Apr 21, 2022 - Health

Political interference underreported at federal health agencies, watchdog says

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

CDC, FDA and NIH employees didn't report what they viewed as political interference in their work during and before the pandemic because they feared retaliation, according to a new federal audit.

The big picture: Allegations of political interference affecting mask-wearing guidelines and other scientific decisions during the Trump administration raised concern about scientific integrity policies.

  • That led the Government Accountability Office to review oversight within HHS.

What they're saying: Employees at the agencies reviewed said they observed incidents they perceived as political meddling but didn't report them, in part out of fear and in part because they didn't know how, GAO found.

  • Some of the interference was believed to have led to the alteration of public health guidance and delayed publication of COVID-19 scientific findings.
  • No formal reports of potential political interference were logged at the federal health agencies in question from 2010 through 2021, GAO said, likely due to a lack of guidance.

Only NIH includes information on political interference in scientific decision-making in its scientific integrity training.

Next steps: GAO made seven recommendations, mostly surrounding enhanced training and reporting.

  • HHS said it's formed a working group with representatives of the relevant agencies to update scientific integrity policies.
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