Agencies Must Uphold Scientific Integrity, Data Access, Say Experts

Amy Luers of the Skoll Global Threats Fund cited a recent survey showing the public is just as likely to trust their peers as experts to highlight the challenges facing scientists in defending scientific findings. | Mark F. Jones/CJVISIONS.com

At a time when scientific findings are not trusted by the public, or popular with some policymakers, it is essential for federal agencies to remain vigilant against internal and external pressures to suppress or impede the use of science, experts said.

Researchers within and outside agencies can protect science by working to ensure the free flow of information to other researchers and the public. And, they can also ensure their work remains respected and relevant by talking with communities to decide which research questions to ask and learn what types of answers are needed, scientists and science advocates said at the 2017 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum held 28-29 March in Washington.

In the “post-truth” world, the role of science is changing, said Amy Luers, director of climate change at the Skoll Global Threats Fund, during a panel on “The Role of Scientists in Producing and Defending Evidence.” An annual global survey of trust of found that people’s trust in institutions, including government, business, media and nongovernmental organizations has declined overall. And, people are just as likely to trust their peers as experts, or those who sound like experts.

Other research has also found that no matter how good the evidence is, people will reject it if it does not fit into their mind’s coherent story about the world. Scientists need to recognize that information they provide can only convince those open to being convinced and inform those open to being informed, she said. As a result, “the role of science and evidence is still central, but it’s changing,” Luers said.

As part of ensuring the public could trust and access the science produced at federal agencies, the Obama administration directed each of the 24 federal agencies that use or produce science to create a scientific integrity policy. The process was long, but thorough, said Kei Koizumi, a AAAS visiting scholar in science policy who helped draft the memorandum that provided guidance to the agencies on creating scientific integrity policies while working in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration. Koizumi led a panel on “Implementing Scientific Integrity Policies in Federal Agencies.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s policy, for example, is designed to ensure “public trust in agency science, transparent scientific processes and open communication of that science, scientific conclusions that are not influenced by their policy implications, and scientists who are able to do their best work,” said Francesca Grifo, an EPA scientific integrity official. Grifo investigates and helps resolve allegations of lapses in scientific integrity, the most common issues related to suppressing, altering, or impeding the timely release of scientific information, she said.

Now, with a new administration that has a different attitude toward science and regulatory agencies, Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists has new concerns. Some agencies are no longer updating blogs about their activities since President Donald Trump took office. And Trump’s fiscal 2018 discretionary budget proposal, which would slash agency funding, would “gut” agency science, he said.

“There’s no information to censor if you don’t collect it,” Halpern said, and “it’s a lot easier to kill an agency or program when you don’t know what it does.” But the public has a greater expectation of openness now, he said. For instance, when people saw Canadian science data being taken off websites and agency libraries being closed under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration, he said, people spoke up, and now scientists in the United States are downloading data and putting it online elsewhere.

“Fifteen years ago, scientific integrity was what you did with your data, what you did with your results. It’s expanded greatly to encompass a lot of issues related to the use and misuse of science in policymaking,” Halpern said.

Finally, researchers can remain relevant and trusted by engaging directly with communities to ask what research questions they would like investigated and what answers they need, said Kristin Dow, professor of geography at the University of South Carolina and a fellow of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science during the “Defending Science” panel.

“We don’t have to leave our research like a bag of oranges on the loading dock and hope someone comes by and picks it up. We can be more of a bridge and help communities,” Dow said.  

[Associated image: Mark F. Jones/CJVISIONS.com]