News from the Hill

Acting to protect research integrity

Benjamin Corb
January 29, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee approved the Scientific Research Integrity Act in October with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote.

If you get most of your information from television news or newspapers, you might not have heard about this. You might think Congress did little in the final quarter of 2019 beyond debating the impeachment of President Donald Trump and passing federal spending bills. My job is monitoring Congress, and sometimes even those of us who do this for a living have trouble finding reporting — outside our science policy-focused news sources — about any activity unrelated to impeachment on Capitol Hill.

That said, here is an example of what Congress is doing. Introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., the Scientific Research Integrity Act, or H.R. 1709, aims to codify protections for federally funded science and federally funded scientific researchers and to put the brakes on policymakers’ and administration officials’ efforts to politicize science funding.

Specifically, the bill allows federal agencies and government-employed scientists to review data for technical accuracy and provides a mechanism for scientists to review and revise official statements about their findings. Further, it allows federal scientists to present findings at scientific conferences, sit on councils and participate in peer review (subject to conflict-of-interest review). Under the proposal, federal scientists would be authorized to talk to the news media about their science without prior approval from the administration or the agency they work for.

The bill does more still, and I invite you to review it here.

When Tonko introduced this legislation, he said of government scientists, “More and more, their research has become the subject of one political agenda or another. Not since the Scientific Revolution has there been a more important moment to stand for the basic ideas that inquiry must be free and facts and evidence matter.”

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Public Affairs Advisory Committee applauds Tonko for this important legislation, which would create barriers to political pressure on federal scientists and the politicization of scientific findings. We are encouraged to see that the legislation has bipartisan support. The majority of ASBMB members are not federal scientists, but some are — and we think they should be trusted to serve as reliable and unbiased experts in the scientific enterprise.

This legislation is not likely to become federal law. Some of our analytical tools, supplied by the media company Politico, estimate a less than 5% chance of enactment. In the past 10 Congresses, or 20 years, an average of only 3.1% of bills introduced have been enacted into law. While passage of the bill may not be likely, it is not uncommon for popular, noncontroversial proposals in legislation to be included in other related bills that are on track for passage.

We will continue to support passage of this bill, and we will encourage our partners on Capitol Hill to view this legislation as an important way to support the scientific enterprise.

Benjamin Corb

Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB.

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