As the world contends with the coronavirus pandemic, decision-makers cannot afford to kick objective science to the sidelines.
Yet on April 21 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) demoted Rick Bright, a career expert on vaccine development and a doctor of immunology, from his two positions as director of the biomedical advanced research and development authority and deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response. Bright asserts that the department demoted him in retaliation for resisting wide distribution of the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to the American public as treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Bright believed their use against the virus had no scientific merit, and cited dangers and poor testing results. He has since sought legal counsel and is expected to file a whistleblower retaliation claim with the Office of Special Counsel and the HHS inspector general.
Bright’s demotion stinks of swamp-politics and looks like textbook whistleblower retaliation. In recent weeks, President Donald Trump repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug for COVID-19. The president’s support for use of the drug—even after health experts decried its use against the COVID-19 virus as dangerous and ineffective—seems in part to be a political gamble, the outcome of which could affect how voters judge Trump’s response to the pandemic at the polls later this year.
Enter, Rick Bright. In a statement about his demotion, he reflected, “I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public. I insisted that these drugs be provided only to hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19 while under the supervision of a physician.” Allowing politics to overshadow the best available scientific information in the fight against the virus is at best a counterintuitive waste of taxpayer funds, and at worst demonstrates a reckless disregard for public health.
Unfortunately, Bright’s experience is not uncommon or unexpected, and speaks to the need for strong and enforceable whistleblower protections for scientists working for the federal government. Objective scientific research carried out by experts is our best bet for an intelligent, strategic nationwide response to this crisis. It is critical that experts be empowered to speak up when their work is being misrepresented in the name of politics, or when they uncover serious threats to public health and safety in the course of their work—without putting their jobs at risk.
Most federal scientists can claim whistleblower protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act if they face retaliation when they blow the whistle on something they reasonably believe evidences a violation of a law, rule, or regulation; gross waste or mismanagement; abuse of power; or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. With scientist whistleblowers in mind, the law also protects disclosures about employer censorship of their work that would result in any of the wrongdoing listed above.
Importantly, the law states that a disclosure about an employee’s disagreement with agency policy, so-called “policy dissent,” is not protected whistleblowing. An exception to that rule, though, and one that is likely relevant for Bright’s case, is that policy dissent can be considered protected whistleblowing if the policy the employee objects to would result in prohibited conduct like substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. However, while Bright’s disclosure might be the kind of policy disagreement that is protected by whistleblower protection law, many other scientific disagreements where the stakes are high may not be so clearly protected.
The scientific method can and should be relied on in policymaking because it delivers, by design, the best possible information we have available to use as a basis for developing policy. Scientific integrity, then, is paramount to good policymaking. This is true not only in times of crisis, but also in times of relative normalcy.
We should all understand the importance of listening to the scientist over the politician when we’re facing a global health crisis. When it comes to federal employee scientists speaking out, though, it is up to the president to set a standard of strong anti-retaliation rhetoric in their administration, and it is up to Congress to protect scientific integrity in law.
Concerningly, federal scientist whistleblowers must still operate with relatively weak civil service whistleblowing protections. Front-page examples of retaliation, like what Bright appears to be experiencing, may deter other scientists from coming forward with important, timely disclosures about the federal response to this crisis.
As Congress continues to consider how to address this pandemic, it should take the opportunity to update outdated federal whistleblowing protections to meet modern best-practice standards. For example, Congress should consider measures such as giving all federal employee whistleblowers the right to a jury trial; outlawing retaliatory investigations that are opened in an effort to discredit whistleblowers; and making it easier for whistleblowers to press pause on the retaliatory employment action they face while their case is pending.
Congress should also create robust scientific integrity protections so that scientists can speak freely about misuse of their research and work, and so that scientists can be more transparent about things like conflicts of interest in their work. Experts should be able to speak up and be protected from retaliation when their work is misrepresented or misused, or when their employer is forcing them to waste time and taxpayer money on politically motivated work that poses a threat to public health and safety. While some federal agencies have fairly strong scientific integrity policies designed to protect scientists’ speech rights, these policies vary significantly in their quality and scope. A great place for Congress to start would be passing the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1709), which passed out of committee with bipartisan support earlier in this Congress.
Finally, Congress should expand interagency policy dissent channels across the federal government, providing secure channels for individuals to express disagreement on agency policy decisions while being protected from retaliation. These channels should allow employees to remain anonymous and should provide for enforcement of their rights if an employee faces retaliation for coming forward.
These changes would build on a long history of bipartisan, bicameral support for whistleblowers.
As scientist and educator Carl Sagan famously said: “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.”
We call on scientists to conduct peer-reviewed experiments and give us the facts; we elect politicians to decide what to do with those facts. Silencing the scientists will not set us up for success in any circumstance, but especially not when we’re facing a global health crisis.