How Trump Can Depoliticize Federally Funded Science

David Lewis Research Director, Focus For Health Foundation
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By pledging to “drain the swamp” in Washington, President Trump has thrown down the gauntlet to a host of vested interests that have cynically, and successfully, used the federal government to feather their nests and forward their agendas.  Among the casualties is scientific research, which has been systematically undermined by the upper echelons of the federal bureaucracy.

The Senior Executive Service (SES), which is composed of top civil service employees, links Presidential appointees to the rest of the federal workforce. When it comes to politics controlling science, the SES is where the rubber meets the road. Its effects on science can last for generations.

Currently, the SES is keeping our federal agencies running under the guidance of beachhead teams assembled by Trump’s transition staff. This arrangement will continue until all top-level positions within the federal government are appointed, and those requiring Senate approvals are confirmed. With the SES at the helm, federal agencies can continue to function.

Unfortunately, the politicization of important areas of science by the SES at the behest of previous presidents cannot be reversed. At least not until President Trump appoints leading scientists who understand these problems, and are able to change the course of federally supported scientific research. Assuming that will eventually happen, the new administration will be faced with almost insurmountable obstacles.

Over a half-century ago, President Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address: “The free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. … The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever-present and is gravely to be regarded.”

Ike got it exactly right. At science-based federal institutions, SES employees have a long history of violating scientific ethics and federal laws by creating whatever science they need to support their institutions’ policies. They selectively issue federal grants and cooperative agreements to scientists who share their politics and goals at academic institutions. They also require that scientific articles prepared by career federal scientists be reviewed for policy implications. Any data or conclusions with negative implications are removed.

In addition to enforcing political correctness in the scientific literature, Professor Robert Kuehn of the University of Alabama reported in American Journal of Law & Medicine that administrators within federal agencies and academic institutions receiving federal funding often use false allegations of scientific and ethical misconduct to discredit scientists who question government policies.

Federal regulations, guidelines, and policies dealing with science rest upon the consensus of the peer-reviewed scientific literature. And, based on the Supreme Court ruling in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, so do federal courts endowed with the power to invalidate them.

Over the past several decades, massive amounts of federal funding have gone toward publishing whole bodies of peer-reviewed scientific literature solely to support the goals and actions of presidential administrations, and tip federal courts in their favor.

Under the Federal Grants and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977, it’s a crime to use federal grants and cooperative agreements to directly benefit the government. The Act, however, is widely ignored by federal agencies and academic institutions.

During the first Clinton administration, for example, an internal memo from EPA headquarters stated that the express purpose of a large cooperative agreement used to fund research at academic institutions across the United States was to “support the science and substance” of one of its regulations, and “overcome misinformation spread by opponents.”

SES employees, and scientists within government and academia who do their bidding, will defend whatever research they have published for the remainder of their careers. Unless drastic measures are taken to correct this problem, the compendium of politicized, federally supported research published in the scientific literature will remain in force in perpetuity.

A good first step toward correcting politicized, federally funded scientific research is to force federal agencies and institutions to retract any research they conducted in violation of the FGCA Act and published in the scientific literature.

To this end, President Trump should order all federal offices of inspectors general at federal agencies funding scientific research to review current and past internal documents related to federal grants and cooperative agreements. Scientific articles in which these instruments were illegally used to directly support federal regulations, guidelines and policies must be formally retracted, and federal employees who committed the violations held accountable.

David Lewis, Ph. D., is a scientist who worked for EPA and is now research director for the Focus for Health Foundation in Watchung, NJ.