From the political manipulation of COVID-19 research to the censorship of weather forecasts attempting to contradict President Trump’s false claims about Hurricane Dorian, the Trump years have been punctuated by breathtaking episodes of scientific misconduct.
But these are just the cases that couldn’t be covered up. There were countless others that were never published. Because of this, we have established a secure and confidential method for reporting issues, including those that may still arise. In this way, federal scientists as well as scholarship holders, contractors and other persons employed outside the federal government have the opportunity to express themselves confidently.
Because even though Trump is not in office, the problem is not solved. Allegations of political interference in science are hardly new, and allegations have been made among both Democratic and Republican governments. But the scope and extent reached a peak under the Trump administration, as various trackers and reports have documented. They list hundreds of publicly reported incidents, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Anonymous survey data shows the real number goes well into the thousands.
There are several examples of scientists who have chosen to speak out publicly about attacks on scientific integrity, typically after unsuccessful attempts to raise concerns internally and after facing retaliation.
Immunologist Rick Bright, who headed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, The Trump administration’s unwillingness to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic and the promotion of counterfeit drug therapies, in a nutshell. Maria Caffrey was a climate scientist with the National Park Service who internally pushed back repeated and aggressive attempts to censor evidence of man-made climate change. Both suffered professional reprisals for the defense of academic integrity. And they are hardly alone.
Our respective organizations, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Government Accountability Project, provided far more legal support to science professionals than we can reveal and faced threats to science during the Trump administration. While some felt comfortable enough to speak out publicly, the vast majority ultimately chose not to speak out – rightly out of fear of retaliation and doubts that speaking would make any difference, especially during a government that is openly hostile to both whistleblowers and science. Indeed, the Obama administration’s policies in response to the George W. Bush administration’s corruption of science failed to predict and protect against how brazen the next administration would be.
The Trump administration conducted a serious stress test and most guidelines on scientific integrity have failed. In the aftermath, we need to investigate, because only by checking the errors will we fully learn how to prevent them from repeating themselves.
In recognition of this, President Biden published a memorandum on scientific integrity after a week in office, which initiated multi-year efforts to better protect federal research. It set up an inter-agency task force to review where it missed the Scientific Integrity Guidelines, which is due to publish its findings in September. But even amid the current reform efforts, federal officials may still feel uncomfortable reporting previous violations; Fears of retaliation persist, especially as a number of perpetrators are still employed as civil servants in the government.
To truly achieve a thorough review, even the most cautious and reluctant whistleblowers need to feel comfortable getting in touch. To this end, we created the Scientific Integrity Reporting Project to provide scientists and others with a confidential, anonymous platform on which threats to scientific integrity can be described in detail. We plan to use the examples to educate policy makers on how science can be better protected in the future.
This project will represent a necessary and important addition to the ongoing processes in the federal government. We hope that our efforts will not only provide scientists with improved confidentiality guarantees, but will also result in a wider range of responses. Current efforts seem to be focused on the Trump and Obama administrations, but we are interested in examples stretching both further back and ahead in time to better understand long-term and ongoing issues. We also make express efforts to include experiences from people who work with but not for the federal government who may be aware of a wider range of violations of academic integrity and are willing to share their stories as well.
The politicization of science is undermining public confidence in critical scientific institutions and has devastating consequences for public health and safety, as illustrated by the tragic consequences of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden administration recognizes the need for thorough accounting for reform to be effective, and it needs to look deeply. By sharing their reports of attacks on academic integrity they have experienced in the past, staff in and around federal science and across all disciplines can really help protect the future.
Just as you can barely dodge the tip of an iceberg, your boat will still plunge into hiding beneath the waves if the Biden government only addresses the violations of scientific integrity that are so outrageous that they cannot be covered up , we are still in danger waters.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.