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Good practices

American government details guidelines for preventing political interference in federal agencies

Two years after ordering a review of scientific integrity policies at all of the USA’s federal agencies, President Joe Biden’s administration released a set of guidelines on preventing political interference in technical decisions. The aim is to avoid a repetition of interferences that occurred during the Trump administration at agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when researchers were prevented from disclosing evidence-based assessments not in line with the government’s opinions and agenda.

The 66-page document includes an integrity policy template to be adopted by government agencies, as well as an extensive list of tools and metrics to help them assess and improve their practices. As part of the new plan, agency heads must reinforce engagement by leadership, promote free and transparent flow of scientific information, and create channels that protect employees accused of violations and inappropriate interference.

The document also contains a statute for a National Science and Technology Council subcommittee that will be responsible for monitoring policy application and guiding the appointment and operations of scientific integrity officers, in charge of overseeing proper use of science in the internal processes of each agency. According to the new rules, these officers must create mechanisms that allow agency employees to freely express their analyses. Employees are encouraged to express their opinions in writing when they disagree with information, interpretations, or conclusions linked to a political decision. If disagreements are not resolved internally, they may be subject to a peer-review process by other specialists, with the results publicly disclosed.

The plan also includes the creation of a panel composed of integrity officers from various agencies and White House officials with the authority to review policies and investigate possible misconduct. “This is a great achievement for federal science, but there is always room for improvement,” Jacob Carter, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an advocacy group for evidence-based policies based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Nature magazine. Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the New York–based Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, points out that the rules could easily be revoked and need to be approved by US Congress and incorporated into existing legislation to fully prevent political interference in the future.