In order to protect the health and wellbeing of the public during and after the coronavirus pandemic, government decisions must be transparent and informed by science, and expert opinion must be shared with the public and not be constrained by political interference, fear of retribution or suppression.
- The Problem
- Recommendations for Action on Day One
- Recommendations for Short-term Action (First 100 Days)
- Recommendations for Long-term Action
- Recommendations for Legislative Action
Efforts to undermine scientific integrity across the government have compromised policymakers’ ability to make informed decisions in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the public’s ability to trust any subsequent government-issued guidance. The administration prevented experts from speaking freely or directly to the public from the outset of the pandemic, censoring experts’ statements and elevating ideological beliefs over scientific evidence. At the same time, the administration allowed political appointees with limited expertise to lead an unaccountable shadow pandemic response team that fueled public uncertainty. Several months after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, the United States government’s failure to foster independent science, transparent decision making, scientific free speech or statutory compliance resulted in devastating consequences for the public.
Recommendations for Action on Day One
- Ensure that major policy decisions related to the coronavirus pandemic are informed by medical, scientific and health experts within the government, including the Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The White House and federal agencies must develop internal policies that ensure that experts from across relevant agencies can access meetings and contribute to materials such as reports, plans or recommendations.
- Ensure scientists have the right to communicate research findings and expert opinions directly to the public, including the media.
The public needs to hear directly from experts during public health crises as severe as the coronavirus pandemic. Public-facing officials, including the president, must commit to the principles of the Scientific Integrity Act and follow the recommendations in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s crisis and emergency communication guidebook. Scientific integrity policy and practices at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies must be strengthened to ensure experts can freely communicate up-to-date science that serves the public interest. No federal official should block government experts from communicating with the public, including the press, during the remainder of the pandemic or afterward.
- Create a COVID-19 taskforce or advisory committee based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The advisory committee should bring together a collection of experts to oversee a coordinated federal response to the pandemic. The committee should provide oversight of vaccine and treatment developments and dissemination of vaccines to communities most in need by supporting research into testing, treatments and vaccines; ensuring they go through appropriate approval processes; and ensuring that production and distribution are efficient and equitable. The committee should also provide information—including standards for data collection, guidance on acquiring medical supplies, best practices for testing and contact tracing, and analysis of the latest evidence on measures to prevent disease transmission—to the public and state and local governments. All communication should be tailored to the needs of the diverse populations affected, including those that prefer to receive information in a language other than English.
- Affirm to international partners that the United States is committed to collaborating on pandemic response.
The United States must join in international coordination and information sharing efforts to contain the virus and mitigate the economic and social impact of the disease. International efforts should include expanded scientific and medical collaboration; providing surplus personal protective equipment to countries lacking supplies; supporting the warehousing of preparedness supplies for a future pandemic; strengthening the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network; participating in the Global Health Security Agenda; and rejoining World Health Organization efforts (including the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool) to combat pandemics and live up to our founding commitments to the organization.
Recommendations for Short-term Action (First 100 Days)
- Direct agencies and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to strengthen scientific integrity policies and the infrastructure to enforce them, and improve the accessibility and visibility of key coronavirus information.
- The Office of Science and Technology Policy should create an assistant director for scientific integrity with sufficient authority to make scientific integrity a priority for the office.
- The Office of Science and Technology Policy should direct relevant agency heads to appoint (or assign, where the position already exists) an official to oversee scientific integrity; this official should be insulated from political appointees and report to the agency’s highest-ranking civil servant. This official should develop an agreement with the agency’s inspector general to address misconduct and should work with the Office of Science and Technology Policy on cross-government coordination of scientific integrity practices.
- The Office of Science and Technology Policy should direct the designated federal official to review and, as needed, improve existing scientific integrity policies to ensure they include provisions that:
- Protect the right of scientists to communicate with the public and lawmakers about the pandemic, free from political interference or vetting, and to review content that will be released publicly in their names or that significantly relies on their work.
- Explicitly prohibit retaliation against government employees who raise concerns about scientific integrity or offer scientific opinions related to COVID-19 that differ from those of the administration or their agency.
- Provide a clear, detailed policy and procedure for addressing allegations of scientific integrity violations, including appeal rights, and for publicly reporting their resolution.
- Encourage the agency to conduct training on scientific integrity for all federal employees who use science or manage science programs to a significant degree in their jobs.
- Restore protections for government scientists, solidify safeguards for whistleblowers, and ensure that work environments across federal agencies support and celebrate scientists’ critical efforts to combat and control COVID-19.
- Direct the White House Office of Management and Budget not to interfere with, filter or alter scientific findings.
- Issue a memorandum instructing agencies to allocate grant program funding based on evaluations from experts with relevant qualifications, in response to criteria that are publicly available, to safeguard against the political vetting of research grants.
