Michigan Advance: Stevens wants ‘scientific integrity’ principles in COVID-19 legislation

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions are relying on health guidance and disease prevention from experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies. 

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) wants Congress to adopt a bill that would streamline key federal research and scientific findings for the public. She’s looking for this to be included in the fourth phase of COVID-19 relief legislation, per a letter she sent to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

In the letter, Stevens asks committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) to work to move forward the Scientific Integrity Act as part of a future COVID-19 relief package. U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) first introduced the bill in March 2019. Stevens led the markup, or suggestions for amendments, of the bill.

Stevens called the Scientific Integrity Act “more important than ever” during this time. 

“The public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the importance of effective policies and procedures governing scientific integrity,” Stevens wrote in the letter.

The bill states a national audience must be able “to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.” It also calls for scientific communication handed down from federal agencies to be free of politics, ideology and financial conflicts of interest.

The legislation also defines the rights of federal scientists to talk about their work to the media, other members in the scientific community and the public. 

Stevens, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology, also spoke to the importance of maintaining public trust in federal agencies at a July 2019 hearing in Washington, D.C., At the hearing — which examined if the President Trump administration stifles scientific research — Stevens brought up two critical issues, the Flint water crisis and PFAS, and spoke about public trust in her state had been eroded because of how they were handled.

In an opening statement at that hearing, Stevens said scientific integrity “is not a Democratic or Republican issue.” She added it’s not about one administration’s opinions or another. 

“It is about ensuring public trust in the conduct, dissemination and use of scientific research in the federal government,” Stevens said.

Stevens also talked at the hearing about her support for the Scientific Integrity Act, which she said ensures scientific integrity at federal agencies. 

“So why do this? First, it’s just good government,” Stevens said. “It ensures transparency and accountability in government, which is part of our constitutional responsibility as the U.S. Congress; and ensures we are relying on facts and increasing evidence around tested hypotheses regarding our most complex and nuanced policy changes.

If enacted, the bill would amend the America COMPETES Act, a bill enacted in 2007 to promote integrity in American technology, education and science sectors. 

The legislation would add language prohibiting leaders, researchers and staff at the federal level from altering, interfering or suppressing timely scientific findings. It would also add language prohibiting federal officials from engaging in misrepresentation or manipulation of findings or coercing other individuals to censor results. 

Scientific integrity is crucial, regardless of political party or administration, and public trust can be solidified more if research is effectively disseminated by the federal government, Stevens wrote in her letter. 

“I can think of no better time than now to bring this bill to the floor, and I am prepared to support you in any way possible to achieve this goal,” she wrote. 

The act is “straightforward” and lays out the responsibilities and rights of federal scientists to streamline their research and relay it to the public, she said. 

Protocols outlined in the Scientific Integrity Act would apply to any federal organization that funds or conducts scientific research. 

For starters, that includes pandemic-crucial agencies like the CDC, NIH, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Other agencies that fall under the bill’s governance are a little more obvious: the EPA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation. 

Here are the other federal agencies that could be impacted by the Scientific Integrity Act: Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Commerce, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Veterans Affairs. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Marine Mammal Commission, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Other COVID-19 responses

All four U.S. representatives attached to the Scientific Integrity Act — Stevens, Tonko, Johnson and U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) — have announced policy responses to the pandemic.

Stevens recently joined a bipartisan effort to push for additional funding of special education programs in the next round of COVID-19 relief legislation. In a letter to House leadership, members of Congress asked the federal government to do more to address disparities in special education funding to states. 

Members wrote that as schools are forced to switch to remote work due to COVID-19 prevention efforts, resources promised by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are even more important.

“The CARES Act is a step in the right direction, but it is necessary that IDEA receives its own designated set aside in any future packages,” members wrote.

Tonko — who represents New York, the state with the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths — has repeatedly called for the President Trump administration to take more aggressive measures to combat the pandemic. In an April 8 letter to Vice President Mike Pence, Tonko urged the administration to jump-start the production of medical supplies for health care workers. 

“Our frontliners are being forced to fight a war they never asked for without life-saving armor,” Tonko wrote. “The administration can and must respond to protect our brave healthcare workers by taking immediate federal action under the Defense Production Act to ensure the adequate supply of testing kits, PPE [personal protection equipment] and ventilators.”

Meanwhile, Johnson wrote the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the administration’s plan to roll back Obama-era vehicle emissions standards during the pandemic. In rolling back the standards, the EPA would be acting without the advice of health experts who’d normally speak out on them, but can’t because of the coronavirus pandemic disruption, she wrote.

And just this week, Lowenthal joined 70 members of Congress to ask the Department of the Interior not to close public comment periods on rulemaking until 45 days after the COVID-19 national emergency has been resolved.

“It is inappropriate that the Department of Interior continue its rulemaking process while the public’s attention is elsewhere,” the members wrote. “The Department’s refusal to extend comment periods will, in effect, curtail the public’s right to a meaningful opportunity to participate in the rulemaking process.”

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