GAO highlights lack of policies to combat political interference at health agencies

Regulatory NewsRegulatory News | 25 April 2022 |  By 

Employees at four US public health agencies have observed incidents of possible political interference in scientific decision-making over the last 10 years but did not report them because they feared retaliation, did not know how to report them, or thought agency leaders were already aware of the issues, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO, the federal auditing agency, conducted semi-structured interviews and set up a confidential hotline to gain information from federal health employees on the existence of political interference during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the decade earlier. The investigation included four agencies that are part of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASRP).

Despite public accusations of political interference in COVID-19 related decisions and policies, the GAO found that there were no formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in scientific decision-making from 2010 through 2021. However, GAO said the lack of complaints may be explained by the absence of specific reporting procedures. During interviews, some federal employees said they observed, but did not report, potential incidents of political interference.

“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,” GAO reported.

GAO found that all four agencies had scientific integrity policies and trained staff on these topics, but none of them defined political interference in scientific decision-making or had specific procedures for reporting and addressing interference. Only the NIH offered training specifically about political interference. 

Agency officials told GAO that potential political interference could be reported and would be addressed on a case-by-case basis or through scientific integrity procedures that were established for other purposes. For example, FDA officials said a complaint could go through the scientific dispute resolution procedure to address “any underlying scientific disagreements,” with potential political interference issues being referred to the HHS Office of the Inspector General.

FDA officials also told GAO investigators that they are planning to develop new procedures for reporting and addressing political interference in scientific decision-making.

GAO offered a series of recommendations, calling on each of the agencies to establish procedures for reporting and addressing political interference in scientific decision-making, including defining political interference. Additionally, the agencies should ensure that all employees and contractors who engage in scientific activities are trained on how to report potential political interference.

In a response to the findings, officials from HHS concurred with the GAO recommendations and said the agency had formed a working group to update the HHS scientific integrity policy by July 2022.

GAO Report


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