Unraveling the Shadow Science Advice That Shaped COVID-19 Narratives

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by Roger Pielke Jr.

The so-called Proximal Origins[1] paper that dismissed the plausibility that COVID-19 may have resulted from a research-related incident sits among the most consequential failures of scientific integrity that I have seen in more than 30 years working on science and technology policy. My testimony documents these failures and argues that the production of Proximal Origins violated the Scientific Integrity policies of the Department of Health and Human Services and represented an improper mechanism of “shadow” science advice led by government officials that compromised possibilities for a formal and institutionally-appropriate investigation of COVID-19 origins.

Three Take-Home Points

  1. The production, publication, and post-publication treatment of the so-called “Proximal Origins” paper represents a major failure of scientific integrity by its authors, its unacknowledged ghost contributors (including U.S. government officials), and the academic journal that published it.
  2. In their roles contributing to the coordination of Proximal Origins, U.S. government officials, specifically Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins,[2] likely violated the Scientific Integrity Policies of the Department of Health and Human Services.[3]
  3. Proximal Origins was a form of “shadow science advice” and, at least in the United States, effectively served as an alternative to the empaneling of a formal expert committee to investigate COVID-19 origins.

The remainder of my written testimony elaborates on these take-home points.

Elaboration of the Three Take-Home Points

1. The production, publication, and post-publication treatment of the so-called “Proximal Origins” paper represents a major failure of scientific integrity by its authors, its unacknowledged ghost contributors (including U.S. government officials), and the academic journal that published it.

The events and timeline surrounding the publication of Proximal Origins are well established, thanks to the work of this committee, investigative journalists, and others, including members of the so-called DRASTIC community.[4]  Throughout this statement I highlight selected parts of the timeline relevant to my testimony.

Retraction is an important function served by academic journals. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) explains the purpose of retracting an academic paper:

“Retraction is a mechanism for correcting the literature and alerting readers to articles that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous content or data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon.”[5]

Retraction is not about sanctioning authors or necessarily making any judgment of research misconduct, but simply correcting the published record, as COPE explains:

“Unreliable content or data may result from honest error, naïve mistakes, or research misconduct. The main purpose of retraction is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity rather than to punish the authors.”

Proximal Origins meets the criteria for retraction because – as has been well documented – its authors did not believe the arguments that they were making in the paper, and thus Proximal Origins was not an accurate representation of their scientific understandings.[6] Proximal Origins thus contains “unreliable content.”

Proximal Origins authors wrote in the paper:

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus. . . we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

The authors did not in fact believe these statements to be true at the time that they wrote them and upon publication of the paper. This divergence of views – between those expressed in the paper and those statements made in private among the authors – is well documented and will not be reviewed here.[7]

“Ghost authorship” of Proximal Origins provides another basis for retraction. One of the co-authors of Proximal Origins, Robert Garry, believed that Farrar should be a co-author due to his leading role in preparing the paper, including making at least one significant edit – changing the description of the possibility of laboratory manipulation of COVID-19 from “unlikely” to “improbable.”[8] Such “ghost authorship” is a justifiable basis for a paper’s retraction.[9]

Farrar explained to the Proximal Origins authors that he would contact the editor of Nature, Magdalena Skipper, to encourage her to publish the paper. While such appeals from individuals in authoritative institutional positions are undoubtedly common in the high-profile world of prestige academic publishing, they are improper as they represent interference in the peer-review process.

In addition, the editor of Nature Medicine, which published Proximal Origins, used the paper to publicly advocate his preferred stance on the origins of COVID-19 – Specifically that discussions of a laboratory or manipulated origin amounted to “misinformation,” as seen in his Tweet below, which he posted on the day that Proximal Origins was published.

 
Journals and their editors are not arbiters of truth – they provide important and necessary forums where scientific claims are made, defended, and debated via peer-review, which is typically a low bar of quality control. A journal’s editors play a role much like a referee in a basketball game – Referees need to know a lot about the sport and its rules, but they themselves are not partisans in the competition.

Leading scientific journals have become increasingly political and partisan in recent years, for instance, Nature endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign[10] and the current editor of Science has opined on the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (a “charlatan and spoiler”).[11]

The editor of Science has also explained that Science takes editorial positions on behalf of the community aligned with “consensus”:

“In general, Science’s role is to provide a forum for these issues to be hashed out by others and for the editors to remain as neutral as possible while qualified experts generate consensus. Eventually, consensus emerges and Science takes a position on behalf of the community . . .”[12]

No long after, the editor of Science expressed his view that a consensus existed in the scientific community that a “lab leak was very, very, very unlikely” and recommended that it no longer be discussed:

“I would say now, we’re almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn’t need to be included in [news] stories.”[13]

Editors and reporters at high profile journals frequently characterized views on COVID-19 origins as having a consensus on natural origins, which then made unnecessary further investigation (or even discussion). Proximal Origins was a key element of the supposed consensus.

While Farrar was overseeing the production of Proximal Origins, he co-authored a letter to The Lancet with 26 other researchers that stated:

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. . . Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”[14]

More than a year later that letter was the subject of a lengthy addendum disclosing previously unreported conflicts of interest among its authors.[15]

More generally, it is remarkable that no high-profile journal has created a special issue on COVID-19 origins and invited the world’s experts with a range of views to contribute to a discussion and debate in the peer-reviewed literature, taking what is at times a juvenile and vitriolic debate off social media and into the scientific community. This inaction and incuriousness itself represents a major failure of scientific integrity, which could still be rectified.

