Biden memo enhances independence of federal scientists from political appointees

President Joe Biden signed a presidential memorandum Wednesday to prevent political appointees from interfering with the work of career federal scientists.

The memo, in addition to raising the profile of senior career officials at scientific agencies, seeks to increase transparency around agency research and regulations, and to make federal data sets more accessible to researchers and the public.

It also directs agencies to review their websites for content created since the start of the Trump administration and update content that is “inconsistent with the principles set forth in this memorandum.”

Biden said in the signing ceremony the measure would “protect our world-class scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research, and speak freely and directly to me, the vice president and the American people.”

The memo also addresses some of the frustrations groups representing federal scientists have expressed during the Trump presidency.

In a 2018 survey of 63,000 federal scientific experts led by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 20% identified the White House or political appointees at their agency as a top barrier to science-based decision-making. Half of the respondents said more generally that “political interests” hindered their work.

“For the last four years, we’ve seen science deliberately and repeatedly excluded from federal policymaking,” Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, said in a statement. Biden’s executive action, by contrast, he called an “encouraging start.”

“We need a new direction — and with today’s executive actions, President Biden and his team are acknowledging the important role that science should play in solving the very real problems we face,” Rosenberg said.

The Biden administration is assigning the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with leading an interagency scientific integrity task force that will review agency scientific integrity policies and determine whether they do enough to bar political appointees from interfering.

More specifically, the task force would vet agency policies for protections that prevent “the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions or technical results.”

The executive action also directs the task force to look for instances where agency scientific integrity policies weren’t followed or enforced, and whether that led to improper political interference.

By the end of this review, OSTP will release a final report that outlines the strengths and weaknesses of agency scientific integrity policies.

Once the task force issues its report, agencies will have 180 days to create or submit their scientific integrity policies. The OSTP director will then review these agency policies to ensure they “uphold the highest standards of scientific practice.”

“Heads of agencies shall coordinate with the [OSTP] director in the development, updating and implementation of any agency-specific policies or procedures deemed necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific decision-making,” the memo states.

Once vetted, the memo directs agencies to post their scientific integrity policies to their websites. They will also release annual reports that include the number of administrative investigations and appeals that allege a violation of the scientific integrity policy.

Agencies must also create an administrative process for “reporting, investigating and appealing allegations of deviations from the agency’s policy, and for resolving any disputes or disagreements about scientific methods and conclusions.”

Biden has nominated Eric Lander, the principal leader of the Human Genome Project, to serve as the permanent director of OSTP. Lander will also serve as the presidential science adviser, a title Biden is elevating to a Cabinet-level position.

Agencies to elevate senior career employees

The executive action directs science agencies to name a chief science officer that will serve as the primary science advisers to agency heads and ensure that research programs are “scientifically and technologically well-founded and conducted with integrity.”

More broadly, the memo directs all agencies — not just those that oversee scientific research — to appoint a senior career employee as the agency’s lead scientific integrity official. This official will oversee updates to scientific integrity policies and dispute resolution processes.

The Biden administration directs agencies to select these senior career officials “based on their scientific and technological knowledge, skills, experience, and integrity.”

OSTP will hold regular meetings with chief science officers and scientific integrity officials.

Next steps for Evidence Act

The memo also builds on progress made under the 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which required agencies to appoint chief data officers, evaluation officers, and senior statistical officials.

The Office of Management and Budget will issue additional guidance on agency adoption of evidence-based policymaking and evidence-building plans, and is considering if agencies should include in those plans “a broad set of methodological approaches,” such as ongoing pilots and research.

The executive action directs agencies to expand “open and secure access” to their data sets. That includes publishing data in a machine-readable format by default while also protecting private or classified information. The memo also directs agencies to produce a plan for data stewardship and access.

The executive action directs the Chief Data Officers Council and the Evaluation Officer Council with identifying ways agencies can improve how they produce evidence for policymaking.

The memo gives agencies 90 days to review their advisory committees, commission and boards and determine if any need to be recreated to “ensure that relevant and highly qualified external experts” contribute to agency regulations and decisions.

As part of this review, agencies should take a closer look at the membership of these advisory committees to ensure they “reflect the diversity of America in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and other characteristics.”

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