What You Know about Trump’s Assault on Science Was Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Richard Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, testifies before Congress on May 14, 2020.

From political manipulation of COVID-19 research to censorship of weather forecasters who tried to contradict President Trump’s false claims about Hurricane Dorian, the Trump years were punctuated by jaw-dropping episodes of scientific misconduct.

But those are just the cases that couldn’t be covered up. There were countless more that were never made public. That’s why we’ve set up a safe and confidential way to report issues, including those that may still be happening. That way federal scientists as well as grantees, contractors and others employed outside the federal government have a way to safely speak out.

Because even though Trump is out of office, the problem isn’t solved. Claims of political interference in science are hardly new, and allegations have been made under Democratic administrations as well as Republican. But the scope and scale reached a fever pitch under the Trump administration, as various trackers and reports have documented. They list hundreds of publicly reported incidents, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Anonymous survey data indicate the true number is well into the thousands.

There are multiple examples of scientists who chose to speak out publicly about assaults on scientific integrity, typically after trying to raise concerns internally first without success and after facing retaliation.

Immunologist Rick Bright, who headed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, blew the whistle on the Trump administration’s unwillingness to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic and promotion of bogus drug therapies. Maria Caffrey was a climate scientist with the National Park Service who pushed back internally on repeated and aggressive attempts to censor references to human-caused climate change. Both suffered professional reprisal for defending scientific integrity. And they are hardly alone.

Our respective organizations, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and Government Accountability Project, provided legal support to far more science professionals than we can disclose, faced threats to science during the Trump administration. While some felt comfortable enough to publicly report their concerns, the vast majority ultimately decided not to come forward—rightly fearing retaliation and doubting that speaking up would make a difference, particularly during an administration overtly hostile to both whistleblowers and science. Indeed, policies instituted by the Obama administration, 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 provided a serious stress test, and most scientific integrity policies failed. In the aftermath, we must investigate, because it is only in reviewing the failures that we will fully learn how to prevent them from happening again.

Recognizing this, President Biden issued a memorandum on scientific integrity after a week in office that kickstarted a multiyear effort to better protect federal research. It formed an interagency task force to review where scientific integrity policies have fallen short, which is scheduled to release its findings in September. But even amid current reform efforts, federal employees may still not be comfortable reporting past violations; fear of retaliation continues, particularly as a number of perpetrators are still working within the government as career civil servants.

To truly achieve a thorough review, even the most cautious and reluctant whistleblowers must feel comfortable coming forward. To this end, we launched the Scientific Integrity Reporting Project to provide a confidential, anonymous platform for scientists and others to detail threats to scientific integrity. We plan to draw upon the examples to inform policy makers about how to better protect science in the future.

This project will provide a necessary and important complement to the processes underway in the federal government. In addition to providing scientists with enhanced confidentiality safeguards, we hope our efforts will produce a broader range of responses. Current efforts appear to focus on the Trump and Obama administrations, but we are interested in examples extending both further back and further forward in time to better understand long-term and ongoing issues. We are also explicitly seeking to include experiences of people who work with but not for the federal government and who may be aware of a wider range of scientific integrity violations and willing to share their stories too.

The politicization of science undermines public trust in critical scientific institutions and has devastating consequences for public health and safety, as vividly illustrated by the tragic fallout from the Trump administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Biden administration has recognized that a thorough accounting is needed for effective reforms, and it needs to look deep. By sharing their reports of assaults on scientific integrity they witnessed in the past, employees in and around federal science and across all disciplines can truly help protect the future.

Just as only narrowly avoiding the tip of an iceberg will still crash your boat into what’s concealed beneath the waves, if the Biden administration only addresses the breaches of scientific integrity so egregious they couldn’t be covered up, we’ll still be in dangerous waters.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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