Nine Trendy Words for the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science

January 2, 2020 | 5:50 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a blog called the ABC’s of Sidelining Science by the Trump Administration because there were so many examples of this administration’s disregard for scientific process and evidence that I could readily/easily fill out the alphabet. I thought of updating my alphabet-of-wrongdoing at the end of 2019, but then thought it would be more helpful/interesting/etc. to instead utilize a great resource that Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, put online called “Trending Words in the News.” While these are cool words that appear in news stories, my intent is to use them in descriptions of recent science-related actions by the Administration. Here we go. Click on the highlighted words for definitions. Other links are to UCS blogs and reports on various issues.

Braggadocio. Earlier this year, President Trump gave a speech on his environmental “accomplishments” full of claims about all the great things he was doing for the environment. More recently, Trump again touted his great concern about climate change. Suffice it to say that this was pure braggadocio, as I pointed out in a previous blog. In fact, air pollution has gotten worse during this administration, reversing a thirty-year trend of improving air quality. The US played a negative, blocking role at the recent climate change meetings in Madrid. And a host of other impacts show that the administration’s environmental record is nothing to brag about.

Probity. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the manager of vast areas of federal lands that are held in the public trust. That means they are managed on behalf of all Americans, not just those who seek to exploit their natural resources. But William Pendley, the acting head of the BLM, has massive conflicts of interest that keep him beholden to the exploiters not the people. To make matters worse, many of the BLM’s Washington, DC staff have been required to relocate to Grand Junction, CO or quit the agency, even though their jobs require them to work with other agencies and Congress in DC. And, believe it or not, the new headquarters in Colorado is in the building that is home to Chevron, a state oil company and a natural gas company, all of whom exploit public lands. All this leads to a real question of the probity of BLM leadership.

Insidious. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has continued to try to finalize a new rule restricting the science the agency will consider in protecting public health and safety, the primary mission of this agency. The proposed rule and recent supplemental proposal would mandate that the agency principally rely on scientific studies where all of the underlying raw data, computer code, models and other information are fully publicly available. This despite more than 600,000 overwhelmingly critical comments on the proposal, largely from the science community, but also from Congress, concerned about excluding important research based on medical information that can’t be made public. While the agency has performed no analysis of the impact, cost, or consequences of imposing such a rule, nor even clearly stated and analyzed what problem they are trying to solve, the proposal has far-reaching impacts for public health. It would exclude many studies of the population-level impacts of pollution, known as epidemiological studies. And it would allow the EPA Administrator, not scientists, to decide what scientific information could be included, by giving she/he the power to exempt studies from the requirement. Even the agency’s own Science Advisory Board can’t seem to find any redeeming features for this proposal. The impact is truly insidious, potentially setting back public health protection for decades.

Egregious. Without any justification or guidance, the President has ordered that one-third of all federal advisory committees be terminated. This despite the fact that these committees provide expertise from outside of government for very little cost (mostly just meeting travel). Apparently, this administration doesn’t want external advice from scientists and other experts, with Administrator Wheeler proposing a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” approach just recently. At the EPA they have gone even further by declaring that scientists with agency research grants have conflicts of interest and may not serve on advisory boards but industry-based scientists and consultants are free from conflicts and may provide advice. This is such an egregious manipulation of the process that even a federal appeals court recently questioned if it had any basis at all.

Dastardly. In addition to the relocation of BLM staff to Colorado for flimsy reasons, the Department of Agriculture has gotten into the act by reassigning two whole programs to move out of DC. Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture must move. Never mind that the programs will lose most of their staff. In fact, that seems to be the point of the exercise in the first place, even though it is illegal to transfer employees in order to get them to quit. A truly dastardly move that hurts farmers, consumers, and the country for no purpose.

Kangaroo court. Beyond simply cutting advisory panels, this administration has also gone out of its way to pack what should be panels of independent scientists with industry-tied members who are likely to give the answer the administration wants. A key case in point is the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the group tasked under the Clean Air Act with advising the agency on air pollution. But, in the Trump EPA, the panel is led by a consultant to industry who consistently maintains that a more “rigorous” test of cause and effect must be met before reducing the level of pollutant exposure. The majority of experts in the field view that test as inappropriate. If such as standard were applied, public health protections would be scaled back on pollutants such as fine particulate matter, which is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths annually in the US. An expert panel for reviewing the science concerning the health impacts of particulate matter pollution was dismissed. But, with a little help from the Union of Concerned Scientists, those experts decided to meet anyway and provide the advice the agency didn’t want to hear. So now the record clearly shows that the science supports reducing particulate matter pollution. Despite this, the official CASAC couldn’t reach a decision after holding a kangaroo court review of the science. Seems unfair to kangaroos in my view.

Quid pro quo. The industry that has benefited the most from Trump’s policies and reductions in public health, safety, and environmental protections is unquestionably the fossil fuel industry. Many of the political appointees in agencies from the EPA to Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior spent much of their careers lobbying on behalf of industry. And the administration’s positions denying the reality of climate change and withdrawing from the Paris climate accord have been at the behest of fossil fuel companies and their lobbying groups. So, what did they get in return for their support? Opening of public lands to oil and gas production. Potential leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And leasing of more offshore areas for oil drilling despite intense public resistance. For their support they got access to resources despite the public interest—the essential quid pro quo.

Mendacious. We would all like to think that our government makes every effort to protect children, especially from threats to their development. Unfortunately, there are many examples where this administration had the opportunity, the science, and the tools to take actions that would clearly benefit children’s health. But they failed. One of the most egregious, and also mendacious, concerns restrictions on the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Long-term scientific studies have shown the harm this chemical can cause to kids, particularly those in farming communities with high risk of exposure. But the EPA has failed to act despite the evidence, contrary to the facts. The courts have stepped in demanding that the EPA consider the evidence and justify why such a dangerous chemical should continue to be used, but still the agency failed to act. Mendacity is not an argument for refusing to act, in other words.

Stymie. There has been a lot of recent talk about “forever chemicals” like Poly Fluorinated Alkyd Substances (PFAS). The new movie “Dark Waters” is publicizing the issue and none too soon. There are known health effects even at low exposure levels. But military families and other communities are being exposed to extremely high levels. Unfortunately, neither the EPA nor the Department of Defense has stepped up. And Congress has so far not required action. Needed protections for public health have been stymied. But it shouldn’t be that way. The risk is clear and widespread across the country. More research, more technology and more protections all are needed. Not in five years, but now.

I know this list could go on for pages and pages. But I hope the point is made. These actions are not what the government should do. Not how policies should be made. We need to listen to the science advice, be focused on serving the public interest, and put health and safety at the forefront for everyone in this country. To make that a reality, everyone’s voice needs to be heard—not just industry, not just those supporting one political view, but everyone. Because we are the public. Speak up and Stand Up for Science.