Team Biden’s plan to ‘ensure scientific integrity’ should start with itself

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The Biden administration has announced a plan to “ensure scientific integrity.” It’s about time.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a 67-page report, says the task force aims “to ensure that science is conducted, managed, communicated, and used in ways that preserve its accuracy and objectivity and protect it from suppression, manipulation, and inappropriate influence — including political interference.”

It won’t have to look far: The United States government has been misbehaving on the scientific front for years, most notably in the COVID-19 pandemic. Political interference, suppression, manipulation and inappropriate influence have been standard, which is why trust in government, particularly on science, has fallen so far.

Ironically, even as this initiative was announced, damning new information about government scientists’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak came out. A series of just-released e-mails from top scientists revealed they were highly confident that the disease came out of a Chinese laboratory, even as their public statements treated any such suggestions as crazy talk, “conspiracy theory” and “misinformation.”

As science journalist Matt Ridley writes: “The e-mails unveiled this week reveal no good scientific reason at all for why these leading virologists changed their minds and became deniers rather than believers in even the remote possibility of a lab leak, all in just a few days in February 2020. No new data, no new arguments. But they do very clearly reveal a blatant political reason for the volte-face. Speculating about a lab leak, said Ron Fouchier, a Dutch researcher, might ‘do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular.’ ”

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins was reportedly worried about "doing great potential harm to science and international harmony" while discussing China's potential role in the COVID-19 pandemic.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins was reportedly worried about “doing great potential harm to science and international harmony” while discussing China’s potential role in the COVID pandemic.
Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, observes Ridley, “was pithier, worrying about ‘doing great potential harm to science and international harmony.’ Contradicting Donald Trump, protecting science’s reputation at all costs and keeping in with those who dole out large grants are pretty strong incentives to change one’s mind.”

The science establishment didn’t want people talking about the lab leak because it would have led to a discussion about why, exactly, the science establishment was tolerating — and in some cases funding, via Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — dangerous “gain of function” research in an insecure Chinese lab when such research was banned in the United States.

Notes Ridley, “These e-mails show a lamentable lack of openness and transparency among Western scientists who appear to have been more interested in shutting down a hypothesis they thought was very plausible, for political reasons.”

This is a smoking gun pointing at very deep misconduct indeed, the very sort of thing that — quite rightly — leads ordinary citizens to view the science establishment with deep skepticism. Covering up the origins of a deadly disease, particularly when one played a role in those origins, goes beyond untrustworthy. It certainly demonstrates a lack of scientific integrity, as well as personal integrity.

Sadly, we’ve seen this sort of dishonesty since the beginning. Public-health officials first minimized the pandemic’s dangers, encouraging people to go on cruises and eschew mask-wearing. In short order they reversed course entirely, supporting damaging and ineffective mass lockdowns and other responses that had little or no scientific basis, then did their best to shut down any scientific discussion or debate.

As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, Fauci and Collins (who worried above that the truth about the virus’s origins could harm “science” and “international harmony”) colluded with the media to trash the reputations of the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement by eminent scientists who thought the standard governmental pandemic response was wrong-headed and destructive. Collins told The Washington Post that the esteemed scientists who disagreed with his policies were “fringe” figures. More recently, Fauci told CBS that Republicans criticizing him were “really criticizing science, because I am science.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently claimed that Republicans criticizing him were really criticizing science.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently claimed that Republicans criticizing him were really criticizing science.
Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

That’s not integrity of the sort that the White House task force should be promoting. It’s much closer to narcissism.

Then there was the (successful) effort by leading public-health figures to get Pfizer to delay releasing its vaccine until after the election, so that it wouldn’t help Trump. Enough said.

So how do you promote scientific integrity? To start with: by not lying. That alone seems like a stretch for Fauci, Collins and much of the rest of the public-health establishment. Treating disagreements about science in a scientific rather than political fashion would also help. And a sizable dose of personal integrity on the part of the people running these institutions is essential, though currently absent.

It’s more than clear that none of these things has marked our COVID response. Last year I called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to rigorously investigate all the wrongs in our response. These new revelations underscore its necessity.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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