It’s Time to Restore Scientific Integrity

by Jamie Vernon | Nov 11, 2020

Jamie Vernon In February, just as the first cases of COVID-19 were being reported within the United States, I traveled to the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Vannevar Bush’s monumental report, Science: The Endless Frontier.  This report established the nation’s rationale for government-sponsored basic research and ushered in the golden age of American science in the post-World War II era.

Following on the wartime successes credited to national investments in science and technology, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tasked Bush with devising a plan for expanding the nation’s research activities for more peaceful purposes. Bush’s report called for a centralized approach to federally funded research that backed undirected individual scientists while minimizing political influence in their work. It led to the formation of the National Science Foundation and the development of the modern American research university. Dramatic increases in government funding for science in subsequent decades led to the establishment of additional federal agencies to conduct and administer intramural and extramural research, inform policy decisions, and fuel unparalleled progress toward national policy goals involving health, environment, defense, and the economy. 

This system has enabled the United States to lead the world in scientific and technological productivity for decades. Because the system is intended to benefit society through mostly unfettered curiosity-driven science, the public has come to expect certain norms from the federal research enterprise. They expect federal scientists to be independent from political or industrial influence; protected from censorship; and empowered to speak freely to the public and the news media about their work. They expect scientific information produced by federal scientists to be made available to the public in a timely manner and they expect federal scientists to follow scientific integrity guidelines. 

The system has proven to be imperfectly safeguarded and protections must be established to preserve scientific integrity. In recent years federal science has experienced significant erosion of public trust due to a failure to uphold basic norms. The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented numerous actions by the Trump administration that have undermined public trust in information coming from federal science agencies, including the sidelining of expertise and independent scientific advisors, compromising of public protections, and reducing public and media access to government science and scientists.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the administration’s antipathy toward aspects of the federal research enterprise. Throughout the pandemic, President Trump has criticized and refused to enforce the guidance of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He has promoted unproven COVID-19 treatments and ridiculed the wearing of masks, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argues is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus. He has opposed Federal Drug Administration safety procedures, compromised data collection and reporting, and pressured researchers and manufacturers to deliver a vaccine in time to influence the Presidential election. 

In the past few weeks, the President has threatened to terminate Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, while he has embraced advice from a neuroradiologist, Dr. Scott Atlas. Dr. Atlas has made several statements that contradict what experts say about COVID-19. Some have argued that he is promoting a flawed herd immunity approach to controlling the virus that could increase death rates in the United States. His comments prompted a group of 98 of his Stanford University colleagues to publish an open letter calling attention to his falsehoods and misrepresentations of science. 

The administration’s public opposition to expert advice on COVID-19 has politicized the response to the pandemic and gravely undermined the public’s trust in the nation’s public health institutions. Large segments of the population have been persuaded by the President’s arguments and have chosen to reject the recommendations from local, state, and national health agencies. As a result, the United States has suffered more than 10 million cases and at least 230,000 deaths from the virus. 

Having just completed a Presidential election in which former Vice President Joe Biden has defeated the incumbent President Donald Trump, the country will now undergo a transition of power that will be accompanied by a transition of management of the federal research enterprise. Sigma Xi has an interest in restoring and promoting scientific integrity in all aspects of the research enterprise; therefore we will be calling on the Biden administration to audit the federal agencies to determine where it is necessary to restore public trust. By rebuilding its relationship with the public, federal scientists can return to the pursuit of Bush’s endless frontier and focus on delivering the benefits of scientific research to society.

While there are no guarantees that the incoming Biden administration will reinstate the appropriate standards for scientific integrity, there is reason to believe that the administration will take a friendlier approach to science. Biden has stated that he will “listen to the scientists” in regards to the COVID-19 response. It is incumbent on us to encourage him and his administration to embrace science and promote scientific integrity across the federal government—from public health to climate change. In addition, the scientific community can directly recommend science policies and scientific expertise to be adopted and developed by the administration. 

Just as we did in 2016 during the transition to the Trump administration, Sigma Xi is gathering nominations of experts from its membership and beyond to submit to the Biden transition team. If you would like to recommend a colleague or yourself for consideration, please contact Sigma Xi headquarters at


Jamie L. Vernon
Sigma Xi Executive Director and CEO
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