Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) in 2015.

Senate Democrats/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

U.S. Senate bill aims to make sure federal scientists aren’t ‘muzzled’

Congressional Democrats are rallying behind a bill to protect federal scientists from attempts to interfere with scientific discourse and dissemination of research results.

Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) yesterday introduced a bill (S.338) that would codify existing policies at some two dozen federal agencies. Those policies stem from a 2009 executive order from former President Barack Obama that required them to spell out how they would safeguard scientific integrity. The policies have dribbled out over the last 7 years.

Although the topic may seem like motherhood and apple pie to researchers, some actions by President Donald Trump’s transition team and his fledgling administration have raised questions about its commitment to open scientific communication and respect for evidence. As a result, the issue has become a partisan litmus test. Nelson’s bill has 27 Senate co-sponsors, all of them Democrats, and a similar bill is being drafted by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

“Few things are more un-American than censorship, especially when it would keep the public in the dark on vital public health and safety information, such as climate change and sea level rise,” said Nelson, who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, in a statement. “Any attempt to intimidate or muzzle scientists must be stopped.” The bill has been referred to the commerce committee, but Nelson staffers say that its chairman, Senator John Thune (R–SD), has not indicated whether he will hold a hearing on the legislation.

Pro-science lobbyists applaud Nelson’s move. “If ever there was a time that such a bill is needed, it is now,” says Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Goldman says the bill “raises the floor for a minimum standard” across the government while allowing agencies to tailor policies that are consistent with their specific missions and operating procedures.

The legislation is aimed at blocking attempts by political appointees to manipulate or suppress the results of research that could undermine the administration’s position on an issue. It would enshrine in law the idea of transparency, open communication, and protection for whistleblowers in a scientific context. Goldman says her “personal favorite” is a provision giving government scientists the right to review and approve the contents of any press release or other document dealing with their research before it goes out to the public.

The bill would amend a 2007 law governing federal policies on research and science education. Although the authorized spending levels in the law, the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act, expired in 2010, the rest of its science policymaking provisions remain in effect.