Lessons for Fighting the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | July 25, 2017, 10:05 am EDT
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With all the recent headlines about the Trump administration’s attacks on the government scientific enterprise—from dismissing scientists from advisory committees, to hiring untrained or conflicted heads of agencies, to blatant misinformation from administration officials—it can be difficult to think about the solutions. But we must. My new paper, out this week in Conservation Biology, does just that. 

The red-legged frog was one of several species that got caught up in politics during the George W. Bush administration in the US. Several administrations in the US, Canada, and Australia have had issues with political interference in science policymaking. Photo: USFWS

While many of the Trump administration’s attacks on science seem unprecedented, we can draw many lessons from past administrations’ hostility toward science—both in the United States and outside of it.

In “Defending Scientific Integrity in Conservation Policy Processes: Lessons from Canada, Australia, and the United States,” my coauthors and I lay out lessons for advancing scientific integrity in government science policy, with a focus on conservation policy processes.

The paper is being released just proceeding next month’s meeting of the Ecological Society of America meeting, where I’ll be moderating a panel on current attacks on the Endangered Species Act and how scientists can engage in policy decisions.

Defending scientific integrity in conservation policy

Here are some of the paper’s key findings for what governments should do to advance scientific integrity in decision-making around conservation:

  • Strengthen the policies that grant government scientists the right to speak
  • Guarantee public access to scientific information
  • Strengthen agency culture of scientific integrity
  • Broaden the scope of independent scientific reviews
  • Enhance transparency around conflicts of interest around scientific advice
  • Proactively engage with scientific societies

The “political interference in science” playbook

While many of President Trump’s recent moves have raised concerns about the future, when it comes to the administration’s treatment of science, we must remember that in many ways we’ve been here before—both in the US and outside of it.

In terms of conservation policy, we don’t have to look to far to find past examples of interference in government decision making. Many of you may remember Julie MacDonald, the political appointee from the George W. Bush administration who (among other offenses) tampered with a scientific document supporting an endangered species listing for the Gunnison sage grouse.

This was just one of several examples of political interference in US endangered species policies. Other species that got tied up in politics at the time were the bull trout, right whale, marbled murrelet, trumpeter swan, polar bear, and red-legged frog. Canada, in the Harper administration, and Australia, under the Howard administration, also experienced political interference in government science.

Many of these cases demonstrate the same thing: that political forces can exploit weaknesses in the policy process in order to sideline inconvenient science. A lack of transparency in the process, inappropriate access to scientific documents by political officials, lack of access to government scientists, and lack of collection of or adherence to science advice, for example, can create conditions that make it easier for politics to intrude in what should be science-based decision making.

Learning lessons, finding solutions

During and following the many and varied attacks on government science under the George W. Bush administration, the Union of Concerned Scientists and others got to work developing policy solutions. It was clear that the system had vulnerabilities that allowed such interference to happen. What kinds of policies could have prevented such blatant intrusions of politics into science policy making?

There were lots of issues to address. But we learned a thing or two. Canada and Australia, too, learned from their former leaders who were hostile to science.

The paper lays out some of the solutions found to be common among the three countries. The lessons teach us that while damage can certainly be done during such times where science is silenced, sidelined, or manipulated; there are ways to move forward and policies that can be put in place to prevent such future abuses of power.

The path forward: keeping science in conservation policy

While we might fear what the Trump administration will do when it comes to conservation policy, in many ways we know the playbook. We know what to watch for and where the vulnerabilities are. We also have new protections and a federal workforce who intends to do their jobs.  So let’s continue to think about and advocate for solutions. It is our only hope.

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  • Beverly Payton

    Excellent post on what gov should do to better engage with and use science in policy making. I would add that an important thing scientists can do is engage more with the public and translate science into layman’s terms with an emphasis on how it impacts lives. Also, processes in the scientific method and peer review should be a required lesson plan in schools. Sadly, it seems that those skeptical of scientific findings don’t undersand the rigorous process involved in achieving concensus.