Jan 13, 2022 - Science

White House scientific integrity panel draws its own scrutiny

Illustration of a microscope examining a stack of papers
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden administration's push to bolster scientific integrity policies across federal agencies yielded its first report this week, but a co-chair of the report's panel is facing her own questions from the scientific community about a recent research integrity ethics breach.

Why it matters: The report could help address political interference or other methods of undermining science used to draw public health, environmental and technology policies.

Key takeaways: The first report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy calls for strengthening existing agency policies that protect federal science from suppression, manipulation and influence, including from politicians.

  • It also recommends creating an interagency body to implement the policies across the board and help sort out political interference — especially by senior-level officials who can be insulated from their own agencies.
  • The authors outlined a need for policies to cover citizen science as well as AI and other emerging technologies.
  • The report explicitly doesn't define scientific integrity, but it suggests that a standard definition for the federal government could be useful and outlines how it could encompass research integrity.

"It is a great first step that lays the groundwork for bolstering scientific integrity," says Jacob Carter, who researches scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He highlighted the authors' call to train all employees, contractors, grantees and political appointees — not just scientists.

  • But the report doesn't specify how violators should be held accountable and how those consequences would be enforced, Carter says.

The panel is facing one uncomfortable scientific integrity issue of its own. A co-chair of the White House's Scientific Integrity Task Force, noted marine scientist Jane Lubchenco, is facing criticism for her role in a research paper retracted last year.

  • Before she took up her current post as OSTP's first-ever deputy director of climate and environment, Lubchenco edited a research paper published in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS.
  • The paper on marine protected areas was retracted from the journal in October 2021 because the data underlying the analysis was not the most up to date and for violating conflict of interest policies.
  • Lubchenco has a personal relationship with one of the authors (her brother-in-law) and collaborated with the authors on related research, "both of which are disallowed" by the journal's editorial policies, PNAS stated in its retraction statement.

What they're saying: Researchers have criticized the research and pointed out the significance of the retraction while noting that Lubchenco is currently in a White House role. Roger Pielke Jr., a science policy researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, went so far as to write that her task force leadership should be reconsidered.

  • Violations happen, and this one isn't "earth-shattering," he told Axios.
  • But Lubchenco's role in leading the Biden administration's efforts on scientific integrity sends the message that they "don’t expect to be held accountable on this."
  • "The issues that PNAS had with peer review of that paper and her role in it are explicitly singled out as matters of scientific integrity in this report," Pielke said.
  • An OSTP official tells Axios Lubchenco agreed the paper should be retracted. "But this task force report ... clearly addresses situations where there’s a close personal or professional relationship with a peer reviewer. So there’s no evidence that Jane’s work with the task force resulted in any pulled punch on the topic.”

The backstory: The Bush and Obama administrations implemented some guidelines on scientific integrity policies, but many agencies still lack them and they vary across the agencies.

  • The Trump administration ran roughshod over the integrity policies that were in place. For example, Trump famously altered, using a black Sharpie, a forecast map of the path of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, inaccurately saying it threatened the state of Alabama.
  • When President Biden took office last year, he issued a memorandum calling for a task force to review scientific integrity policies across federal agencies and to make recommendations to strengthen the policies.

What to watch: Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) introduced a scientific integrity bill in Congress last year. The bill, which has 178 co-sponsors (all but one of whom are Democrats), calls for standardizing policies across agencies.

  • Supporters of the legislation, including Pielke, say it is the most effective way to protect federal science and scientists from political interference.
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