How Is President Biden Doing on Science and Democracy ?

Tracking Progress on Science in Decisionmaking Under the Biden Administration

Published Apr 28, 2021

President Biden speaking at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, MD, flanked by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci
The White House/Flickr
Table of Contents

The Biden administration faces a monumental task. After years of assault on federal science and democratic institutions, the administration must rebuild and strengthen federal science, protect democracy, and address disparities in who benefits from the government’s use of science.

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists created a roadmap for how the Biden administration can make good on these duties. Below, we outline the administration’s progress in its first 100 days.

This list includes executive orders, memos, or official proclamations from the president’s office; policy actions from the agencies of the Executive Office of the President; and other notable, high-level actions at federal science agencies. This list does not include all agency-level policy, nor does it include the myriad efforts by state, local, tribal, and community leadership to protect science for the public good.

Legend

Green: Excellent progress toward a recommendation.

Yellow: Good start toward a recommendation, but more progress is needed.

Red: An action ran counter to a recommendation.

Strengthening scientific integrity

Federal science is only as robust as its protection from political interference. Without policies and practices that protect scientific integrity, the nation’s scientific leadership, and the public that depends on it, can suffer—but well-enforced scientific integrity policies and practices can help decisions better serve the public good.

Recommendations

Educate employees. Agencies should work to ensure that employees know their rights and responsibilities around the use of science.

1/27/21: Biden memo directs agencies to educate employees “on their rights and responsibilities” related to scientific integrity

Let scientists speak. Agency policies should allow scientists to engage freely with the press and public on their work.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists lead in public communication on COVID-19, but a cross-agency policy is needed to protect these communications

Defer to experts on their work. Agency policies should ensure that scientists have the right to review the final version of scientific content being released in their name or that relies on their work.

1/27/21: Biden memo directs SI Task Force to identify strategies for clearance and review, but does not specify right of last review

Investigate losses of scientific integrity. Agencies should establish clear, effective procedures for reporting, investigating, and resolving scientific integrity violations.

1/27/21: Biden memo directs agencies to establish processes for “reporting, investigating, and appealing allegations”

Share problems and progress with the public. Agencies should release detailed records of scientific integrity violations annually or biannually, while maintaining confidentiality.

1/27/21: Biden memo requires this reporting annually

Hold wrongdoers accountable. Agencies should allow and encourage inspectors general to coordinate with scientific integrity offices to investigate and resolve scientific integrity allegations.

Don’t let wrongdoers off the hook. Agencies should clearly define scientific integrity violations, enforce penalties, and revise policies and practices afterward.

Curb abuses in funding. Career staff with expertise, not political officials, should determine who receives federal science funding, and political officials should not be able to rescind, reallocate, or delay use of awarded funding for political reasons.

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

1/20/21: Biden revokes Executive Order (EO) 13771, which required agencies to eliminate two rules for every one rule created

1/31/21: EPA tells District Court it will not move forward with the flawed restricting science rule pursued by the Trump administration

3/3/21: Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it will rescind secretarial order 3369, which sidelined research and its use in DOI decisions

Scientific workforce and leadership

US federal science protects public health and safety and has fueled many of the world’s great achievements. This work would be impossible without a robust scientific workforce and qualified science leadership, both of which have suffered losses in recent years. UCS’s recommendations aim to reverse these losses, strengthen the scientific workforce, and empower scientists to lead.

Recommendations

Let scientists lead at agencies. The administration should ensure that all federal science agencies have chief science officers and commit to filling open science positions.

1/27/21: Biden memo requires that science agencies have a “chief science officer, science advisor, or chief scientist”

Appoint qualified leaders. The administration should require that scientific leadership positions be filled by people with relevant training or experience.

Biden has nominated many qualified people but has not yet created a government-wide policy on this, and many science positions lack nominees

Hire early career experts. Agencies should create and fund pathways to civil service, like fellowships and internships.

Boost scientific integrity leadership. All science agencies should have at least one qualified, full-time scientific integrity official.

1/27/21: Biden memo requires that all agencies have a scientific integrity official

Don’t leave science decisionmaking seats empty. The president should ensure that independent oversight boards are fully staffed with qualified appointees.

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

1/22/21: Biden revokes EO 13957, which politicized civil service jobs

Prioritizing underserved communities

Systemic racism has resulted in deep inequities in environmental and public health outcomes, which will take years of sustained effort to address. These recommendations focus on federal science actions and represent only a subset of the actions that decisionmakers at all levels—state, local, tribal, and community—must take to address the concerns of underserved communities.

Recommendations

Encourage agency collaboration. The White House should form an interagency working group on environmental justice and develop guidelines for government action on this issue.

1/27/21: EO creates Environmental Justice Interagency Council and Advisory Council

1/27/21: EO creates Climate Task Force, which includes “delivering environmental justice” as a goal – albeit briefly

1/27/21: EO creates a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force

Incorporate equity into decisionmaking. The administration should strengthen Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, especially by requiring equity-based analyses for significant policy proposals.

1/27/21: The newly-created Environmental Justice interagency council is tasked with recommending updates to EO 12898

3/29/21: Biden charters the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council

Prioritize those who face inequity. Agencies overseeing chemical safety should prioritize the health and safety of underserved communities who are disproportionately burdened by pollution.

4/7/21: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Regan issues memo prioritizing grant funding and impact analysis for, outreach to, and enforcement in environmental justice communities

Analyze disproportionate harms. Agencies should fully assess harms faced by communities and incorporate cumulative impacts into research.

1/20/21: EO requires “distributional consequences” of regulations be considered in cost-benefit analyses (CBA), but is vague; CBA still plays too great a role in rulemaking

Make data better. Agencies should, when possible, disaggregate federal data on risks and exposures by race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, and location.

