Despite their failure to attract a single Republican co-sponsor, Democrats in Congress have long insisted that a bill to strengthen scientific integrity across U.S. government agencies takes a bipartisan stance and is not a veiled attack on the Trump administration’s attitude toward science. That claim of bipartisanship took a big step forward today as the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives tweaked the bill to satisfy key Republicans on the panel.
By a vote of 25 to six, the committee voted to advance the legislation (H.R. 1709), which would require some two dozen federal research agencies to develop and follow clear principles designed to protect scientists and the research they carry out from political influence. Several agencies have adopted such policies following a 2010 executive order from then-President Barack Obama. The bill, if enacted, would transform that presidential directive into a law that would also require training on the topic and direct agencies on how to monitor any alleged violations.
Nobody opposes the idea of allowing federal scientists to pursue important research, publish the results, and discuss their findings at scientific conferences and with the public. But politics enters into the equation when defending scientific integrity is seen as interfering with the legitimate right of any administration to carry out its policies.
The Democrats initially did little to assuage Republican fears that the legislation was a response to actions taken to curtail the use and dissemination of research by President Donald Trump and his appointees at several agencies, notably the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. “Science is under threat in U.S. public policy [and] science-based policy decisions are distorted by political interests,” proclaims the website of the bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY).
Tonko avoided such rhetoric, however, at this morning’s markup of the bill, declaring that “scientific integrity transcends any one party” and noting that he began to craft the bill while Obama was still in office. And in the end, the key compromise that assured passage dealt with a much narrower issue, namely, how agency scientists should interact with the media.
The original bill, which had attracted 226 Democratic co-sponsors and not a single Republican, would have given government scientists the right to say yes to media requests, without prior clearance from agency officials. After conversations with numerous outside groups that had raised concerns, Tonko offered a revised version this morning that removed that direct media access and instead would have required agencies to set guidelines for how scientists may respond to media requests. Those guidelines, the new version added, “shall not delay or impede without scientific merit the communication of scientific or technical findings.”
But that change wasn’t enough for Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK), the top Republican on the panel. He asked the committee to drop the language completely in return for winning Republican support for the bill.
“The initial bill took a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a scalpel,” Lucas said in explaining why he objected to the Democrats’ latest version. “The bill was also prescriptive in that it got into the weeds on how agency scientists manage their media requests.”
Lucas offered an amendment that deleted those provisions, saying it was better to leave it “up to the agencies and administrations to manage their own media policies. … Every administration deserves the opportunity to shape policy and message. That’s why we hold elections. … With the adoption of my amendment, I will support passage of the bill and encourage all my colleagues to do so.”
Lucas kept his word. Once the language was removed, he voted for the bill and persuaded five other Republicans on the panel to side with him. Six Republicans apparently felt that he had been too accommodating, however, and voted against its passage.
Tonko expressed his appreciation to Lucas for meeting him halfway. “I have long believed there should be room for bipartisan action that strengthens these public standards, and I am pleased to say that our Science Committee proved me right today,” he said in a statement immediately after the bill was passed.
Tonko was also noticeably less partisan in describing the ultimate aim of the bill. “I believe that the end result is great respect for our nation’s scientists, whose work will be all the more readily available without any sort of infringement,” he told his colleagues before the vote.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had led a coalition of activist organizations pushing for adoption of the legislation. And Michael Halpern, deputy director of its Center for Science and Democracy in Washington, D.C., says the organization can live with the changes.
“The bill leaves it up to the agency, but it doesn’t create any expectation that the agency will try to control the flow of information,” says Halpern, who testified in favor of the bill during a July hearing by the committee. Halpern also thinks the bipartisan support improves the bill’s prospects in the Senate, where a similar version introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI) is awaiting action by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
“This gives the Senate sponsors more ammunition,” he speculates. “It was easier for Republican senators to sit this out when there was no Republican support for the bill in the House.”
The next step is to win approval from the Democrat-controlled House. Previous versions of the legislation never made it through committee, Halpern notes. “This should be a no-brainer to pass,” he says. “It provides bread-and-butter protections for scientists to work without political inference on issues that affect public health and safety.”