Biden Administration’s ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ Push Violates its Own Scientific Integrity Rules

Biden Administration’s ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ Push Violates its Own Scientific Integrity Rules

  • February 19, 2024
The inclusion of ‘indigenous knowledge’ contradicts Biden’s vow to have science drive policymaking

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced it has filed a complaint against the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) over controversial, and contradictory, changes to its scientific integrity policies. While the Biden administration initially promised an elevated respect for science in the federal government, its subsequent directives to factor “indigenous knowledge” into decision making, including a recent decision by the Department of the Interior to cancel seven oil and gas leases in Alaska, refutes these high-minded commitments and aspirations.

At the outset of his administration, President Biden signed the Scientific Integrity Memorandum, which required “the highest level of integrity in all aspects of executive branch involvement with scientific and technological processes” and that “[s]cientific findings should never be distorted or influenced by political considerations.” Further, the Information Quality Act requires agencies to make decisions using rules based on reliable sources of information and is “designed to ensure that the Federal Government relies on information of appropriate quality for the decision being made.”

But in 2022, the White House released new government-wide guidance on including indigenous knowledge in Federal research, policy, and decision making. Under OSTP guidance, indigenous knowledge is considered “a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, practices, and beliefs” that the Biden Administration “has formally recognized” as “one of the many important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States, and to our collective understanding of the natural world.” OSTP then takes this one step further by elevating indigenous knowledge above empirical science:

Agencies do not need to judge, validate, or evaluate Indigenous Knowledge using other forms of knowledge in order to include Indigenous Knowledge in Federal policy, research, or decision making. [emphasis added]

In September, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland authorized the cancellation of seven oil and gas leases in Alaska, claiming the decision was, in part, “in recognition of the Indigenous Knowledge of the original stewards of the area.” DOI also identified a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Proposed Rule, which incorporated OSTP’s Guidance on Indigenous Knowledge. If adopted, BLM’s Proposed Rule would require “BLM to rely on the best available scientific information, including Indigenous Knowledge” in future management of the area in Alaska where the leases are located. However, the inclusion of a definition of indigenous knowledge is new, and DOI seemingly utilized the term without legal authority.

The White House Guidance and BLM Proposed Rule are clearly at odds with Biden’s signed Scientific Integrity memorandum as well as the Information Quality Act, given that indigenous knowledge requires no such evidence-based decisions. The guidance also explicitly denigrates “Western science” by claiming it has “been used as a tool to oppress Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples” and that it uses “methodological dogma.” The application of indigenous knowledge is plainly susceptible to abuse in ways that can harm others, including Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples that it purports to protect.

A prime example is the Biden administration’s decision to cancel the leases in Alaska that some local indigenous people believe could cause severe harm to the local economy and, ironically, injure a significant population of indigenous peoples – many of whom outspokenly opposed these cancellations for sound reasons of their own. Whose indigenous knowledge takes precedence in such cases is not clear and objective means for deciding between the two are not obvious. Does the indigenous knowledge of those in power or close to those, such as Secretary Haaland, who are in power have more weight or receive priority over the indigenous knowledge of those who are not? At least in the case of the Alaska leases this appears to be the case.

“The elevation of subjective beliefs over and above evidence derived via the scientific method flies in the face of the Biden Administration’s purported fealty to science,” Michael Chamberlain, director of Protect the Public’s Trust, says. “Indigenous knowledge makes no claim to being ‘data’ or ‘evidence-based.’ Since it is not subject to validation, evaluation, or replication, it appears highly susceptible to being misused as a tool to further political agendas. For all the administration’s bluster about unleashing the science and restoring the role of science in policy making, moves such as this reinforce the public’s growing suspicion and mistrust of government.”