1/27/21: Biden memo directs agencies to disaggregate, and make accessible, federal data

Conduct science focused on communities. Agencies should prioritize research and public safeguards that identify and address inequities faced by underserved communities.

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

1/21/21: EO establishes Justice40 Initiative, which sets a goal that 40% of the benefits of federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities

3/1/21: National Institutes of Health director announces UNITE initiative to work toward racial equity in the research workforce

Federal science advice

To create effective policies, the government relies on scientific advice—a need filled in large part by independent experts on more than 200 scientific advisory committees. These committees have historically been targets of political interference; UCS’s recommendations aim to keep these committees active and independent.

Recommendations

Keep the public in the loop. Agencies should make public the processes of forming, ending, or adding members to science advisory committees, as well as lists of candidates.

Keep out (real) conflicts of interest. Agencies should ensure that conflicts of interest for committee members are well-defined and should not include receiving federal research funding or belonging to a science association.

3/18/21: Office of Government Ethics (OGE) issues resource on ethics rules applicable to advisory committee members, but could be clearer

Be transparent about member selection. Agencies should make public any information on science advisory committee members, including qualifications, conflict-of-interest waivers, and past funding sources.

Prioritize diversity. Agencies should take steps to ensure that science advisory committee membership is diverse in expertise, experience, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

1/27/21: Biden memo directs agencies to review committees and examine processes for increasing representation of membership

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

1/20/21: Biden revokes 13875, which limited the number of advisory committees that agencies could have

3/31/21: EPA Administrator Regan announces resetting two advisory committees, the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee

Minimize conflicts of interest

To preserve its integrity, scientific research must be protected from political, ideological, and financial influences. Strong protections against conflicts of interest in federal science and decisionmaking will ensure that our leaders use the best available science for the public good, not for private interests.

Recommendations

Define conflicts of interest. Agencies should have and adhere to clear guidance on conflicts of interest for advisory committee members and peer reviewers of scientific work.

3/18/21: OGE issues resource on ethics rules applicable to advisory committee members, but could be clearer

Keep conflicts of interests out of decisionmaking. Agencies should ensure that officials do not have decisionmaking authority on issues where they have financial ties.

1/20/21: EO forbids appointees, for 2 years, from working on matters “directly and substantially” related to previous work

Close the revolving door. Political appointees should be barred from lobbying their agencies for at least five years after they leave government.

1/20/21: EO creates 2-year lobbying limit—a good start but not enough

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

Government transparency and public access

Because our leaders are elected by the people and for the people, the public should know the government’s plans, actions, and decisions. Transparency gives the public the tools it needs to hold government accountable and root out corruption and abuses.

Recommendations

Make government transparent. The administration should work to improve Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) processes, especially by making government records public proactively and abiding by a presumption of openness.

4/12/21: EPA Administrator Regan issues a memo that asserts that FOIA should be guided by a “clear presumption that openness prevails”

Inform the public about leaders in government. Conflicts-of-interest waivers, recusals, and other information on appointed staff should be made public promptly.

2/18/21: Per an EO, the names of appointees who received waivers for ethics pledges are made public

Share the science. Agencies should make unclassified, publicly funded data or research public, consistent with protections for sensitive data.

1/27/21: Biden memo directs agencies to provide open access to federal data and publish data plans

Help the public contribute to rulemaking. Agencies should make online/electronic rulemaking more accessible to the public.

2/18/21: The General Services Administration rolls out a new regulations.gov, with better search function and public comment interface

1/20/21: EO affirms the need to modernize the regulatory process, but is vague

Reach out to communities. Agencies should carry out proactive, meaningful, targeted outreach efforts to make sure that affected communities can engage on rulemaking.

3/5/21: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission creates Office of Public Participation

4/12/21: EPA Administrator Regan issues a memo noting that EPA will be “creative and innovative” in the tools it uses to engage the public

Research how to connect with the public. Agencies should research strategies for engaging the public in rulemaking, taking into consideration the needs of specific communities.

1/20/21: EO directs the Office of Management and Budget to create recommendations to improve the “inclusiveness” of the regulatory process, but is vague

Don’t hide who visits. Agencies’ and the White House’s visitor logs should be promptly made public.

3/1/21: The White House says it will not release visitor logs for its virtual events

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

Democratic processes

Together, science and democracy lead to government decisions that make our communities safer, healthier, and more just. But with democracy more imperiled than it has been in decades, it is vital that our leaders restore protections for a functioning democracy.

Recommendations

Don’t let money corrupt elections. The administration should take steps to keep dark money out of elections and enforce campaign finance laws and penalties for violations.

Shine light on corporate influence. The administration should require companies with government contracts to disclose their political contributions.

Don’t let elected leaders pick their voters. The administration should support policies that prevent gerrymandering, like the use of independent redistricting commissions.

Improve voter registration. The administration should support efforts to protect free and fair elections and expand voter eligibility.

3/7/21: EO directs agencies to expand access to voter registration, election information, and more

Help states manage election data. The Biden administration should ensure that state and local election officials have the resources they need for transparent, secure elections.

Let voters vote. The Biden administration should support efforts to expand ballot access—when, where, and how voters can cast their ballots.

Count everyone. The Biden administration should ensure that the Census is adequately funded and should count all inhabitants, regardless of citizenship status.

1/20/21: EO requires census to tally inhabitants, regardless of citizenship

Undo damage and innovate for the future. Reverse damaging policies from prior years and think creatively about policies and practices for the future.

1/20/21: EO revokes Trump EOs on adding a citizenship question to the census and excluding undocumented persons from state apportionment

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