Scientific Integrity

In this blog post, let’s discuss scientific integrity–specifically, efforts to keep scientific research as independent as possible from political, corporate, or other influence. Such influences are important for a variety of policies including energy policy (especially related to climate change), health and drugs, food and nutrition, education, etc., when particular companies or organizations have a financial or other stake in the outcome. For example, fossil fuel companies support the “denial industry“, claiming that the science of global warming is inconclusive, agribusinesses promote genetically modified crops, and drug companies promote antidepressant and ADHD drugs, while funding scientific research that often supports their campaigns.

Science informs political officials and agencies when they’re designing regulations for air and water pollution, when determining whether a particular drug is safe and efficacious, when assessing whether particular foods or products are safe for consumers, etc. In my opinion, science can rarely be completely “objective” and “unbiased”; scientists are humans, after all, and they have their own motivations and considerations that can affect their work. The important thing, however, is to reduce political and commercial influence as much as possible so that scientists can do their research and then present their results as clearly and accurately as possible.

In all fields of science, scientists to some extent are affected by funding constraints and grant agencies. These constraints can affect exactly what is studied, how it is researched, and how the results are presented in the media and to the public. Nonetheless, scientific research is particularly important–and susceptible to more outside influences–when it is related to public policy, including the topics above. In addition, politically-related work in the social sciences, especially economics, can be contentious as well.

In the US under the Bush administration, many felt that scientists were under attack. For example, a “revolving door” appeared to be in place when former lobbyists and spokespeople for industries later worked at agencies having the task of regulating their former industries; in particular cases, they appeared to write or advocate for policy shifts that benefited these industries. In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report, “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science”, claiming that the White House censors and suppresses reports by its own scientists, stacks advisory committees, and disbands government panels. There later appeared to be political influence on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on researchers working on embryonic stem cells, on sex education (because of arguments about the effectiveness of abstinence-based programs), and on the teaching of biological evolution.

Although the Obama administration appears to have more respect for science and scientists (see this 2013 UCS report), the politicization of some scientific work continues. The assessment of the social and environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline may be such an example. The final environmental impact statement, which was released by the State Department yesterday, appears to endorse the pipeline, but the interpretation is unclear (see this coverage in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American blog).

In any case, these contentious situations will be easier when government agencies have explicit policies for scientific integrity and when the affiliations and employment histories of officials are transparent. It’s also important to keep in mind that the struggle for independent and transparent science never ends. Scientists should always try to be as clear as possible about their views or beliefs when they are relevant to their work (see this NYT blog for useful advice), and results and data should be made publicly available whenever possible.

4 thoughts on “Scientific Integrity

  1. I fully agree with the points on scientific integrity. However: Much of science is funded publicly, and there is a lot less public money than ideas to fund. Doesn’t this imply that political choices are involved by necessity in allocating public money to science? How much and what kind of “political influence” would be acceptable? What would be the ideal way to decide whether more money should go towards a Mars mission, a Moon mission, Cancer research, carbon sequestration, or, or, or … ?

    • That’s a good point, and those are tough questions. I agree, some necessarily political choices will have to be made when deciding which projects to fund. My feeling is that there should be as much transparency as possible in the process and about the people making the decisions, including when possible information about their current or recent affiliations. There should also be some separation between government agencies and lobbyists, or at least there should be more information about their relations, in order to reduce conflicts of interest. I also don’t know much about media policies and rules, but it seems that officials and scientists should be able to speak publicly about their views, and when possible, there should be time for a public comment period. But how does one minimize political and commercial influences on decisions about extremely controversial and/or expensive programs (such as carbon sequestration or a Mars mission)? I’m not sure, but I think striving for transparency is the first step.

  2. Pingback: Paradigm Shifts? | Science Political

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