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Memo for President Biden: Five steps to getting more from science

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As things look now, Donald Trump’s US presidency will soon be in the rear-view mirror, but the damage his administration has left will require a sustained effort to repair. This is especially true when it comes to restoring competence and trust in federal research agencies.

Newly-elected President Joe Biden needs to do this as quickly as possible, at least to ease a pandemic that is setting a record for the number of new cases and killing more Americans than those who died in World War II. is on track for. The country cannot continue to tolerate the ad hoc, ineffective and inconsistent pandemic response under Trump.

The list of essential actions is long, but here we highlight five that the Biden administration must take swiftly. We call not for a return to business as usual, but for fundamental, sometimes counter-intuitive changes that will strengthen the use of science in American policy and by the research community more broadly.

Let the White House office that leads the pandemic response are often overlooked

Trump’s task force, which apparently directed the administration’s response to the pandemic, had little authority and no accountability, had to fight for attention against other priorities, and was deliberately politicized. The task force introduced the key role of the Department of Health and Human Services, and bypassed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, damaging public confidence in both.

A better, albeit less obvious, alternative to leading the pandemic response under Biden is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP, which One of Us, N.L., led from 1998 to 2001). It was established in 1976 to advise the President and coordinate federal science agencies. Although OSTP has primarily focused on setting priorities for research funding, its history and mandate make it ideal for coordinating a national effort to respond.

In February, as the pandemic began to spread through the United States, the Government Accountability Office warned that the country’s biodefense strategy needed to “move from a traditional mission stovepipe to a strategic enterprise-wide approach.” OSTP has the necessary perspective to work across agencies, and has coordinated policy in the past. Former President Ronald Reagan relied on it to advance his ‘Star Wars’ ballistic-missile defense program.

What’s more, OSTP will offer a fresh start to the pandemic response. Under Trump, it had little role and therefore, unlike federal public-health agencies, is less politicised.

Ultimately, the OSTP sits in the White House, but is also answerable to Congress, with a director’s confirmation by the Senate. This, unlike Trump’s task force, puts it closer to the president and is under Congressional oversight. The leadership would need to work across branches of government, and having the OSTP in charge would foster legitimacy, as the Democrat-led office could work alongside the Republican-led Senate.

At the same time, the head of OSTP – the science adviser to the White House – should also be promoted to the President’s cabinet. This guarantees a seat at the table when the most important, consequential decisions are made. It would also point to the importance of the role for federal agencies, Congress and the public.

Make advisory processes more independent

A tenet of effective advisory bodies is that advisors give advice and decision-makers make decisions. Advice can take the form of narrow technical guidance on scientific matters (does a particular drug improve health outcomes?), presentation of policy options (what are the risk reduction options for reopening schools?), or a Recommending specific action (should masks be mandatory indoors?) Under Trump, scientific advice was generally ignored or, worse, manipulated for political gain. This is easier to do when responses are managed by ad-hoc groups.

For example, radiologist Scott Atlas was chosen as Trump’s top pandemic adviser for countering government staff scientists and supporting the president’s political agenda.

The advisory mechanisms available to attract are broad and deep. The US government lists over 1,000 bodies currently active under the Federal Advisory Committees Act. Biden and the OSTP should ensure that advisory committees include independent experts selected for merit, that their roles are clear, and that their advice reaches decision-makers in fields from public health to environmental protection.

The White House will also need to reject Trump-era policies that prevent the government from drawing on competent expertise. The first line should be a reversal of an executive order signed last month that removed civil-service protections from positions typically filled by career employees.

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