Counting the Attacks on Science by the Trump Administration and Congress

March 20, 2017 | 4:10 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists launches a webpage to track attacks on science by the Trump Administration and the 115th Congress. The page will be consistently updated, and we’re planning to add a filter option to view the attacks by issue, agency, and type of attack (e.g. censorship, political interference, conflicts of interest, etc.).

We aim to document the impact of political interference in science on public health and safety, and to enable others to see patterns in Trump administration and congressional behavior. We’ve already seen quite a few attempts by the administration and Congress to dismantle the processes by which we use science to inform policy decisions. Only in recent years have we seen an uptick in the number of anti-science bills in Congress and many of them now have a significant chance of passing. This new political context is why UCS is devoting more resources to tracking and publicizing these wide-ranging and sometimes unpredictable attacks.

All the presidents’ missteps

Presidential administrations have politicized science for decades. During the George W. Bush administration, in response to a significant increase in attacks on science, UCS began keeping track of abuses and compiled them here. The list of attacks, coupled with surveys of thousands of federal scientists, demonstrated the breadth of the assault on science by the Bush administration. It was happening across issue areas and across federal agencies. It wasn’t just political meddling in a few controversial areas. Rather, it spanned reproductive health to endangered species to climate change to consumer product safety. It included political appointees rewriting and censoring scientific reports, muzzling of government scientists, and people being chosen for science advisory committees based on their political affiliations. At times, the White House interfered directly in what should have been science-based decision-making. All told, the attacks on science dented the public trust in government science and had adverse consequences for the American people.

When the Obama administration came in, UCS continued to document attacks on science, and pushed the administration hard to develop systemic protections for science and scientists. Vowing to “restore science to its rightful place,” the Obama administration took several steps to safeguard science from the kinds of attacks we saw under the Bush administration, including developing scientific integrity policies, creating scientific integrity officials, and implementing various transparency initiatives (Happy Sunshine Week, btw!).

A new website will track attacks on science by the Trump administration and Congress. All modern presidents have politicized science. In 2014, the Obama administration interfered with the FDA’s science on risks from cigar smoke. Photo: Brian Birke/Flickr.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration was not without issues when it came to science-based decisionmaking.  The administration chose politics over science when it overrode FDA Administrator Margaret Hamburg’s science-backed decision to approve Plan B emergency contraceptive as over-the-counter for all ages; never before had the White House overruled a drug approval decision. Bending to industry pressure, the administration initially failed to set  a ground-level ambient ozone standard that aligned with scientific advice despite pledging to do so. The White House weakened the scientific language on the health risks from cigar smoke in a draft FDA rule. Journalists repeatedly reported significant problems accessing government experts, and surveys of federal scientists suggest problems persist across agencies.

In many ways, the science-related missteps of past presidents give us clues as to the kinds of attacks on science we might expect from the Trump administration. We know the playbook, but with President Trump, this could be a different sport. We’ve already seen the president take several unprecedented steps beyond the type of politicization of science we’ve seen before. Just one example is the president’s illegal and illogical two-for-one executive order that if fully implemented would prevent federal agencies from carrying out their science-based missions.

Assessing the overall environment for science under President Trump

The webpage of attacks on science won’t be exhaustive, but instead will provide a representative sample of threats to the federal scientific enterprise. Likewise, the list won’t include many moves by the president and Congress that have implications for federal science and scientists. For example, the President’s Muslim ban hurts science and scientists, including those working for the federal government. And the President’s rescinding transgender protections is damaging to the inclusivity of the scientific community. Across the board budget cuts, as opposed to politically targeted ones, can still demoralize the federal workforce. These actions undoubtedly contribute to an adverse working environment for federal scientists trying to do their jobs. To measure cumulative impact, UCS will repeat surveys of government scientists once the Trump administration is fully up and running.

We don’t know where the next attack will come from. But now more than ever, it is crucial for us to document, understand and share. I’ll be busy for the time being.

Know of an attack on science that you don’t see on our page?  Let me know! You can contact me here, on Twitter at @GretchenTG, or via encrypted messaging services.