Sometimes, you just can't 'trust the science.' Here's why | Opinion

Sometimes, you just can't 'trust the science.' Here's why | Opinion

“Trust the Science,” the mantra of COVID-19 policy, makes sense. But not when the science is corrupted by political interference.

I like to peruse reports by the Government Accountability Office because they often uncover buried truths about government operations. A new report by the congressional watchdog reveals how four federal agencies — the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and Human Services— shut their eyes to political interference in their scientific reports and decision-making.

If you ever wondered why the FDA ignored its independent advisory committee in approving an ineffective drug for Alzheimer’s, or how the CDC could withhold COVID-19 data from Congress and the American people because it “might be misinterpreted,” a GAO report on scientific integrity suggests these examples are not anomalies but reflect systemic blindness to political interference.

The GAO typically waters down their reports to satisfy the Republicans and Democrats on the Congressional committees that request them. This one is no exception as it carries a title designed to avoid media attention, despite its shocking implications for the people’s trust:

 

HHS [Health and Human Services] Agencies Need to Develop Procedures and Train Staff on Reporting and Addressing Political Interference.”

The headline should have read, “Federal Agencies Still Have No Procedures to Report and Address Political Interference.”

Threats to scientific integrity were identified by Congress and multiple administrations 15 years ago, and they ordered policies to “protect against the suppression or alteration of scientific findings for political purposes.”

 

However, the latest GAO study finds, “The absence of specific procedures may explain why the four selected agencies did not identify any formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in scientific decision-making from 2010 through 2021. 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.”

Not one allegation of political interference in 11 years? Some of the reasons cited by government employees for not reporting political interference “included fearing retaliation, being unsure how to report issues, and believing agency leaders were already aware.”

The GAO report says that none of the four agencies even has a working definition of “political interference,” not to mention a procedure for reporting it.

“Without procedures for reporting and addressing potential political interference in scientific decision-making, including a definition of political interference in scientific decision-making, the selected agencies will not be able to ensure that (1) employees and contractors have a clear understanding of how to identify and report potential instances of political interference in scientific decision-making, (2) potential instances of political interference in scientific decision-making are investigated consistently, or (3) confirmed instances are appropriately addressed.

The report goes on to make seven recommendations to safeguard scientific integrity, among them whistleblower protections for employees who report instances of political interference to reduce fear of retaliation.

Until the U.S. implements policies to eliminate political interference, “Trust the Science,” might be an empty promise.