Shielding Science: The Scientific Integrity Act and Enforcing Firewalls Between Science and Politics

By Emily J. Berman

During the Trump administration, civil servants, watchdogs, and elected officials repeatedly accused political appointees of censoring, altering, or otherwise interfering with the work of scientists and civil servants at federal scientific agencies. In deliberate contrast to his predecessor, from his first day in office, President Biden has stated his commitment to restoring scientific integrity. But is executive action enough? Should Congress complement these executive actions with legislation? If so, how may Congress best provide firewalls between staff at scientific agencies and those who would improperly hinder their work?

This Note analyzes the historical context of, limits to, and potential for legislative protections for civil servants at scientific agencies, with particular focus on the recent Scientific Integrity Act. This Act, which has been introduced in each of the three prior Congresses, would insulate staff at scientific agencies from certain kinds of improper political interference. To be more effective, however, a future version of the Act should be revised to include stronger enforcement provisions.

To explore the need for and promise of the Scientific Integrity Act, this Note first places the Act in its historical context. This Note then explores limits to other existing protections. Finally, this Note examines the Act itself, arguing that the Act includes key protective provisions but that it will fail to achieve its full purpose unless it adds stronger enforcement mechanisms. These proposed tools would empower relevant officials to better investigate accusations against high-level political officials and create possible consequences for those who violate the Act.

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