GAO Highlights Lack of Policies to Address Political Interference in Health Agencies

Posted on April 25, 2022 | By Mary Ellen Schneider

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

The GAO, the federal auditing agency, conducted semi-structured interviews and set up a confidential hotline to obtain information from federal health care employees about the existence of political interference during the pandemic. of COVID-19 and over the previous decade. The investigation focused on 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, GAO found that there were no formally reported internal allegations of potential political interference in the scientific decision-making of 2010 to 2021. However, the GAO said the lack of complaints could be explained by the lack of specific reporting procedures. During interviews, some federal employees said they observed, but did not report, potential incidents of political interference.

“A few CDC and FDA respondents said they felt the potential political interference they observed resulted in the scientific findings being altered or suppressed. Some of these respondents believed that this potential political interference may have resulted in a politically motivated change in public health guidelines or a delay in publishing scientific findings related to COVID-19,” the GAO reported.

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

Agency officials told GAO that potential political interference could be flagged and would be handled on a case-by-case basis or through scientific integrity procedures established for other purposes. For example, FDA officials said a complaint could go through the scientific dispute resolution process to address “any underlying scientific disagreement,” with potential issues of political interference being referred to the inspector’s office. general of the HHS.

FDA officials also told GAO investigators that they plan to develop new procedures to report and address political interference in scientific decision-making.

The 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, agencies should ensure that all employees and contractors who engage in scientific activities are trained on how to report potential political interference.

In response to the findings, HHS officials agreed with GAO’s recommendations and said the agency had formed a task force to update the HHS Scientific Integrity Policy by July 2022.

GAO report

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