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Research Integrity

US Congress takes up Scientific Integrity Act

Goal is to ensure release of accurate scientific research, data

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
July 22, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 30

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Protecting scientists, their research, and their data and ensuring data availability without government meddling is the aim of legislation recently introduced in the US House of Representatives.

The bill, called the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1709), was introduced in March and has 192 cosponsors. It was the subject of discussion at a July 17 hearing of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology.

Hearing witnesses presented examples of both Democratic- and Republican-led administrations withholding, modifying, or even rewriting scientific studies to fit their policy needs. Several witnesses said restrictive actions by Trump administration departments have grown exponentially.

However, the bill has yet to gain a single Republican sponsor, and it will face an uphill battle particularly in the Republican-controlled Senate.

At the hearing, subcommittee chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) explained that a 2010 White House memorandum laid out basic principles for the development and implementation of scientific integrity policies at all agencies. By 2016, 24 federal agencies had published scientific integrity policies consistent with the intent of the memo, Stevens said.

Nevertheless, a Government Accountability Office study found uneven application and oversight of the policy. For instance, GAO found in a sample of nine departments that five failed to monitor policy compliance.

[The bill] ensures we are relying on facts and increasing evidence around tested hypotheses regarding our most complex and nuanced policy changes.
Haley Stevens, chair of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology, in her opening statement at a July 17 hearing

The proposed act would require federal departments to develop a transparent, internal review process for scientific papers. That review could take no longer than 30 days. The legislation would also allow scientists to present their published research to the media and public without departmental restraints. The adequacy of department-developed policies would be left to committees of the House and Senate to review.

However, the bill lacks a clear enforcement process and adequate protections for whistleblowers, said Michael Halpern with the Union of Concerned Scientists. To end time-consuming multiple internal executive branch reviews, Halpern also called for provisions requiring a scientific paper peer reviewed by one agency be accepted by other agencies as well as the Office of Management and Budget.

Witness at the hearing applauded the legislation. Those witnesses included Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, who had been added to the panel at the request of Republican party members. Pielke noted the bill placed executive branch oversight authority with Congress, which he supported. However, he said, such oversight would likely be opposed by the Trump or any other administration as a limit on its authority.

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