What I Will Say to the House Committee on Natural Resources about Attacks on Science

July 24, 2019 | 4:13 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former contributor

I will be testifying tomorrow (Thursday, July 25) before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources concerning attacks on science in the Trump Administration and scientific integrity at the Department of Interior. It is a great opportunity to highlight for members of Congress the important role that independent science plays in public policy. And in the current Administration, how fragile that role is.

When I speak about attacks on science I am referring to cases where scientific information is censored, manipulated, or the scientists themselves are subject to intimidation so that they are less likely to share their work. Unfortunately, this has happened well over 100 times in this Administration. In other words, the policies of this Administration have too often sidelined the science that should be a critical component of deciding how to best protect the interests of the American public. As a consequence, we all pay a price in health, safety, and the quality of our environment or the use/misuse of public resources.

Attacks on science

Here are some examples of attacks on science at the Department of Interior that I will bring forward in my Congressional testimony:

  • In October 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reversed their long-standing requirement that a proposed city-sized development in southeastern Arizona needed a comprehensive biological assessment to evaluate the potential impacts to endangered species in the area. The FWS official in charge of this process recently said that the only reason he reversed his decision was because he was pressured by a high-level political appointee at the Department of the Interior (DOI). The FWS reversal led the development, Villages at Vigneto, to receive a permit to build by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
  • The Department of Interior (DOI) failed to consider and excluded from public view 18 memos from staff scientists who had raised scientific and environmental concerns about proposed oil and gas operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. These documents were excluded from the DOI’s draft environmental assessment and were not released during Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by advocacy groups.
  • In an effort to censor science around adaptation to climate change, and in direct contrast to instructions from Congress, the Trump administration defunded Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), causing 16 of the 22 LCCs to be eliminated or placed on indefinite hiatus. LCCs are governmental research centers located across the US that integrate science-based information on climate change and other stressors to better conserve and protect natural and cultural resources.
  • A proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was found to be full of errors regarding wolf conservation and taxonomy. One member of the scientific panel asked to review the proposal said it seemed as if the proposal was written by cherry-picking evidence that would support de-listing.
  • In 2017, scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) completed a comprehensive analysis of the potential dangers three widely used pesticides may present to hundreds of endangered species. Two of the pesticides, chlorpyrifos and malathion, were deemed by the scientists to “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish, and other animals and plants. However, before the scientists could publish their report in November 2017, top officials from the Department of Interior (DOI), including then deputy administrator of the DOI, David Bernhardt, intervened. The DOI officials blocked the release of the report.
  • In a two-year period, the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) gave offshore oil drillers 1,679 waivers to regulations that tested the safety of equipment, rather than collect critical safety data. More than a third of the waivers were for engineering testing procedures for blowout preventors, the device that failed to seal off BP’s well when it erupted in 2010 and killed 11 workers during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  • Two National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) studies were halted mid-course for the first time in NASEM’s 150-year history. One was requested by Appalachian states to better understand the impact on drinking water of mountaintop removal mining. The other was investigating how to improve safety of offshore oil and gas development as recommended by a National Commission after the Gulf oil spill.
  • Department of Interior officials removed climate change references from the press release of a USGS study on California coastline infrastructure and sea level rise.
  • DOI blocked Bureau of Land Management archeologists and USGS scientists from attending prominent research conferences in their fields.
  • Fish and Wildlife Services rushed a scientific assessment of the American burying beetle, reportedly to avoid disrupting agribusiness. Two biologists left the project, feeling like they were being forced to do shoddy science.
  • The superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park was summoned to Washington to be personally reprimanded by Secretary Zinke after the Park’s official Twitter account posted about climate change.
  • Government scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) warned that the use of seismic surveys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could further threaten the polar bear population. Officials of the Trump administration appear to ignore or censor this information from consideration as the process of opening up the refuge to oil exploration continues.

