It is not exactly a secret that these are challenging times for both science and democracy in the US. From attacks on science and science-based policies, to the increasing body of evidence that we may not be able to count on the federal government to protect public health and safety, the days are long, and not just because of the summer solstice. Leading the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists gives me, and my terrific colleagues, the opportunity to be in the middle of the fight to defend the role of science in our country. But there are a lot of things coming at us, and many of them are, to say the least, negative.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary (M-W) has come to our rescue with new ways to say “this sucks.” The increased ability to use descriptive language may save my sanity. So here goes, my first try at using this great new resource:
First on the list, Pessimum, defined by M-W as “the least favorable environmental condition under which an organism can survive.” This seems to fit the conditions for EPA employees to a tee. These dedicated public servants are now overseen by a hostile staff of political appointees with direct ties to regulated industry. Their Administrator not only ignores science but seems to go out of his way to make decisions contrary to the scientific evidence. And while many senior scientists and technical experts are leaving, with encouragement from the Trump administration, it seems nearly impossible for new talent to come on board one of the premier public health agencies in the world. That’s about as unfavorable as conditions can get. In their definition, M-W illustrate with a quote about the Irish population during the Great Famine. Maybe next time they can refer to our poor underappreciated colleagues at the EPA.
Next, Catastrophe, defined by M-W as “utter failure”, which in the 16th century meant “the final action that completes the unraveling of the plot…” Sounds like the President’s budget proposal to me. Reductions in funding across programs AND personnel on the order of thirty percent at EPA, Interior, Energy, NOAA and other agencies, with science programs in the crosshairs. Reductions in grant funding proposed for NIH, NSF, and even cuts at the CDC. It is not even clear what the theory of change is here, other than “unraveling” or destruction. The budget proposal even signals that this administration doesn’t think universities should be able to charge overhead at levels that enable our great research institutions to continue to function and train new scientists. On second thought, maybe catastrophe is too mild a descriptor….
But then there are many uses for the next word in the list, Worstest. Even though M-W views its definition as “a substandard variant of worst”, it seems that the Trump Administration can lay claim to many of the worstest actions in its first six months of any administration in modern times. The program for regulatory rollbacks leaps to mind, including the President’s Executive Order requiring federal agencies to withdraw two regulations for each new one put in place. It is the worstest idea I have ever heard to base the decisions on public health and safety protections solely on costs to industry, with no consideration of benefits to the public. The whole reason for regulations is to protect the public interest, as a recent report from the Center for Progressive Reform so clearly lays out.
Merriam-Webster defines The Limit as “a very annoying and upsetting person or thing.” I have to go with withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as The Limit so far. Annoying and embarrassing for our country, yes. Upsetting? Oh yeah. Backing away from leadership in the world. Reneging on our agreements with the international community. Refusing to face up to one of the major challenges of our generation—that’s The Limit.
The word Putid, M-W tells us, means “rotten, worthless.” That’s a perfect description for the decision by EPA Administrator Pruitt to essentially gut the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) for the agency. These independent scientists, appointed for their expertise, are non-partisan and have great value in helping guide the scientific program of work for EPA. They don’t weigh in on regulatory decisions. They are offering their expertise to make sure the science is strong. But apparently the new administration doesn’t want that advice and has failed to renew their appointments, suggesting they can reapply for these positions. Given that all of the Counselors are highly respected scientists with full-time jobs and were serving this extra duty in order to serve the public, that’s a putid offer.
Maleficent is an elegant word meaning “productive of harm or evil” according to M-W. Perhaps there is no better illustration than appointing lobbyists from regulated industries to oversee regulatory programs in federal agencies. Like the American Chemistry Council lobbyist who is now directly managing the new rules for protecting our families from toxic chemicals. Passing the law was a signature bipartisan achievement of the last Congress. But, the rules are maleficently being weakened, making us all less safe.
Merriam Webster has given us a few more on the list. But I should save those for another time, as I don’t think we have seen the last action by this administration that undermines the role of science in our democracy and causes us to reach for the dictionary.
It is better to end on a more positive note. The M-W also gives us synonyms for “optimistic” such as auspicious, heartening, promising, propitious, and upbeat. And there is so much energy in the scientist community, along with those who care deeply about science, that we can and must fight back. This spring we saw an auspicious beginning for that energy in the March for Science. It is propitious that here at UCS we have seen more and more scientists joining our Science Network. That’s heartening. Later in July, we’ll be reporting on the first six months on the Trump Administration’s attacks on science in more detail. So let’s fight back for our public health, safety and the environment. We can win.