Biden’s got a plan to protect science from Trump

The Biden administration is setting up new tripwires for Donald Trump at America’s premier health research agency to safeguard against political interference if Trump wins in November.

The White House fears Trump could try to advance an ideological agenda at the National Institutes of Health, like the ones he’s suggested on everything from vaccines to diversity policies.

In an effort to Trump-proof, NIH has designated an official to identify political meddling in the agency’s work and is tasking a soon-to-be-established scientific integrity council with reviewing those cases. The White House knows Trump could still cast those plans aside but is calculating that doing so will set off alarms with the media, Congress and the public. The Biden administration likely hopes GOP lawmakers, even those who think the NIH needs an overhaul, will temper Trump’s moves.

"Interfering and manipulating science to hit a partisan agenda is inappropriate and is what we're working to wall against," Lyric Jorgenson, NIH's designated scientific integrity official, said in an interview. She added: The plan to protect the agency’s independence is critical because the public needs to be able to rely on NIH to "generate rigorous, trusted evidence to inform public health."

The NIH gives out more money to health researchers than any outfit in the world — more than $40 billion a year — and, other than a Senate-confirmed director, has long been able to operate relatively free of politics.

As president, Trump threatened to fire a top agency official, Anthony Fauci, and prompted another to quit after Trump pitched hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment. Scientific organizations that work with NIH now worry Trump’s potential return to the White House, inflamed by GOP anger over the public health bureaucracy’s pandemic advice, might bring more concerted attempts to influence the agency’s decisions.

In addition to assigning Jorgenson as the NIH’s watchdog, the White House has directed other health agencies that got caught up in the Covid wars, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, to strengthen their scientific integrity plans, both to ensure that research is rigorous, bias-free, transparent and reliable — and that nonpartisan civil servants are making the research decisions.

The White House’s Office of Personnel Management last month finalized rules to make it difficult for Trump, or any president, to strip civil servants in policymaking roles of their job protection, an idea Trump pursued weeks before the 2020 election.

It’s not clear it'll work. Trump hasn’t revealed his plans for the agency if he wins in November, but he could dispense with NIH’s scientific integrity plan. It’s not written into law or regulation. His allies view it as a means to shield scientists infected with progressive ideology, as well as a corrupt bureaucracy that’s too cozy with its grantees, from scrutiny.

"NIH is ripe for drastic reform," Roger Severino, who served at the Department of Health and Human Services under Trump and is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, told POLITICO. An agency reorganization and an executive order to make it easier to fire federal workers are both on the table, Severino said.

Elaine Kamarck, who sparred with civil servants when she led then-Vice President Al Gore’s effort to make government agencies operate more like businesses and now directs the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution think tank, said she thought "soft power" was an apt analogy for Biden’s effort to shield the agency’s researchers.

"It might be just warning everybody: We shouldn't mix politics with scientific agencies," Kamarck said. If Trump were to toss that principle aside, “There's some sort of precedent established for intervention — or at least for saying you should intervene.”

A legal gauntlet

Former presidents know how hard it is to change the way government agencies work.

Gore's Clinton-era crusade to reinvent government had some success in pushing agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs to operate more like businesses. But Gore left civil service rules alone.

Former President George W. Bush’s bid to make the government more like the private sector by limiting union bargaining rights and implementing performance-based pay and discipline systems at the Defense and Homeland Security departments flopped.

Unions sued. The courts stepped in. His successor, President Barack Obama, signed legislation repealing Bush's plans.

Policy experts believe a Trump bid to strip civil service protections would face another legal gauntlet.

"I would not be the least bit surprised if there would be legal challenges from people who would have their rights taken away from them," said Jacqueline Simon, policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, the nation's largest federal employee union.

Trump should have no illusions about what he’s up against, according to Joel Zinberg, who worked on health policy on the Council of Economic Advisers during Trump’s term. "The NIH is an entrenched political organization. They are a very powerful institution in Washington. The directors there often go directly to Congress to get their funding.”

That independence from the White House, in Zinberg’s view, allowed the CDC to zero out non-health concerns in its pandemic response, and the NIH to permit too-cozy relationships with outside researchers to develop.

Zinberg, who’s now a senior fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute and a director at another think tank, the Paragon Health Institute, described the grantmaking process at NIH as inbred, political and self-reinforcing, with grants concentrated at select institutions. That structure favors older and established researchers at the expense of funding higher-risk research, thus impeding innovation.

Decentralizing the agency’s power could mean moving institutes and centers — such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci directed — out of one health agency and into another. Existing law gives the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services authority to reorganize or abolish agency subdivisions, Zinberg said.

Zinberg thinks it's unlikely that institutes or centers will be abolished altogether, but under a Trump administration, "less scientifically directed" groups, like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences or the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, might be at risk for cuts, mergers or rehousing.

"There's going to be a push to decentralize the power there and make it a more democratic process," he said.

A new mission statement

During Trump’s term, his White House intervened to change public health officials’ recommendations.

Trump officials pressured the CDC to change language in a report about pediatric Covid cases in 2020. In the lead up to the 2020 election, Trump advisers mounted a pressure campaign on the FDA to reauthorize the unproven Covid treatment hydroxychloroquine.

At NIH, Trump repeatedly hinted that he wanted to fire Fauci over his handling of the pandemic.

"The previous administration used debunked reports and misleading data to justify policies that put the health and well-being of all Americans at risk," a White House spokesperson told POLITICO in a statement. "The Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized evidence-based decisions and policy informed by robust research and unimpeded by political interference."

But Severino said it’s hypocritical for Biden to call anyone out for politicizing the bureaucracy. "He was the one most responsible for the very politicization he's complaining of," Severino said, citing Covid, gender-identity science and abortion as three areas in which the Biden administration has mixed science and politics.

The Heritage Foundation, which has staffed conservative administrations for decades, has a sweeping presidential transition plan known as Project 2025 aimed at bringing the bureaucracy to heel.

Among Projects 2025's plans for NIH: Limiting the power of agency officials by making it easier to fire them, and beating back the diversity, equity and inclusion culture that the group says has infiltrated scientific research and is now embedded in the agency's mission.

The NIH's scientific integrity plan calls for an agency environment that’s “safe, equitable, fair, just, impartial, honest, and inclusive," and it says "diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility are integral components of the entire scientific process.”

Severino said the agency should instead focus on a "dispassionate, objective search of truth.”

"They want to put their thumbs on the scale in favor of preserving the woke tendencies that already exist at NIH," he said, adding: "We can't have an unelected fourth branch that’s able to do their own thing.”

A different NIH plan

The plans described by Zinberg and Severino aim to use executive power to remake the NIH, but lasting change would require Congress to agree.

Democrats, of course, would resist, but even a GOP-led Senate might not go along.

Bill Cassidy, the Louisiana Republican in line to lead the Senate committee that oversees NIH if the GOP wins Senate control this fall, offered his own strategy for NIH earlier this month.

It's more akin to Kamarck's plan under Gore than Heritage’s Project 2025.

Among his suggestions: ensuring that late-stage research does not come at the expense of early-stage research; streamlining the peer-review process; tapping the NIH’s Scientific Management Review Board to provide feedback on agency structure and operations; and improving transparency to help build back public trust that was damaged during the pandemic.

He declined to comment on how he envisions working with Trump on it.