by Paul Doss – Past Chair, GSA Geology and Public Policy Committee

The Scientific Integrity Act (S.338) was introduced to the 115th Congress by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), and has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation with 29 cosponsors, all Democrats.  The basis of the bill is that independent and impartial science must inform and guide the development of sound public policy. Further, the bill clearly states that the public must be able to trust the science and scientific processes that inform public policy, that all aspects of science, including its communication, should be free from political, ideological, or financial influence, and that the reliable conduct and communication of publicly funded science is critical. This bill does not promote position advocacy, but simply confirms that publicly funded science be sound in its role as guidance for policy development.

Scientific integrity has been on the minds of many, in and out of the scientific community, on and off of Capitol Hill.  “Pseudoscience” is now a normal word, often heard in relation to the evolution-intelligent design “debate,” or the climate change “debate.” While science is not without its passionate supporters, and enthusiastic communicators (I can’t get the image of Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus out of my head), scientists know that you just don’t mess with the scientific method.  That’s what we depend upon, that’s our “rock.” Our non-scientist friends, colleagues, land managers, policy drafters, and decision makers must know that too.

S.338 explicitly states that the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Federal Agency heads will a) maximize the communication and open exchange of data and findings by a scientist using federal funds, and b) prevent the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of the data or findings.  Further, the bill directs the heads of all federal agencies that fund scientific research to develop policies and procedures to assure that “scientific conclusions and personnel actions regarding scientists are not made based on political considerations; the selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the Federal agency are based primarily on the candidate’s expertise, scientific credentials, experience, and integrity;  scientists adhere to the highest ethical standards of honesty and professionalism in conducting their research and disseminating their findings.”

Several other elements of S.338 are directed at maintaining and enhancing the integrity of science conducted by federal agencies or conducted with public funds. You can read the current version of the bill here.

With only Democratic sponsorship, the bill’s fate is uncertain. The Geology and Public Policy Committee is working on a formal Scientific Freedom statement for the Geological Society of America. The Society’s other position statements can be found here. Keep your eyes open and tuned to the Public Policy area of GSA’s website for further developments.

UPDATED: On March 2, a companion bill was introduced by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee members Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), along with Representatives Niki Tsongas (D-MA) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). The bill was introduced with a total of 77 original cosponsors, all Democrats.