WASHINGTON (CN) – President James Garfield was shot by an assassin on his 199th day in office, but it was sepsis that killed him — a result of doctors failing to wash their hands while trying to remove the bullet in 1881.
Though British surgeon Joseph Lister had warned about the dangers of sepsis 20 years earlier — remarking that the disease killed nearly half of his amputee patients — the information was never disseminated, as Lister’s peers did not consider the findings a serious scientific discovery.
Recounting this story before the House on Wednesday, Representative Haley Stevens, D-Mich., touted the establishment of the National Institute of Health in 1887 as an early step in improving access to scientific findings.
The Subcommittee on Research and Technology and the Subcommittee on Investigation and Oversight met this morning to discuss a bill on scientific integrity that, among other goals, would define rights and responsibilities for scientists to report research results to the public, specify standards for employee misconduct, and create an office that ensures agencies comply with the bill’s standards.
One proponent of the bill to testify before Congress today was Joel Clement, the former senior executive at the Department of the Interior who is now a senior fellow at the Arctic Initiative.
Offering a personal anecdote to underscore the importance of scientific integrity, Clement described how resigned his position at Interior in 2017 after he faced retaliation for discussing the effects of climate change on some Alaskan communities.
“I never considered the possibility that they would not want to have the best information, or that they would actively suppress scientific evidence,” Clement testified. “This runs counter to the notion of public service and is an abdication of leadership regarding public health and safety. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’ve seen happen during the Trump administration, and the inhumanity of it sends a chill down my spine.”
Clement said agency scientists are self-censoring their reports today, deleting the words “climate change,” to avoid being political targets. Scientists also are forbidden to speak to reporters without advance agency permission. Their work is often reported to the public incompletely.
“They are just a few of the red flags that are suggesting an accelerating erosion and politicization, not only of scientific integrity, but the federal science enterprise itself,” Clement testified.
Roger Pielke, a University of Colorado professor and director of the school’s Sports Governance Center, testified that in 2016 more than 307,000 publications of scientific, academic research had been produced. To communicate information about all of these studies through agency press releases would require a release every 90 seconds, every day of the year. Federal agencies and universities often face politically motivated choices on which articles to highlight with media or the public.
“The political nature of the communication of research studies is further enhanced by today’s partisan media landscape and political advocates looking to advance their causes by promoting favorable research results, and often, attacking those perceived to be unfavorable,” Pielke testified. “Scientific integrity politics can help to ensure that the research underlying a communication process retains its integrity.”
Michael Halpern, the deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, testified meanwhile about how improved scientific integrity would help staff retention.
“Federal agencies will be unable to attract top scientific talent without protection in place that guarantee scientists’ ability to do policy-relevant research, follow the evidence where it leads and communicate out the results of that work,” Halpren testified.
Congress has attempted before to standardize the scientific integrity of federal agencies. One law passed in 2007 spurred the Government Accountability Office to select a “nongeneralizable sample” of nine agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
As noted in testimony Wednesday by GAO director John Neumann, seven of the nine agencies sampled took action thereafter to improve scientific integrity with communicating information to staff.
The outliers were the Office of Fossil Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which felt no action was needed, as the information on procedures and policies was available on their website.