- Issue an executive order committing to filling open science positions in accordance with the limits set forth by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and requiring all science agencies to have chief science officers. Analogous to evaluation officers required by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a chief science officer would oversee strategic coordination of agency science that informs decisions, as well as the implementation of policies affecting federal scientists. The executive order should note that existing offices of the chief scientist satisfy this requirement.
- Ensure that each agency’s budget request includes funding for enough full-time equivalent positions to effectively conduct work related to the pandemic.
- Roll back rules and guidance that inappropriately restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking or agency scientific work, including current guidance and expected rules at the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency that would significantly limit the research and data that the Environmental Protection Agency can use to make informed policy decisions under major public health and environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act, all of which affect environmental factors that can increase risk for severe cases of COVID-19. See Appendix 6.1.
- Ensure the proper staffing, functioning and transparency of scientific advisory committees shaping government response to the pandemic.
The president should rescind E.O. 13875 and issue a new executive order encouraging agencies to reestablish necessary federal advisory committees pursuant to the pandemic. The new order should include steps to:
- Publish clear criteria for nominating and selecting qualified committee members, with a clear prohibition of veto power by current members over candidates. These criteria should include measures to identify and make public the process used for committee formation, including how agencies screen members and assess committees for balance.
- Make rosters public after selecting the first round of candidates for membership, and request public comment.
- Publish basic information on each committee member on a public government website (e.g., integrity.gov), including information on qualifications, background, employers, and funding sources for at least the previous five years, along with any conflict of interest waivers granted.
- Instruct agencies that when they allow a federal advisory committee to expire, they should archive the committee’s website and all related documents so that the information is still publicly accessible.
- Appoint committee members as special government employees and vet members for financial conflicts of interest. Committee members should recuse themselves from scientific discussions for which they have a direct conflict of interest, and those recusals should be announced to the public at the start of meetings and be included on meeting notes, reports, and other documents.
- Ensure scientists who have taken public positions on issues or received government funding for scientific work are not a priori excluded from advisory committees.
- Disclose executive branch decisions in response to the pandemic.
The president should publicly disclose all executive branch guidance or interpretations of legal aspects of the pandemic or pandemic response. The White House and Department of Justice must disavow censorship power and commit to not using the president’s purported censorship power to justify distorting or suppressing research important for public health. The president and the attorney general should specifically instruct the Office of Legal Counsel and any relevant agency General Counsel that the executive branch expressly waives any claim of privilege over any records documenting guidance or interpretations of legal aspects of the pandemic or pandemic response, and that no legal office in the executive branch may assert or defend a claim of privilege in such records.
Recommendations for Long-term Action
- Call for review by inspectors general (or the Government Accountability Office) of key agencies leading pandemic response.
The president should take steps to ensure ongoing reviews, in accordance with the Inspector General Act, are continued in the event the president determines to replace inspector general leadership posts.
- Call on the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel to proactively consider potential constitutional or other challenges to restrictions on individuals or operations to combat the pandemic.
The president or attorney general should tailor proposals for responses to best withstand such challenges, and to pass constitutional and other legal muster.
Recommendations for Legislative Action
- Call for the passage of the Scientific Integrity Act and fully and aggressively support its implementation.
The Scientific Integrity Act would ensure scientists can carry out their research—and communicate it with the public—without fear of political pressure or retaliation. It would protect the ability of scientists to share their expertise with reporters, in scientific journals, and at scientific conferences. The president should help ensure scientists can conduct research regardless of whether their findings align with political preferences and publicly communicate their findings and expert opinions.
- Support legislation to restore protections for government scientists, solidify safeguards for whistleblowers, and ensure that work environments across federal agencies support and celebrate scientists’ critical efforts to combat and control COVID-19.
The legislation should codify rules preventing the White House Office of Management and Budget not to interfere with, filter or alter scientific findings.
Appendix 6.1: Rules and Guidance to Rollback The incoming administration should roll back the following rules and guidance that inappropriately restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking or agency scientific work:
- Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science – this is a misleading rule that stipulates that when the Environmental Protection Agency utilizes a scientific study to support public health protections, the raw data supporting the rule (potentially including personal medical data) must be publicly available and the studies must be able to be validated by a separate Environmental Protection Agency review. This wide-ranging proposal would significantly limit the research and data that the Environmental Protection Agency can use to make informed policy decisions under major public health and environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act.
- Fully rescind Science Advisory Board directives that restrict the ability of academic experts to participate on advisory panels. Ensure that expert panels are reconstituted and fully engaged for issues such as air pollution, environmental justice, chemical safety and other public health threats.
- Roll back changes to cost-benefit analysis requirements that down weight or ignore indirect benefits or co-benefits to the public of government actions.
- Rescind policies that minimize or waive reporting monitoring and pollution control requirements for industry. Re-fund environmental and public health enforcement staff and programs.
- End waivers from the National Environmental Policy Act that restrict the ability of the public to access and comment on proposals for oil, gas and construction projects.