Yesterday, US President Joe Biden signed three executive orders. The order with the widest scope was focused on climate policy, and it received the most attention. But the other two, while more narrowly focused, may also have a profound impact because they seek to reorient the entire federal government’s approach to science itself. That includes both protecting scientists from political interference and ensuring that government decisions are based on the evidence produced by science as often as possible.
PCAST is back
One of the two executive orders officially starts off the Biden administration’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST. The organization is typically set up by an executive order and runs for two years before being renewed by a second. It dates back to the George H.W. Bush administration and has a broad remit to identify the current consensus in relevant fields of science and technology as well as to advise the entire executive branch regarding them.
The importance of PCAST isn’t just limited to science agencies; for example, an Obama-era council issued a report on forensic science that was relevant to everything from research-funding bodies to federal law enforcement agents.
The two-year term of PCAST ensures that each president would typically get the chance to establish their own shortly after inauguration. But President Donald Trump took nearly three years to name his first Council, meaning that it was still technically in place until yesterday, when Biden’s new order dissolved it. The quick action is likely to be indicative that the administration plans on leveraging the council’s advice. Biden has already named Nobel Laureate and Caltech chemist Frances Arnold and MIT planetary scientist Maria Zuber as PCAST co-chairs.
And it will be listened to
Having good science advice is not especially useful if it doesn’t get heard. Which is why an accompanying memorandum, entitled Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, is a critical accompaniment to the formation of PCAST. The memo states a proposition that really shouldn’t be controversial but seemingly has been: “science, facts, and evidence are vital to addressing policy and programmatic issues across the Federal Government.”
The memorandum establishes President Biden’s policy regarding the use of evidence in government decision-making. The relationship between science and policy should be a two-way conversation. Science isn’t a body of facts that should be treated as the final word; it’s a collection of conclusions in which we have varying degrees of confidence. And policies necessarily involve compromises that may require input from scientists on how best to balance competing needs.
But there have been many instances—most notably in the pandemic response—when scientists were prevented from communicating accurate information to the public or when scientific conclusions were distorted in order to enable them to support a predetermined policy. “Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists or other scientists who support the work of the Federal Government and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the Nation, contributes to systemic inequities and injustices, and violates the trust that the public places in government to best serve its collective interests,” the memorandum argues.
The memorandum then goes on to say that the Office of Science and Technology Policy—a White House office that will be headed by geneticist Eric Lander—will be responsible for ensuring that the federal government follows scientific integrity policies. These policies ban political interference and prevent the “suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings.” The National Science and Technology Council, a cabinet-level body, is charged with forming a task force for evaluating scientific-integrity policies in all agencies of the federal government.
The evaluation will include consideration of policies regarding instances when federal scientists and contractors interact directly with the public through news and social media. The task force will also identify means of handling areas of genuine scientific agreement (as opposed to fake disagreements, like those regarding the existence of climate change). Policies will be updated as needed due to recent advances in fields (such as artificial intelligence) and new methods (such as citizen science).
What to expect
When the report is done, every federal agency will be expected to name a chief science officer who will be responsible for ensuring that the agency follows the guidelines developed by the task force. Agencies will also be expected to provide annual reporting on any instances when there are complaints that the guidelines aren’t being followed and the outcome of any investigations into them.
The agencies will also be expected to apply evidence-based evaluations of their own activities. “Agencies’ evidence-building plans and annual evaluation plans shall include a broad set of methodological approaches for the evidence-based and iterative development and the equitable delivery of policies, programs, and agency operations,” the memorandum advises. These should include everything from analysis of data we already gather to evaluations of pilot projects and randomized control trials. In short, Biden wants agencies to have ways of determining whether what they’re doing is effective.
Overall, many agencies probably have polices that already handle some of these issues. But this executive order represents a significant effort to ensure that those policies are up to date and consistent across agencies. While the order might not fully restore “trust in government,” it could certainly repair some of the damage caused by the government’s recent attempt to tailor aspects of the pandemic response according to its political needs.