New White House Panel Aims to Separate Science, Politics

May 10, 2021by Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer
In this March 2, 2010, photo, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, chief, Jane Lubchenco looks out from the waterfront as she speaks to fisherman in Gloucester, Mass. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Eager to the turn the page on the Trump years, the Biden White House is launching an effort to unearth past problems with the politicization of science within government and to tighten scientific integrity rules for the future. 

A new 46-person federal scientific integrity task force with members from more than two dozen government agencies will meet for the first time on Friday. Its mission is to look back through 2009 for areas where partisanship interfered with what were supposed to be decisions based on evidence and research and to come up with ways to keep politics out of government science in the future. 

The effort was spurred by concerns that the Trump administration had politicized science in ways that put lives at risk, eroded public trust and worsened climate change.

“We want people to be able to trust what the federal government is telling you, whether it’s a weather forecast or information about vaccine safety or whatever,” said Jane Lubchenco, the deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

People need to know “it’s not by fiat, somebody’s sort of knee-jerk opinion about something,” added Alondra Nelson, the science office’s deputy director for science and society. Nelson and Lubchenco spoke to The Associated Press ahead of a Monday announcement about the task force’s first meeting and part of its composition. It stems from a Jan. 27 presidential memo requiring “evidence-based policy-making.”

Scientists and others have accused the Trump administration of setting aside scientific evidence and injecting politics into issues including the coronavirus, climate change and even whether Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama in 2019.

Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University historian who has written about attacks on science in the book “Merchants of Doubt,” said politicization of science undermines the nation’s ability to address serious problems that affect Americans’ health, their well-being and the economy.

“There’s little doubt that the American death toll from covid-19 was far higher than it needed to be and that the administration’s early unwillingness to take the issue seriously to listen to and act on the advice of experts and to communicate clearly contributed substantively to that death toll,” Oreskes said in an email.

Lubchenco, who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Obama administration, pointed to an incident during the Trump years that became known as “Sharpiegate” as a clear example of “political interference with scientific information that was potentially extraordinarily dangerous.” 

During Sharpiegate, the NOAA reprimanded some meteorologists for tweeting that Alabama was not threatened by the hurricane, contradicting President Donald Trump, who said Alabama was in danger. The matter became known as Sharpiegate after someone in the White House used a black Sharpie — a favorite pen of Trump’s — to alter the official National Hurricane Center warning map to indicate Alabama could be in the path of the storm. A 2020 inspector general report found the administration had violated scientific integrity rules.

The Sharpiegate case revealed flaws in the scientific integrity system set up in 2009 by President Barack Obama, Lubchenco said. There were no consequences when the agency violated the rules, Lubchenco said. Nor were there consequences for NOAA’s parent Cabinet agency, the Commerce Department. That’s why President Joe Biden’s administration is calling for scientific integrity rules throughout government and not just in science-oriented agencies, she said.

Lubchenco said a reluctance to fight climate change in the last four years has delayed progress in cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases. “That will inevitably result in the problem being worse than it needed to be,” she said.

“What we have seen in the last administration is that the suppression of science, the reassignment of scientists, the distortion of scientific information around climate change was not only destructive but counterproductive and really problematic,” Lubchenco said.

Kelvin Droegemeier, who served as Trump’s science adviser, in an email repeated what he told Congress in his confirmation hearing: “Integrity in science is everything,” and science should be allowed to be done “in an honest way, full of integrity without being incumbered by political influence.”

Droegemeier said the White House science office, where Nelson and Lubchenco now work and where he used to be, is more about policy and does not have the authority to investigate or enforce rules.

Last week, Republican legislators accused the Biden White House of playing politics with science when it removed climate scientist Betsy Wetherhead, who had been praised by atmospheric scientists, from heading the national climate assessment. Lubchenco said it was normal for a new administration to bring in new people.

Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said the Biden administration is trying hard but isn’t approaching the task of restoring science quite right.

“It’s impossible to keep politics out of science,” Brinkley said. “But you can do your best to mitigate it.”

He said that only looking as far back as the Obama and Trump administrations will doom the task force’s efforts not to be politicized itself and looked at in a partisan way. 

What’s really needed, Brinkley said, is to “get to the root of things” and look back as far as 1945. Both Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, and John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, elevated science efforts and tried to keep out the politics. But Brinkley said that with the onset of the environmental movement, the distraction of the Vietnam War and corporations seeing science as leading to too much regulation during the Reagan era, a unified public admiration for science fell apart. 

Harvard’s Oreskes said her research indicated Ronald Reagan was “the first president in the modern era to exhibit disregard and at times even contempt for scientific evidence.”

The new task force will focus more on the future than the past, Nelson said. 

“Every agency is being asked to really demonstrate that they are making decisions that are informed by the best available research evidence,” Nelson said.

One of the four task force co-chairs is Francesca Grifo, scientific integrity officer for the Environmental Protection Agency since 2013. She clashed with the Trump EPA, which would not allow her to testify at a 2019 congressional hearing about scientific integrity.

The others are Anne Ricciuti, deputy director for science at the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences; Craig Robinson, director of the Office of Science Quality and Integrity at the U.S. Geological Survey; and Jerry Sheehan, deputy director of the National Library of Medicine.

In The News




NIH Says Cannabis Use Could Increase Suicidal Thoughts in Young Adults
NIH Says Cannabis Use Could Increase Suicidal Thoughts in Young Adults
June 23, 2021
by Brock Blasdell

The National Institutes of Health now believes cannabis use, regardless of frequency, could be associated with increased thoughts of suicide among young adults.  In a study released Tuesday, the finding involving over 280,000 young adults found a statistical association between cannabis use and increased risk of... Read More

After 9 Years and $10M, Georgia Spaceport Nears FAA Approval
In The States
After 9 Years and $10M, Georgia Spaceport Nears FAA Approval

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — After nine years of planning and $10 million invested by local taxpayers, county officials in Georgia's coastal southeast corner came a big step closer Thursday to winning federal approval of a project engineered to literally inject the local economy with rocket fuel.... Read More

Study Offers Insight into Combating Male Infertility
Study Offers Insight into Combating Male Infertility
June 16, 2021
by Alexa Hornbeck

Researchers from the Guangzhou Women and Children's Medical Center in China published a study this week in the medical journal Development, offering new insight into preventing infertility in men.  Currently, at least 30 million men worldwide are infertile, and one in seven couples are considered clinically... Read More

Giving Wallabies a ‘Head Start’ From Feral Cats Doubled Their Population
Giving Wallabies a ‘Head Start’ From Feral Cats Doubled Their Population
June 15, 2021
by Anthropocene

This article is by Emma Bryce and was originally published by Anthropocene magazine. Conservationists working to protect endangered animals often struggle with protecting the most vulnerable from predation. But instead of working to decrease predator numbers, one research group studying endangered wallabies has shown that temporarily... Read More

More Evidence Suggests COVID-19 Was in US by Christmas 2019
More Evidence Suggests COVID-19 Was in US by Christmas 2019

NEW YORK (AP) — A new analysis of blood samples from 24,000 Americans taken early last year is the latest and largest study to suggest that the new coronavirus popped up in the U.S. in December 2019 — weeks before cases were first recognized by health... Read More

Novavax: Large Study Finds COVID-19 Shot About 90% Effective
Novavax: Large Study Finds COVID-19 Shot About 90% Effective

Vaccine maker Novavax said Monday its COVID-19 shot was highly effective against the disease and also protected against variants in a large study in the U.S. and Mexico, potentially offering the world yet another weapon against the virus at a time when developing countries are desperate... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top