasing quality of life. At its best, science just tries to tell the truth, and that is always worth protecting.

All of us need to know that we can trust our leaders and our government to tell the truth, whether it’s the safety of vaccines, chemicals, food, consumer products and much more. Scientific integrity policies are the foundation for that trust.

Paul Tonko is a Democrat representing New York’s 20th District. He chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change and also serves on the Natural Resources and the Science, Space and Technology committees.