What Can Concerned People Do about Attacks on Science?

July 1, 2019
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Ask a Scientist – July 2019

J.V. of Austin, TX, asks “What can ordinary people do about attacks on science?” and Anita Desikan, research analyst with the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, answers.

From its first days in office, the Trump administration has been launching attacks on science that have undermined the public health and environmental protections that truly make America great. But my primary message to you is this: Don’t despair. You have a lot more power than you realize to turn things around.

Congressional delegations answer to their constituents: Don’t forget, your senators and representative are directly answerable to you. Your vote put them in office and your vote can replace them. Your elected representatives want to be able to show that they are doing the best they can for their constituents, so sending them emails, writing them letters, calling their offices, attending public meetings, and setting up one-on-one meetings with them can have a real impact.

Take per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of manufactured chemicals that have contaminated drinking water supplies across the country. Exposure to PFAS can heighten the risk of developing cancer, harm the immune system, and cause thyroid disease. Instead of taking steps to protect the public from PFAS chemicals, however, the Trump administration has suppressed a comprehensive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention PFAS report and failed to enact strong safety standards based on the best available science.

Fortunately, Congress has stepped into the breach. Lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to set a health-based standard for PFAS in drinking water. Why did Congress move on this issue? Because people just like you contacted their elected representatives, shared their stories, and asked them to protect their communities.

People can amplify their clout and create change at the local level: You are not alone in this struggle. There are others just like you in your community who want to do something. Writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper is an effective way to reach those people. There are power in numbers, so building coalitions (pdf) and hosting educational events (pdf) in your community also can be a great way to mobilize support. Is there a local environmental organization in your town? If so, join it!

Such efforts can bring about real change. For instance, Hawaii and California both banned the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that can impair children’s brain development, after the Trump EPA ignored the recommendation of its own scientists and refused to ban it from agricultural use. Community activists in those two states played a critical role in convincing their state legislators to take the pesticide off the market.

Be the change that you want to see in the world: The Trump administration’s blatant disregard for science-based protections has encouraged people who normally do not get involved in these issues to become more civic minded. UCS and other science advocacy groups are dedicated to giving longtime activists and these newbies the tools and technical information they need to engage at the local, state and national level.

In sum, there is a lot that people can do to take action against attacks on science and change things for the better, and UCS has your back.

Anita Desikan is a research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she investigates the role of science in public policy, focusing on topics like scientific integrity at federal agencies, and political interference in the scientific rulemaking process. She earned an MPH in environmental health and science policy from George Washington University, an MS in biomedical science from Drexel University, and a BA in psychology/biology from Pitzer College.

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Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.