For the first time since taking office, the Biden Administration and 117th Congress can work without being consumed by the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill can now forge ahead on a COVID-19 relief package currently being negotiated and with confirmation hearings for Biden appointees. The House is looking to vote on a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package next week, which is expected to pass largely along party lines. The goal is for the House and Senate to send a completed package to the President by March 14 when current unemployment insurance relief expires. On the nominations front, President Biden’s picks to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Education, as well as Attorney General, are all still awaiting confirmation by the Senate. There will be a flurry of activity over the next few weeks to play catch up now that impeachment is complete.
Since Inauguration Day, President Biden’s spate of executive orders and presidential declarations have focused primarily on undoing many of the damaging actions of the last Administration. As expected, several actions were taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic, such as mandating mask-wearing in federal facilities, appointment of a COVID-19 Response Coordinator, and providing economic relief to individuals and families struggling with unemployment and underemployment, eviction, and other effects of the pandemic. In addition, numerous executive actions directly address the U.S. scientific enterprise and U.S. participation in global scientific efforts. Discussed in this issue are several recent actions taken by the Biden Administration that will be of interest to the social and behavioral science community.
Another early Biden Administration executive order rescinded various Trump Administration actions that attempted to push back against perceived “political correctness” by actions prohibiting trainings and other activities that touch on white privilege, structural inequality, implicit bias, and other supposedly “divisive” concepts based on decades of social science research. President Biden’s Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government goes beyond simply revoking the Trump Administration policies and instead sets a policy of actively working to improve racial equity government-wide. The Executive Order outlines a systematic approach for accurately assessing “whether agency policies and actions create or exacerbate barriers to full and equal participation by all eligible individuals” and identifying strategies to remove barriers. The Executive Order also establishes an Interagency Working Group on Equitable Data to be co-chaired by the Chief Statistician and the Chief Technology Officer and tasked with facilitating the collection of detailed demographic data on ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, or other key demographic variables in order to measure and advance equity across the government.
President Biden also signed several other Executive Orders intended to advance equity and inclusion, including orders prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation and combating bias against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
On January 21, President Biden issued an Executive Order ensuring that the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be guided by the best available science and data, further protecting from potential future public health threats. The Executive Order lays out several directives for federal agencies including focusing energy on building public health infrastructure, directing agency heads to share and coordinate COVID-19 data with other agencies, improving federal capacity for data collection practices, and reviewing existing public health data systems for potential areas for improvement. The Department of Health and Human Services is directed to ensure public health data systems that detect and monitor major public health threats are interconnected and interoperable and to review state and local collection of morbidity and mortality data to ensure these systems can quickly respond to emerging developments. The Executive Order also charges the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director with developing a plan for advancing innovation in public health data and analytics. The Executive Order is available on the White House website.
In addition to his day-one promise to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, President Biden has also issued executive orders directing federal agencies to review and, where appropriate, take corrective action to address or reverse actions of the Trump Administration that are found to be “harmful to public health, damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest.” On January 27, a detailed order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad was issued. Among other things, the order ensures that “climate considerations” will have a place in U.S. foreign policy and national security, promises a government-wide approach to addressing the climate crisis, including by establishing a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and interagency National Climate Task Force, and seeks action to spur workforce development in sustainable infrastructure, agriculture, and the energy sector, while also addressing environmental justice for the most vulnerable populations.
On January 27, President Biden issued a Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking that states the Administration’s policy to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data” and affirms that “scientific findings should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations.” The memorandum builds on and updates an Obama Administration Executive Order requiring federal agencies develop scientific integrity policies. President Biden’s memorandum establishes a Task Force on Scientific Integrity that will review existing scientific integrity policies and recommend improvements. It also sets more detailed requirements for what should be included in agency scientific integrity policies and outlines how these policies should complement agencies’ evidence-building plans required by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (see COSSA’s previous coverage). It also requires agencies that fund, conduct, or oversee scientific research designate individuals to act as Chief Science Officers and as Scientific Integrity Officials. See our previous coverage for more on the Biden Administration’s science team.
President Biden also signed an executive order to maintain the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a senior independent advisory body that consists of scientific experts from within and outside the federal government. As previously reported, PCAST’s external co-chairs will be Dr. Frances H. Arnold and Dr. Maria Zuber. The early action to preserve PCAST is a departure from President Trump, who waited nearly three years into his administration before reestablishing the council.
On January 22, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce, which repealed several Trump-era executive actions affecting the civil service. Notably, the executive order revokes the controversial Schedule F excepted service category (see previous COSSA coverage), which would have reclassified some federal employees to be more prone to hiring and firing as if they were political appointees. The executive order is available on the White House website.
On January 20, President Biden issued a presidential proclamation ending several orders from the Trump Administration banning certain individuals from traveling to the United States, primarily, individuals from African countries and countries with large Muslim populations. The proclamation also reverses many Trump-era practices used to aggressively tighten immigration such as restrictions on the visa process and the intrusive screening of individuals’ social media accounts.
At the same time, the Biden Administration has signaled potential actions related to the security of the U.S. research enterprise (see COSSA’s January 2020 and October 2020 Hot Topics for more info). In particular, the Biden Administration has turned its attention to the National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM)-33 issued in the waning days of the Trump Administration as a potential roadmap for research security policy. NSPM-33 lists several recommendations to coordinate federal agencies, academic institutions, and researchers in vetting foreign scientists traveling to the U.S. to perform research by collecting harmonized biographical data between agencies. This data would then be managed chiefly by the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to identify potential security threats. NSPM-33 can be read in full on the Trump White House archive.
Among the executive orders President Biden signed on his first day in office was an affirmation that Census population counts would reflect the total number of residents in each state—regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. It has been the government’s longstanding practice for Census figures to be based on the “whole number of persons in each state” (as described in the 14th Amendment). However, former President Trump had attempted to change this policy via executive actions to use administrative records to produce citizenship data and to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment counts produced by the 2020 Census. President Biden’s executive order formally revokes these actions. As a result, the Census Bureau has announced that it indefinitely suspended its work to produce more detailed citizenship estimates and will not include information on citizenship or immigration status in its redistricting data. As previously reported, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham resigned immediately before President Biden took office amid reports that he had been pressuring staff to release citizenship estimates in spite of concerns over the data quality.
The Census Bureau also announced that it is not planning to release apportionment data (which is used to allocate states’ seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College votes) until April 30. The Trump Administration had been pressuring the Census Bureau to release this information by the end of 2020, in spite of the operational delays caused by the pandemic and resulting concerns about irregularities in the data that could be exacerbated by rushed processing. Census stakeholders had been advocating since the conclusion of the enumeration operation that the Bureau be given additional time to perform essential quality control activities. The Census Bureau will also delay the release of redistricting data, which states use to redraw district boundaries based on population, by several months, although an estimate of when they will be published has not yet been made public.
On January 15, President-Elect Biden announced key members of his administration’s science and technology team. Dr. Eric Lander, a life scientist and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, will be nominated to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and to serve as the President’s Science Advisor. This role will also be elevated to Cabinet level for the first time.
Dr. Alondra Nelson, a prominent social scientist and President of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), a COSSA member, will be appointed to a new senior OSTP role: Deputy Director for Science and Society. Although details about the scope of this role are not yet available, it is expected that the new position will be broader and more senior than the role of Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, a position last filled during the Obama Administration.
Other notable members of the science team include Drs. Frances H. Arnold and Maria Zuber, external co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); Kei Koizumi, OSTP Chief of Staff; and Narda Jones, OSTP Legislative Affairs Director. In addition, the transition team announced that Dr. Francis Collins will stay on as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More details are available on the transition team website.