In addition, there are broader scale attacks on science that impact Interior and other agencies. These include:

  • Restricting the science that agencies can consider to only those studies where all raw data and computer code is publicly available, precluding using information that appropriately should be kept confidential (e.g. health records, endangered species location information). This restriction on science is supposedly to improve transparency, but that is a false justification. Making information publicly available is laudable but rarely is it necessary to make raw data available for a study to be understandable and carefully scrutinized. I review dozens of papers for academic journals and do not review the raw data. But requiring raw data disclosure restricts the ability of agencies to use the best information. And in particular it prevents the use of population-level studies that can be vitally important to address public health, safety and environmental threats across the Department’s bureaus of Indian Affairs, Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife.
  • Reducing by fiat the number of expert advisory panels agencies rely on, and favoring regulated industry interests over independent experts on those panels. President Trump recently issued an Executive Order cutting the number of agency advisory panels by one-third. This would not save much money since most committees are pro bono, and it would remove a critical avenue for peer review and scientific advice for absolutely no benefit other than to sideline science.
  • Altering the consideration of costs and benefits to downplay public benefits, thereby calling into question the appropriateness of certain regulations, and misusing the very concept of cost-benefit analysis.
  • Arbitrarily restricting the length and timeframe for NEPA analyses regardless of the amount of scientific information needed, as well as circumventing the NEPA process, depriving the public of the consideration of options and the information that supports different policy alternatives.

The Scientific Integrity Act

The Scientific Integrity Act introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (NY), and co-sponsored by over 200 members of the House, is good government legislation. It is agnostic on matters of policy; rather, it aims to ensure that policies are fully informed by science. The legislation contains many of the best practices that have been identified for the development and maintenance of a thriving federal scientific enterprise.

Putting such legislation in place is vital because current policies, including the Department of Interior’s Scientific Integrity Policy, do not have the force and effect of law. They can be and are being ignored all too often, as the examples above show.

The legislation prohibits any employee from manipulating or misrepresenting scientific findings. On issues from endangered species to toxic chemical contamination to worker safety, political appointees have personally made changes to scientific documents (or ordered that changes be made) in order to justify action or lack of action on public health and environmental threats.

The legislation helps ensure that government communication of science is accurate by giving scientists the right of last review over materials that rely primarily on their research. It also gives scientists the right to correct official materials that misrepresent their work. This provision makes it less likely that federal agencies will put out inaccurate information, either intentionally or inadvertently.

The legislation ensures that scientists can carry out their research—and share it with the public—without fear of political pressure or retaliation. It enables scientists to talk about their research in public, with reporters, in scientific journals, and at scientific conferences. The bill empowers federal scientists to share their personal opinions as informed experts, but only in an individual capacity, not as government representatives. This is essential due to the amount of censorship and self-censorship that has been documented on issues from climate change to food safety.

The legislation requires agencies to devote resources to designate scientific integrity officers and provide federal employees with appropriate training to help prevent misconduct. Some agencies have developed policies that have no enforcement mechanisms, rendering them virtually meaningless.

The legislation would not empower scientists to speak for their agency on policy matters. It would not enable scientists to circumvent the agency leadership with regard to policy decisions. It would be clearly applied to expressing views with regard to their scientific expertise.

Concluding remarks

Not all attacks on science are matters of scientific integrity. Policy decisions that fail to consider scientific evidence are just that, and harm our nation. Science identifies threats to public health or environmental concerns and also is critical for evaluating how different policies might serve the public interest. Public policy is all about serving the public. The government should act on our behalf, not that of any industry or special interest. If activities on public lands precludes use of that land for any other member of the public, we should know the consequences. And decision makers should be clear about how and why a given decision was made. If the science is censored, the implications for the public don’t go away; they are just hidden.

Allowing scientists to be free from censorship, manipulation of their results, or intimidation would go a long way toward improving the decision-making process. And it would strengthen the ability of government to truly serve the public interest.

The United States has a strong and vibrant science community. That community is part of the strength of our democracy. But when science is sidelined from public policy or scientific integrity is compromised, public health, safety, and our environment is undermined. Simply put, we cannot make good policy in the public interest unless we fairly consider the weight of scientific information fully.

Every American community needs strong public protections built on reliable and honest evidence to address the environmental and public health challenges they face. But federal agencies can’t do their critical work to serve the public if they are used as pawns in political games. You can help by telling your representatives that scientific integrity protections are part of good government, and both parties should support that.