What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use, and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference.

Many environmental laws contain legal mandates that require the best available science to be used to inform policies regarding the protection of the environment, including biological diversity. Despite these mandates, the best available science is too often ignored or undermined by improper political pressures.

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. But truth can be inconvenient, and conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing trends globally to attack scientific integrity.

Recent assaults on science and scientists under the Trump administration are particularly extreme but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity. Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest scientific demonstration in history, this event took place in over 600 locations globally.

How SCB North America works to advance scientific integrity

The mission of the SCB North America Policy program (SNAP) is to leverage the research and scientific expertise of the Society’s members to ensure that scientific knowledge relating to the conservation of biological diversity is used by decision makers when shaping policies that affect the planet’s biodiversity.

SNAP’s work focuses on three areas: climate change adaptation, endangered species, and scientific integrity.

SCBNA monitors the actions of the government agencies to ensure that the best available science regarding the protection of biological diversity is used in implementing major conservation laws.  SCB brings attention to situations where biodiversity protections are being compromised.  We attempt to correct those situations through public comments, Congressional testimony, media outreach, and helping scientists ensure that their research is being used properly.  This work also encompasses making sure that other conservation laws, from environmental impact assessments to forest and marine resource management, are implemented using the best possible science.

SCBNA recently convened a transnational team of scientists associated with scientific societies in the US, Canada, and Australia to identify policies which should be supported by scientists and scientific societies active on the issue. The result is a new study published in the journal Conservation Biology which identified eight reforms which are needed to defend the scientific integrity of policy processes related to conservation of endangered species and ecosystems.

The paper proposes that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. The paper summarizes eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawing on lessons learned in Australia, Canada, and the US.

Scientific integrity requires that government scientists can normally communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicize, or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Such limits on accessing taxpayer-funded information undermines the ability of citizens to participate in decisions that affect them or even to know why decisions are being made.

The new study identifies four key steps by which this outbound scientific communication be safeguarded:

  1. Strengthen scientific integrity policies;
  2. Include scientists’ right to speak freely in collective bargaining agreements;
  3. Guarantee public access to scientific information;
  4. Strengthen agency culture supporting scientific integrity.

Scientific integrity also requires that information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, is transparently considered by policymakers. Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that
science plays in them.

The new study describes four key reforms by which this inbound communication be safeguarded:

  1. Broaden the scope of independent peer reviews;
  2. Ensure greater diversity of input with transparency regarding conflicts of interest;
  3. Require substantive response to input by agencies;
  4. Engage proactively with scientific societies and organizations.

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists must shift away from reactive defense of protections for scientific integrity and toward their expansion. The goal is to institutionalize a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies. A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

History of SCBNA’s efforts to protect scientific integrity

During the Bush Administration, there were several high-profile incidents where policy decisions relating to the protection of endangered species were compromised by improper political interference.

SCBNA, along with our partners at other scientific organizations, was instrumental at bringing this issue to public prominence during the 2008 US election. In late 2008, SCB briefed the Obama Transition Team on a set of recommendations for improving the implementation of several United States environmental laws including the ESA. In March 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Memorandum on Scientific Integrity requiring each Department of the Federal government to implement a Scientific Integrity Program within their respective agencies to ensure that improper political pressures do not compromise decision-making.

Since then SCBNA has worked with agencies to implement the reforms. SCBNA has prepared comments on several agencies’ efforts to establish scientific integrity programs, and continues to monitor their development.

In 2016, SCBNA released “Recommendations for action during the Second Obama Presidential Term“, again highlighting areas where policies needed strengthening. Most recently, under the Trump adminstration, SCBNA has worked with allies to defend the integrity and level of support given to federal research on climate change:

Strengthening scientific integrity in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is one of the most comprehensive laws ever passed anywhere in the world to prevent the extinction of endangered species.  Despite its strength, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has remained unchanged since 1988, and the regulations that implement the ESA have mostly remained unchanged since 1986, one year after the founding of the Society for Conservation Biology.  Many of the advances in knowledge in the field of conservation biology and its related disciplines have yet to be incorporated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the two agencies responsible for implementation the ESA. Additionally, politics sometimes trumps science in the agencies’ implementation of the Act, especially for high-profile species such as the Northern Spotted Owl and gray wolf. A few examples of SCBNA’s work on ESA issues include:


Science and politics

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not negatively affect their credibility.

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries, and communicating the significance of the results publicly. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available. Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role in defending such public participation by scientists, which is more important
than ever. Scientists have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to promote and affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These actions can help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.