US sets new research ethics rules for scientists

Biden team aims to block Trump-era political interference in research findings, although its top adviser faces her own such questions

January 11, 2022
White House
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The Biden administration is outlining new scientific integrity rules for federal research grant funding designed largely to prevent Trump-era political interference in policy-relevant discoveries and assessments – even as it struggles with an alleged violation in its own academic ranks.

The new rules derive from a government-wide task force that worked with experts from higher education and beyond, and include steps to encourage greater public sharing of research and to impose clearer repercussions for ethical violations.

“A robust democracy requires a common wellspring of reliable information,” two top White House science advisers, Alondra Nelson and Jane Lubchenco, write in a Science magazine article outlining the guidelines, which now face formal implementation by federal grant agencies.

The two advisers, both part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, begin by listing several major violations of scientific integrity during the Trump administration. They then describe their new principles as including encouraging federally funded scientists to speak publicly about their work, routinely involving scientists in policymaking processes, insisting that regulatory actions are based on peer-reviewed science, and ensuring that top science-related federal positions are filled by appropriately qualified candidates.

A coalition of top US university groups backed the year-long process that led to the guidelines. “Public trust in federal science has been shaken by anti-science rhetoric, lack of transparency, and questions about the integrity of science conducted and supported by the federal government,” said the groups, which included the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

The White House, however, made the announcement as Professor Lubchenco – a former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and professor of marine biology at Oregon State University – faced her own questions on scientific integrity.

In October The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences retracted an article edited by Professor Lubchenco after complaints about its accuracy led the journal to realise that she is the sister-in-law, frequent collaborator and former doctoral adviser to one of paper’s two authors, Steven Gaines, dean of the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Without acknowledging those personal ties, she also used the disputed findings of the paper – that expanding ocean fishing bans by an additional 5 per cent would increase fish production by 20 per cent – in 2020 congressional testimony advocating increased protections for marine ecosystems.

Professor Gaines and his co-author acknowledged the questions about their data in their PNAS retraction note, although the journal said the conflict-of-interest concerns involving Professor Lubchenco were sufficient by themselves to warrant the paper’s removal.

The White House did not respond to questions about the matter.

The US government spends tens of billions of dollars a year financing scientific research at US universities, and faces chronic struggles with reliability. A major study of the problem, concluded last year by the independent Center for Open Science, based in Virginia, affirmed that top-rated cancer researchers rarely share their data and that their published conclusions typically fail to replicate.

Integrity concerns were compounded during the Trump administration, which evicted numerous scientific experts from key government positions and advisory panels, either leaving the posts vacant or filling them with officials lacking relevant expertise.

The university groups advising the White House raised particular concern over a Republican strategy of rejecting the use of scientific findings in policymaking by setting unreasonably tough standards for accepting data. One long-fought battle involved the attempted rejection of federal air pollution regulations, which were based on a comprehensive study of the problem by Harvard University scientists, on the grounds that the Harvard researchers wouldn’t publicly release the personal details of thousands of individual study participants.

Preventing that kind of abuse “is exactly why the proposed policies are needed”, the university groups said in encouraging the federal process outlined by Professor Nelson and Professor Lubchenco.

The two White House advisers did not state a deadline for final implementation. The Center for Open Science and other advocates of scientific integrity have complained that the federal government, throughout administrations of both parties, has been slow to fully implement previous expert recommendations, such as requiring that scientists clearly describe their study objectives ahead of their investigative work to guard against a tendency to distort outcomes by shaping initial objectives to fit the eventual data.

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