Next week, in the first major contest of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Democratic Party voters in Iowa will pick the candidate they want to face off against President Donald Trump. One of the top contenders, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has come out with a proposal to keep so-called junk science, supported by industry, out of federal policy decisions. Many scientists have pointed out that misleading research and evidence, raised to new prominence under the Trump administration, has led to environmental and health policies that endanger the public. Other candidates have not spoken so directly about science policy, and the coming week may tell whether Warren’s approach resonates with people in a bellwether state.
Warren’s plan would ban federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency from using non-peer-reviewed industry-funded science to determine regulations if any conflicts of interest exist. She would bar courts from considering such research in challenges to federal rules. Warren also wants a law to give these policies some teeth: it would punish industry representatives with up to $250,000 in fines or jail time if they knowingly submitted comments with false or fraudulent information.
“Warren’s proposal is good,” says Robert Proctor, a science historian at Stanford University. “We should have better reliability checks on science introduced into regulations and court testimony. As it is now, there’s a lot of fraudulent science being put forward. That’s a big scandal.” But he also notes that simply relying on anything termed peer review as a stamp of approval is not enough, because companies have gamed that system, so the proposal needs a better yardstick. In addition, significant amounts of industry-supported research are legitimate and valuable. Scientific American contacted 20 industry groups, including oil and chemical producers and pharmaceutical manufacturers, to to ask for reactions to Warren’s plan. All declined to comment or did not respond.
Scientific associations and watchdog groups have criticized the Trump administration for carrying out a “war on science” over the past three years. Such organizations say that research findings have been manipulated for political gain and the benefit of fossil-fuel industries; federal scientists have been targeted for ideological reasons; and safeguards meant to ensure the objectivity of government research have been weakened. For example, in the fall of 2019, the Trump administration proposed a rule that would limit medical and scientific research used by the EPA by eliminating studies from consideration if they did not disclose confidential medical records. Such studies underlie the conclusion that air pollution is harmful to people. The rule was criticized by the agency’s own science advisory board, which includes industry consultants, as well as academic scientists. In a draft report released on December 31, 2019, the panel stated that such a restriction “may not add transparency, and even may make some kinds of research more difficult.” Other observers go further and note the rule is an attempt to dismantle basic health protections and to justify fewer pollution regulations.
Under Warren’s proposal, anyone who submits a comment to a public agency that cites research that is not found in a public peer-reviewed journal must disclose the sources of funding for that research, as well as editorial control of the publication in which the study appeared and any fiscal relationships between its authors and industry. If more than 20 percent of a paper’s funding came from a regulated entity, and if that entity exercised editorial control over the research, it would constitute a conflict of interest and be disallowed, according to Saloni Sharma, national deputy press secretary for Warren’s campaign.
Such a ban should prevent companies from determining federal policies by muddling the scientific consensus with biased research, Warren said when announcing the plan. She highlighted Exxon’s decades-long funding of research intended to deny the extent of climate change and “cover up the facts and deceive government regulators and the American people.” This same strategy was was previously used by the tobacco industry, starting in the 1950s, when cigarette companies funded studies deliberately designed to refute links between smoking and lung cancer.
But the focus on independent peer review as the guarantor of legitimacy is not going to be good enough, caution observers such as Proctor. “The Council for Tobacco Research resulted in over 7,000 peer-reviewed publications as part of a distraction-science event,” he says. “They used peer review to gain credibility.” Indeed, he and many other scholars have noted that entire peer-review panels were set up by industry in order to claim that such studies had been subject to a solid vetting process. “That’s a problem with the Warren proposal—it underestimates how deeply these deceptive practices have penetrated peer review,” Proctor says.
It is a mistake to condemn all company-supported research, which can be legitimate and productive, says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Such work has played an important role in advancing the adoption of new technologies that make life better. “Oddly enough, before the fossil-fuel industry started to suppress information about climate change, they did an enormous amount of research to understand the impacts of emissions on climate,” he says. Industry research is frequently used for decision-making by the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA, where it has been employed for chemical safety rules.
The adoption and expansion of clean-energy technology—and perhaps future geoengineering solutions to climate change—will depend on industry science. If proposals to ban it swing too far, they could hurt the public. “We rely on industry for the making of the modern economy,” Proctor says.
Government science policies have not featured prominently in most top Democratic candidates’ campaigns. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has proposed investing billions in research to lower energy-storage costs and “fully decarbonize” industry and transportation. Former vice president Joe Biden has said he would advance clean energy research by working with the private sector and would help other countries advance their R&D capabilities. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, currently farther back in the pack, announced a “Plan to Tackle the Climate Crisis” that includes a reversal of Trump’s loosening of power-plant- and vehicle-emissions standards. But by and large, the candidates’ emphasis has been elsewhere.
Stump speeches that focus on topics other than science may reflect voter priorities: In a recent national Gallup poll, Democrats ranked health care, gun policy and climate change as the three issues most important to their vote. Yet scientific evidence has played key roles in policies in the first and third areas. And in Iowa, at least one poll found that voters do care about science specifics: In 2019 the Iowa Science Survey found the majority of Iowans (74 percent) thought it was important for presidential candidates to talk about how science will affect their policy decisions. More than half of them said they were more likely to vote for a pro-science candidate. But only 22 percent of Iowans recalled candidates discussing science issues in the two months preceding the survey question. On February 3, the results of the Iowa caucuses may indicate just how much science matters at the ballot box this election year.