The case for the retraction of Proximal Origins has multiple bases, including a divergence between its authors’ scientific understandings and those expressed in the paper and the presence of at least one “ghost author.”

I have previously made the case for the retraction of Proximal Origins, and there I concluded with the following:

“Without a doubt, the editor of the journal that published Proximal Origins and its primary “ghost author” had interests in characterizing a research-related origin as a “conspiracy theory.” The authors of the paper were happy to oblige. All of this is highly irregular and not only warrants retraction, but Nature and Nature Medicine should investigate and fix their compromised publication processes. . .

There is a much larger issue here . . .  The retraction of Proximal Origins is not just the right thing to do as a matter of established scientific practices. It is also an important test of trust.

Can the public and those who represent them trust the scientific community to conduct their work with integrity?

. . . I have studied science in policy and politics for more than three decades — and based on my knowledge and experience, I believe Proximal Origins to be the most significant corruption of scientific integrity this century, and probably much longer. The only comparable corruption was the “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco that was used to justify the war in Iraq.

Proximal Origins must be retracted to demonstrate to the world that we in the expert community can be trusted to correct course when we get off track. If we can’t correct course, then we will deserve the resulting loss of authority and legitimacy, to the detriment of science and society.”[16]

2. In their roles contributing to the coordination of Proximal Origins, U.S. government officials, specifically Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, likely violated the Scientific Integrity Policies of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the Obama Administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) requested that each federal agency develop scientific integrity policies.[17] The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was among them, and developed a policy that was in effect from 2012 to present.[18]

The 2012 policy outlined a set of principles and values that HHS officials should follow when dealing with scientific information. The HHS Scientific Integrity Policy in effect in early 2020 stated:[19]

  • “The development of authoritative scientific information is a primary focus of the missions of several HHS agencies, and HHS uses scientific information to support and inform policy and program decision making.  Accordingly, scientific and scholarly information developed by the Department or considered in Departmental decision making must be of the highest quality and the result of rigorous scientific and scholarly processes.  Most importantly, it must be trustworthy.  Accordingly, maintaining the integrity of our scientific and technical activities is essential.”

The actions of Fauci and Collins fell short of these expectations in at least three ways:

  • They circumvented formal mechanisms for securing scientific advice relevant to the mission of HHS by motivating the empanelment of an expert group to render a selective interpretation of the science of COVID-19 origins that would be published as Proximal Origins;
  • After helping to bring Proximal Origins into existence, both Fauci and Collins cited the paper in public discussions in support of their official views, without disclosing that they had assisted in shaping the paper around those same views;
  • Upon release of the backstage discussions among Proximal Origins authors and HHS officials, the existence of divergence in scientific understandings shared in private versus those expressed in public has become widely known, arguably contributing to a loss of trust in HHS and its officials.

The 2012 HHS Scientific Integrity Policy further states that;

“HHS shall sustain a culture of scientific integrity.  Scientific progress depends upon honest investigation, open discussion reflecting a balance of diverse scientific views, refined understanding, and a firm commitment to evidence.  Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses from inappropriate political influence.”

The process that led to the production of Proximal Origins did not reflect the HHS commitment to “open discussion reflecting a balance of diverse scientific views, refined understanding, and a firm commitment to evidence.”

Had the authors of Proximal Origins self-organized, without the shepherding role of HHS officials, they would have been simply one set of partisans in the scientific discussion of COVID-19 origins. The leadership roles of Fauci and Collins in shepherding the paper, and Fauci’s request to Farrar to shepherd it as well, meant that the process leading to Proximal Origins was necessarily under the umbrella of HHS Scientific Integrity policies.

Upon learning that WHO was not going to act on the time scale that Fauci and Farrar wished for an authoritative investigation of COVID-19, under the HHS Scientific Integrity guidelines it would have then been appropriate for Fauci and Collins to seek another institutional home for a formal investigation of origins. This could have been under the auspices of a new or standing HHS FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act) committee or in partnership with OSTP, NASEM, or via a request to Congress or the White House to establish a new body, drawing on precedents such as the 9/11 Commission.

By participating in the entire process of the production of Proximal Origins – from first discussions to publication and post-publication promotion – Fauci and Collins clearly violated the guidelines of the 2012 HHS Scientific Integrity Policy.

3. Proximal Origins was a form of “shadow” science advice and, at least in the United States, effectively served as an alternative to the empaneling of a formal expert committee to investigate COVID-19 origins.

One outcome of our NSF-funded EScAPE (Evaluation of Science Advice in a Pandemic Emergency)[20] project was elaboration of the concept of “shadow” science advice,[21] which is defined as:

“Formal or informal mechanisms of advice established outside of governmental science advisory processes to provide a counter or opposition body of legitimate, authoritative and credible guidance to policy makers.”[22]

The orchestration of Proximal Origins was a form of “shadow” science advice developed to counter assessments that COVID-19 could plausibly have originated in a research-related incident.

Instead, any such effort instigated by agency officials should have conformed with either the Federal Advisory Committee Act[23] or alternatively, conducted under the auspices of an existing HHS FACA committees, such as the National Biodefense Science Board.[24] Under such a formal mechanism, there would have been a requirement for an “open discussion reflecting a balance of diverse scientific views.”

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Roger Pielke Jr. is really saying something when he said he hadn’t seen such consequential failures of scientific integrity in more than 30 years.
He was the Tree Ring researcher who politely (at first) pointed out to Michael Mann that his “hockey stick” global warming chart was full of crap.
So, MAJOR failure in scientific integrity.

With them all competing for agenda driven science grants scientific integrity no longer exists.

Last edited 2 months ago by kitt