This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic
Suppressed studies. Muzzled scientists. Disbanded scientific advisory committees. These are some examples of the gross violations of scientific integrity that the Trump administration has carried out during its 3½ years in power. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have been tracking these attacks on science since day one and our tracker has now hit a new, grim milestone – the Trump administration has so far engaged in more than 150 attacks on science, far exceeding the attacks recorded during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, where death counts have reached 150,000, there has never been a clearer example showing that the Trump administration’s willful disregard of science comes at a fatal cost.
This is not normal. This is an egregious pattern of ignoring, sidelining, and censoring the voices of scientists and their research. Science underpins some of the government’s most important health, safety, and environmental decisions, such as keeping pollution out of the air we breathe, safeguarding us from exposure to toxic chemicals, and protecting endangered species from being wiped out forever. By shifting policymaking away from science-based decisionmaking, the Trump administration is prioritizing political concerns at the expense of all our health and safety.
The consequences of attacking science
Just over a year ago, my colleague Jacob Carter reported that the Trump administration had attacked science 100 times. In this piece, Dr. Carter reported the shock we in our organization, along with scientists, decisionmakers, and members of the public, felt at such an overwhelming disregard of science. According to our counts, it took the Trump administration 2½ years to match the number of attacks on science carried out over an eight year period by the George W. Bush administration, an administration widely regarded as one of the most antagonistic administrations towards science in modern history.
The harms and the costs of the Trump administration’s attacks on science are staggering. Consider just the following two examples, which are illustrative of the scale of damage from these attacks.
First, there’s the administration’s rollback of the EPA’s “once in, always in” rule, which protected people from industrial air pollution, could result in an excessive and dangerous amount – up to 35,030 tons per year – of additional hazardous air pollutants like mercury and benzene. Hazardous air pollutants are known or suspected cancer-causing agents and are also associated with other serious health effects like birth defects, lung damage, and death.
Second is President Trump’s decision to rescind an executive order designed to help communities estimate flooding risks – this will diminish the ability of the government to protect communities living near 800 Superfund sites that are at risk of extreme flooding in the next 20 years. Living near a Superfund site is associated with serious health conditions like lung damage, nerve damage, brain damage, blindness, cancer, and in some cases death.
Attacks across virtually every federal agency
The Trump administration’s attacks on science have affected virtually every agency that employs science in its decisionmaking processes. The bulk of these attacks (39 of them) have occurred at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including examples like disbanding a scientific advisory committee that studied particulate matter air pollution, ignoring its own scientists on the dangers of asbestos, and scientists being ordered by the White House to downplay the harms from a chemical that damages fetal hearts.
A large number of attacks (26 of them) have also occurred at the Department of the Interior (DOI) Examples include halting a National Academy of Sciences study researching the health effects linked to mountaintop removal coal mining and deeply undermining the science-based processes underlying the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
But even federal agencies that you may not expect to be on this list – such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Department of Education, the State Department, NASA, and the Navy – have been the targets of the Trump administration’s relentless pattern of sidelining science.
Making long-standing inequities worse
But perhaps, most distressingly, these anti-science actions are exacerbating long-standing inequalities and disproportionately affecting the health and safety of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Marginalized communities – i.e. Indigenous communities, low-income communities, and communities of color – face the brunt of the consequences when science is attacked, further eroding the ability of communities to advocate for their human rights to live a place free of toxic waste and other hazards.
What’s more, the Trump administration’s attacks on science have had devastating effects on children, resulting in harms that could endanger the health of children and future generations for years to come.
Sidelining science during a pandemic is deadly
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration continues to carry out and escalate its pattern of attacking science exactly at the moment when we need science to save our very lives. Federal scientists are facing unprecedented restrictions from communicating to the public which, according to a previous analysis of ours, has never happened before in the US during a global epidemic in the 21st century.
In the six months that the pandemic has been raging in the US, we’ve already documented 11 times across 9 federal agencies when the Trump administration’s attacks on science have directly undermined the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
From suppressing CDC reports on how to safely operate businesses, schools, and houses of worship during the pandemic (unbelievably, this has already occurred three different times) to undermining the processes used to collect COVID-19 data at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the CDC, the Trump administration has made clear that even during a deadly pandemic it will continue to attack and dismantle the science-based decisionmaking processes that protect the health and safety of every single person living in the United States.
We must fight to protect science
With such violations of science occurring on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, it is all the more important that we remember that we are not helpless in this fight to protect science. All of us can take actions to protect the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones during the pandemic, such as by learning the best ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 disinformation and actively protesting the decision to pull COVID-19 hospitalization data away from the CDC.
Those of us who work at the Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to watchdog the Trump administration’s attacks on science and, with your help, we will continue to work hard and push back on this egregious erosion of our science and democracy.
Visit our Attacks on Science tracker to learn more about the Trump administration’s anti-science actions. You can sort the attacks by federal agency, type of attack, and more.
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