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Since 2007, Congress and multiple administrations have taken actions to help ensure that federal science agencies have scientific integrity policies and procedures in place that, among other things, protect against the suppression or alteration of scientific findings for political purposes. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) defined scientific integrity as the use of scientific evidence and data to make policy decisions that are based on established scientific methods and processes, are not inappropriately influenced by political considerations, and are shared with the public when appropriate.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review scientific integrity policies and procedures, and how allegations of political interference in scientific decision-making are addressed at CDC, FDA, NIH, and ASPR. Thus it conducted a performance audit from October 2020 to April 2022 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been various allegations of political interference affecting scientific decisions at several HHS offices and agencies. For example, in May 2020, a senior official from ASPR claimed HHS retaliated against him for disclosing, among other things, concerns about inappropriate political interference to make chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine available to the public as treatments for COVID-19. Additionally, in July 2021, for example, several members of Congress criticized CDC for allegedly revising its face mask guidance for political purposes.”

The four agencies GAO reviewed “do not have procedures that define political interference in scientific decision-making or describe how it should be reported and addressed.” These agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

According to the subsequent April 2022 GAO Report to Congress the “absence of specific procedures may explain why the four selected agencies did not identify any formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in scientific decision-making from 2010 through 2021.

Through semi-structured interviews and a confidential hotline, “employees at CDC, FDA, and NIH told GAO they observed incidents that they perceived to be political interference but did not report them for various reasons. These reasons included fearing retaliation, being unsure how to report issues, and believing agency leaders were already aware.”

More alarmingly the Report says a “few respondents from CDC and FDA stated they felt that the potential political interference they observed resulted in the alteration or suppression of scientific findings. Some of these respondents believed that this potential political interference may have resulted in the politically motivated alteration of public health guidance or delayed publication of COVID-19-related scientific findings.

The report recommended (among other things) that “HHS could strengthen its desired goal of sustaining a culture of scientific integrity by developing procedures for reporting and addressing political interference in scientific decision-making. Such procedures would ensure that employees know how to report allegations, and that HHS’s agencies have a clear, consistent process for investigating and addressing such allegations.”

“To help reduce employees’ fear of retaliation and encourage appropriate reporting, agencies could include information on whistleblower protections, and clarify any reporting requirements for employees who believe they observed potential political interference in scientific decision-making.”