The White House Is Undermining Science, Not Defending It

J. Scott Turner

Apparently, science has developed an integrity problem. We know this because the White House released last week its report on Protecting the Integrity of Government Science. The problem is urgent, evidenced by the title given to the report’s authors: the Scientific Integrity Fast-Track Action Committee. This group was formed in the flurry of the president’s “get-off-my-lawn” executive orders issued just after his inauguration, in his rush to erase all things Trump.

If there is such a thing as a scientific deep state, this report could be Exhibit A. There are four co-chairs and three executive secretaries, all occupying high administrative positions in the federal science bureaucracy. The committee itself comprises fifty members, each representing the numerous government agencies with a stake in scientific research. There is a scorecard of 33 acronyms to help us keep track of the alphabet soup of government agency stakeholders. This is the bureaucratic behemoth that modern science has become.

To anyone not embedded in the scientific deep state, scientific integrity would seem to be a pretty straightforward matter. Scientists should not: make up data; horde their results; lie in their grant proposals, publications, or reports to their funding patrons; collude to harm the reputations of others; embezzle funds granted to them from the government; abuse students and experimental animals. This has always been the ethical norm for scientists. Sixty-seven pages of turgid bureaucratic prose, tables and appendices add nothing to that. Why then the urgency, needing a fast-track action committee?

The crisis apparently comes from the behavior of what is now euphemistically referred to as “the previous administration.” The report offers some examples of misbehavior. One was President Trump’s little piece of political theater during Hurricane Dorian in 2019, when he used a weather map and a Sharpie to warn that the Gulf states might be in the storm’s predicted track. This was unacceptable tampering with “science,” followed by predictable furor. Never mind that the contretemps revealed more the mixed messaging being fed to the president from multiple scientific agencies responsible for hurricane response. The 2018 dust-up over whether to restore a question on citizenship to the 2020 census questionnaire is cited as another example of Donald Trump’s anti-science misbehavior. The Trump Department of Justice wanted the question included. The Census Bureau disagreed, and based its opposition on a detailed (nearly 1,400 pages) statistical assessment of costs, benefits, effects on response rates, etc. A heated court battle followed. The Trump DoJ ultimately lost that fight, but the question remains: who (or what) gets to set executive policy? Is it scientists, the scientific bureaucracy, or the elected president?

There is, in fact, a long history of political interference in science that stretches much farther back than 2016. Here are some examples of my own. In the aftermath of the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound, the State of Alaska muzzled the reports of scientists because the science was inconvenient for the $1B settlement being negotiated between Exxon and the State of Alaska. Or compare the politics and science over two high-profile endangered species: the northern spotted owl and the San Joaquin delta smelt. Both pitted the political interests of activists against those of commercial actors, loggers in the one case, and farmers in the other. In both instances, scientists were called in for their expert opinions, and reasonable scientific arguments were marshaled on both sides of the disputes. Some of these opinions came from government scientists in the Interior and Agriculture departments. In the end, the science that ultimately prevailed was decided not by the power of evidence, but by which faction had the greatest political power. In the case of the spotted owl, the politics disfavored the environmental activists. For the delta smelt, the Central Valley farmers were the losers (to no ultimate good for the smelt, which is currently listed as “functionally extinct”). The bottom line? No political actor “follows the science,” the present administration included. What other conclusion can one draw from the long-running grotesque theater of the absurd that has been the Biden administration’s “scientific” pandemic response?

I agree with the point that science is facing an integrity crisis, and it has been for a very long time. But let me say the quiet part out loud: the whole point of government support of scientific research is not to support science per se, but to harness science to political ends. The many pious declarations to the contrary that pepper the report are revealed as either idealistic naïveté, or diversions to direct attention from the sausage-making going on behind the scenes. I tend to the latter option: the many policy changes recommended in this voluminous report are to tighten government control over science, not to liberate it.

Dr. J. Scott Turner is Director of the Diversity in the Sciences Project for the National Association of Scholars.

Image: March for Science, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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