I confess to a palpable sense of relief. After four years of attacks on science, corruption of the process for making science-based decisions, and a government that exacerbated the big challenges facing us like climate change, racial injustice, and the pandemic, I finally have some hope. I remember my father, a Marine in World War II, telling me that when the war ended, he and his friends went up on the mountain in Hawaii (where he was in the hospital) just to breathe in the air of a new life.
Over the past few weeks as the Biden-Harris administration has begun to form, I and many of my colleagues have been meeting with various federal government agency review teams. These are the people responsible for ensuring that the new administration has the information ready for the new government officials in each agency to set a strategic agenda. I can only describe it as a pleasure. We have been talking to knowledgeable dedicated people who want to listen to constituents. They are not dismissive. They are not dogmatic. But full of questions and hungry for information. In the four years of the Trump administration, I had exactly one meeting with an agency head (the EPA administrator) and it was basically an argument.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has made clear commitments to listening to scientists, letting scientists inform the public, and making policy based on science. For years, this is just what UCS has been calling for—from all administrations. And it isn’t enough to just reverse the corruption of the last four years. We need to replace the damage with better forward-thinking policies and better government.
Four years of fighting back
The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS has worked hard on the process by which science informs decisions. We have fought the current administration’s efforts to impose restrictions on the science that agencies can consider in crafting public health and safety protections, under the guise of “greater transparency.” We have pushed back on changes to the way costs and benefits are evaluated that would give outsize weight to costs to industry and devalue health benefits to the public when making regulations to cut pollution. We have fought changes to how agencies obtain and utilize independent science advisory boards consisting of outside experts. And more. Sometimes we have won these battles, but many are not over as the courts have not yet spoken. But we have done all we could to ensure that the courts will hear our arguments about why these essentially political decisions sideline science in making policy.
There are other bad actions pending that we still need to fight even in the final stages of the Trump administration. They are accelerating leasing for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, without adequate assessment of its impacts on indigenous peoples and fragile ecosystems. Rules are being finalized that ignore the scientific evidence of health impacts of fine particulate matter pollution and ozone. Changes to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are being pushed through that would greatly weaken conservation and habitat protections while ignoring the impacts of climate change. And more. The incoming Biden administration will need to address all of these problems. It will take time but the opportunity is not just to roll back the rollbacks, but to “build back better” as the President-elect says.
It’s time to rebuild our country and our democracy
So let’s have real transparency in rulemaking that serves the public interest with better and faster access to science and more opportunity for affected communities to voice their needs and concerns. Let’s talk about the real benefits that disadvantaged communities of color must have to protect basic health and safety after enduring years of environmental injustice, rather than letting industry off the hook for the toxic pollution that threatens lives. Let’s base rules on science and public need, so that we can achieve fair and equitable outcomes that directly address racial injustice rather than only protections for wealthy, white communities. And we have to tie together the challenges of climate change, social justice, and the transformation of our economy to support public health, safety, and sustainability for all.
To do all this, we need not just a strong federal workforce that needs to be rebuilt from the ravages of the Trump administration, but the opportunity for people across the country to contribute to rebuilding our country and our democracy. We need federal agency leadership to be truly representative focused on serving all the public. The Biden-Harris administration is well on the way to fulfilling this need, but we all must hold them to it. Not to punish but to participate the process.
This means scientists and other young professionals early in their careers should consider how they can engage in public service. How all of us can support the calls for social justice. How we can each push back on efforts to undermine democratic processes and institutions, from voting to redistricting and the census. It is not just the job of the Biden-Harris administration to “Build Back Better.” It is the job of America.
I am up for it. Are you?