A survey of thousands of US federal scientists across sixteen agencies found that half thought that it had become more difficult for their agencies to make science-based decisions because of the involvement of political appointees. The study was released in August 2018, but the new analysis specifically focuses on the five agencies with higher survey response rates.

Those agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of the Interior (DOI) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – identified ‘influence of political appointees’ and ‘absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise’ as major barriers to science-based decisions made at their agency. These problems were most pronounced at the EPA, with about 60% of the respondents from that agency citing ‘influence of political appointees’ and 33% citing ‘absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise’ as significant barriers.

The survey results, gathered by researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Iowa State University, also revealed that some federal scientists do not perceive their agency’s leadership as trustworthy. For example, 83% of respondents at the EPA and 58% of respondents at the DOI agreed or strongly agreed that consideration of political interests hindered their agency’s ability to make science-based decisions. Meanwhile, 48% of respondents at the CDC, 32% of respondents at the FDA and 42% of respondents at the NOAA concurred with this statement. Similar results were found with respect to levels of consideration of business interests, with 75% of respondents from the EPA, 46% of respondents at the DOI, 36% of respondents at FDA, and 38% at NOAA indicating that these interests served as a barrier to science-based work.

The survey results also suggest that some of these agency scientists’ worries foreshadowed the Covid-19 crisis. ‘We were looking back to the open-ended responses and noticed quotes from folks at the CDC saying that they were very concerned about Trump administration cuts to global health and pandemic preparedness programmes in 2013,’ study co-author and UCS research scientists Jacob Carter tells Chemistry World. ‘These scientists knew the trouble that would happen and were talking about this well before Covid-19 hit.’

One CDC respondent stated in their 2018 open-ended survey response: ‘Talk of defunding global health initiatives has caused my division to start terminating research collaborations with international laboratories that function as infectious disease surveillance sites in Africa and Asia.’ Another CDC respondent echoed similar budget concerns, saying: ‘Proposed funding cuts limits our [agency’s] capacity for responding to infectious disease overseas and domestically.’

Christine Todd Whitman, who ran the EPA under former President George W Bush, says she is unsurprised by the survey findings. ‘While all administrations put their policy perspectives on science-based decisions, they don’t dismiss or diminish the importance of that science or put politics ahead of science-based policy,’ she says. ‘They also don’t fire or move scientists who report outcomes and studies with which the administrations disagrees.’

Neal Lane, a physicist who served as science adviser to former president Bill Clinton and previously as director of the US National Science Foundation, says there is a trade-off to having science agencies embedded in cabinet level departments that are led by political allies of the president. In principal, Lane says this places science closer to its use, for example in regulations, and means greater access to the president, but he warns that it also can be dangerous. ‘If the department is led by someone who doesn’t know much about science and/or has an anti-science, or anti-government or anti-regulation bias, integrity of science-based policy decision making breaks down,’ he says.