Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Scientific Integrity Roundtable

August, 2021

Scientific Integrity Roundtable

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone, to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

We are honored to be joined today by the 16th Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, The Honorable Michael Regan, and The Honorable Paul Tonko, Congressman of the 20th District of New York, for a conversation on ensuring scientific integrity within our federal government.

As you know, we have a vibrant research enterprise here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with research expenditures totaling $104 million in 2020 — undergirded by signature thrusts in…

  • Biotechnology and the life sciences,
  • Energy, the environment, and smart systems.
  • Computational science and engineering;
  • Nanotechnology and advanced materials; and
  • Media, the arts, science, and technology.

These areas of expertise allow us to bring together cross-disciplinary collaborations focused on the very greatest of challenges, ranging from human health and the mitigation of diseases, including COVID-19; to food, water, and energy security for a growing global population; to national and global security; and importantly, to climate change and our attendant need for sustainable systems, infrastructure, and materials. 

To address climate and environmental challenges, we recently have launched the new Institute for Energy, the Built Environment and Smart Systems that is working to model and design the urban environments of the future, for deep decarbonization, climate resilience, and human well-being — by viewing cities as systems of systems, and by integrating renewable energy systems, sentient building platforms, and advanced materials.

We also, in 2013, launched the Jefferson Project at Lake George. The Jefferson Project is a partnership among Rensselaer, IBM Research, and the FUND for Lake George — designed to create a real-time, detailed view of the effects of environmental change, invasive species, and pollution on freshwater ecosystems. The Jefferson Project offers a model for sustained ecosystem understanding, predictive preservation, and remediation of critical natural systems for Lake George and for freshwater ecosystems around the world. Now we are expanding that work in two ways. First, to address issues of stressors leading to harmful algal blooms and their effects in other lakes in the Adirondacks, with a view to creating a global freshwater institute at Rensselaer. Secondly, we are strengthening the science root of our work on freshwater systems by applying techniques from biotechnology and molecular biology to elucidate the genomic drivers of toxin creation by harmful algal blooms. 

We truly do aspire to use science and engineering to change the world, as we always have done — but that requires true research security and integrity. We have been engaged recently in a number of significant policy conversations surrounding these subjects. 

Last March, we hosted a forum on the security of academic research, against the threat of espionage or theft by other nations. We were joined by representatives of federal funding agencies, the Department of Justice, the Albany FBI Field Office, and other academic institutions.

Today, we are considering a different threat: political interference in the conduct of research or the collection of data, and the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings for political ends. 

Indeed, when science is funded by the citizens of the United States, or any country, they should expect true scientific integrity in return for their investment — and should have confidence that policy-making is guided by the evidence revealed in scientific study. 

When American citizens lack confidence in the scientific soundness of their government’s policies and recommendations, the costs can be very high, as they have been during this pandemic. It is up to our political leaders and federal scientists, in concert, to inspire trust.

From 2009 to 2014, I had the great privilege of helping to ensure evidence-based policy-making by serving on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — where we offered recommendations to President Barack Obama on key issues in science, technology, and innovation. 

Over the last decade and a half, Congress and some presidential administrations have taken steps to prevent federal scientific research from being compromised in service to short-sighted political objectives. In 2007, the America COMPETES Act required the Office of Science and Technology Policy to enhance scientific integrity. In 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity, and in 2010, the Office of Science and Technology Policy issued guidelines for U.S. government departments and agencies. 

Yet, in April of 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO — where I currently serve on the Comptroller General Advisory Board — found that a number of federal agencies were not doing enough to achieve their scientific integrity policy objectives. 

In January, President Biden issued a memorandum that directed Dr. Eric Lander, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to create a task force to consider whether current scientific-integrity policies are adequate.

Importantly, Congressman Tonko has sponsored a bill that would put a new degree of legislative force behind the requirement that federal agencies prevent the suppression and distortion of data and findings.

We are eager to hear his thoughts on the issue, as well as those of Administrator Regan! At Rensselaer, where our work on climate change, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, the conservation of freshwater resources, and many other environmental issues is extremely innovative — we are so pleased that a true environmentalist is now at the helm of the EPA. Administrator Regan actually began his career at the EPA, becoming a national program manager who worked with industry to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Before his nomination as EPA Administrator, Mr. Regan served as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where he led the planning for a clean energy transition, secured the largest coal ash clean-up in U.S. history, negotiated the clean-up of the contaminated Cape Fear River, and established the first-of-its-kind Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board to ensure that protection from environmental and health hazards extended to minority communities.

And now, I have the pleasure of introducing Congressman Paul Tonko. As the nation’s oldest private technological research university, Rensselaer is so fortunate to be represented in Congress by an engineer — someone who venerates discovery and innovation, and who brings that perspective to his service on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, the oldest standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He brings that perspective, as well, to his chairmanship of the Subcommittee on the Environment and Climate Change, and to his service on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee and the Natural Resources Committee.

Please join me in welcoming Congressman Paul Tonko.