Biden's National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy

Biden's National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

New Biden Directive Shields Federal Scientists From Political Interference

President also calls on agencies to overhaul their vehicle fleet.

President Biden signed a measure on Wednesday that seeks to ensure career federal employees can conduct scientific work without interference. It was one of a series of directives for federal agencies aimed at protecting the quality of research and boosting climate resiliency.

Biden signed the Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, which will task each agency with designating a senior career employee as its scientific integrity officer. That person will oversee and improve policies that shield employees from political interference and that ensure relevant programs follow science-based approaches. A task force will review the scientific integrity policies at every agency. 

“We will protect our world-class scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research and speak freely and directly to me, the vice president and the American people,” Biden said. 

Scientific groups praised Biden’s memo, saying the Trump administration necessitated the need for the directive as it frequently meddled in the work of career scientists. Employees at agencies like NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration previously told Government Executive they faced unprecedented interferencefrom political leadership under President Trump, including rollbacks of previous work and tampering with research. Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. The issue was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic after repeated reports of political appointees altering or improperly influencing scientific and medical findings. High-profile officials such as National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the Trump administration's  coronavirus response coordinator, have said in the days since Biden’s inauguration that their scientific work was frequently disrupted by Trump and his aides. 

President Obama first issued a memorandum on scientific integrity in 2009, but critics have since said the directive did not go far enough and was inconsistently implemented. Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy said Obama’s policy was written with an assumption that agencies would place some value in maintaining scientific standards and integrity, but the Trump administration proved that would not always be the case. She praised Biden’s memo for its review of existing integrity policies—noting the Trump era has taught agencies and observers a lot about what is and is not working—and for more formally putting someone in charge of overseeing those policies at every agency in government. 

“I’m not popping the champagne yet,” Goldman said, “but it’s a welcome push out of the gate to put things in motion.” She added it is “important to have a career person empowered to lead on these issues.” 

Scientific information, data and evidence are central to improving policies and effective governing, the White House said in a fact sheet on the memo, noting career employees must be free to do their work. 

“Improper political interference in the scientific process, with the work of scientists, and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the nation, contributes to systemic inequities and injustices, and violates the public trust,” the White House said. 

Gina McCarthy, the White House’s national climate advisor, said the memo would help earn back that public trust. 

“Today is a very good day for science,” McCarthy said. 

Lawmakers had previously sought to codify and expand scientific integrity standards across government, but the measures never received a vote on either floor despite bipartisan support. The measure would have provided specifics on what the integrity policies should look like, including allowing career scientists to discuss their work with the public and media, final review of their research to correct inaccuracies and opportunities for a hearing and appeal if they felt they had faced unfair treatment or interference. 

A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists survey found many federal employees in scientific jobs were feeling stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees, with half of scientists surveyed saying that political considerations were hindering agencies’ ability to make science-based decisions.

Also on Wednesday, Biden signed a directive for the federal government to shift its fleet toward domestically manufactured zero-emission vehicles. Biden this week suggested the entire federal fleet would be replaced with electric vehicles. As of 2019, the fleet consisted of about 650,000 vehicles that consumed nearly 400 million gallons of gasoline annually.  

“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we're going to replace with clean, electric vehicles made right here in America by American workers, creating millions of jobs—a million autoworker jobs in clean energy—and vehicles that are net-zero emissions,” Biden said.