Since 2007, Congress and multiple administrations have taken actions to help ensure that federal science agencies have scientific integrity policies and procedures in place that, among other things, protect against the suppression or alteration of scientific findings for political purposes.
However, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says four agencies do not have procedures that define political interference in scientific decision-making or describe how it should be reported and addressed. These agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been various allegations of political interference affecting scientific decisions at several HHS offices and agencies. For example, in May 2020, a senior official from ASPR claimed HHS retaliated against him for disclosing, among other things, concerns about inappropriate political interference to make chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine available to the public as treatments for COVID-19. Additionally, in July 2021, for example, several members of Congress criticized CDC for allegedly revising its face mask guidance for political purposes.
The four selected agencies did not identify any formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in scientific decision-making from 2010 through 2021, and GAO believes that the absence of specific procedures may explain why. Through semi-structured interviews and a confidential hotline, employees at CDC, FDA, and NIH told GAO they observed incidents that they perceived to be political interference but did not report them for various reasons. These reasons included fearing retaliation, being unsure how to report issues, and believing agency leaders were already aware.
Agency officials told GAO that potential political interference in scientific decision-making may be reported and addressed internally on a case-by-case basis or through existing internal scientific integrity procedures intended for other purposes.
A few respondents from CDC and FDA told GAO that they felt that the potential political interference they observed resulted in the alteration or suppression of scientific findings. Some of these respondents believed that this potential political interference may have resulted in the politically motivated alteration of public health guidance or delayed publication of COVID-19-related scientific findings.
GAO also found that the four agencies—CDC, FDA, NIH, and ASPR—train staff on some scientific integrity-related topics, such as public health ethics, but only NIH includes information on political interference in scientific decision-making as part of its scientific integrity training. CDC officials agreed that including information on political interference could help strengthen the agency’s scientific integrity training. In December 2021, CDC officials stated that the agency plans to align its scientific integrity trainings with any recommendations made by Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) interagency task force.
The government watchdog recommends that procedures for reporting and addressing potential political interference in scientific decision-making are developed and documented, including adding a definition of political interference. In addition, GAO is calling for improved training so that employees and contractors performing scientific activities are aware of when and how to report allegations of political interference in scientific decision-making.
HHS concurred with the recommendations and stated that it has formed a working group to develop updates to scientific integrity policy. HHS stated it intends to complete and submit its updated policy to OSTP by July 2022.