This post has also been published at ScienceNode.org.
“Thank you, Dr. Goldman. That was frightening.” Moderator Keesha Gaskins-Nathan said to me after I spoke last week as the only scientist at the Stetson University Law Review Symposium. My talk covered the ways that the role of science in federal decisionmaking is being degraded by the Trump administration, by Congress, and by corporate and ideological forces. Together these alarming moves are poised to damage the crucial role that science plays in keeping us all safe and healthy. This is why I will march for science this Saturday.
Science-based policy as we know it could change forever. Indeed, some of its core tenets are being chipped away. And a lot is at stake if we fail to stop it. We are currently witnessing efforts by this administration and Congress to freeze and roll back the federal government’s work to protect public health and safety, Congress’ attempts to pollute the science advice that decisionmakers depend on, and the appointment of decisionmakers who are openly hostile to the very missions of the science agencies they now lead.
A democracy rooted in science
America has a strong tradition of using evidence to inform policy. Past leaders of this country understood the value of making sure independent science—without the interference of politics—could inform government decisions. There are, of course, factors beyond science that go into policy decisions, but the scientific information feeding into a policy process should remain unaltered. This system works. While it is imperfect, this has by and large allowed the nation to ensure scientific integrity in policy decisions and prosper.
For example, under the Clean Air Act, air pollution standards are developed to protect public health. Let’s take ground-level ozone. Every five years, the EPA conducts exhaustive research on the relationship between ozone and health. A team of ozone experts from universities and other institutions across the country convene to discuss the science and make an official recommendation to the agency. The EPA then uses the scientific recommendation to set a new ozone standard.
This process allows science to be collected and debated separate from the policy discussion in a transparent way. This means the public can scrutinize the process, minimizing the potential for political interference in the science. The process also means the public will know if the policy doesn’t follow the scientific evidence and can hold decisionmakers to account (as they have in the past). But largely, this process has worked. Even in the face of tremendous political and corporate pressures, the EPA sets science-based air pollution standards year after year.
Threats to science-based America
We cannot afford to make decisions any other way. But now, this very process by which we make science-based policies in this country is under threat.
- Our decisionmakers have deep conflicts of interest, disrespect for science, and aren’t being transparent. This is a recipe for disaster. How can our leaders use science effectively to inform policy decisions if they can’t even make independent decisions and don’t recognize the value of science? EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for example, this month said that carbon dioxide “is not a primary contributor to global warming.” (It is.) This blatant misinforming on climate science occurred on top of his extensive record of suing the agency over the science-based ozone rule I just described (among other rules). This type of disrespect for science-based policies from cabinet members is an alarming signal of the kind of scientific integrity losses we can expect under this administration.
- Congress is trying to degrade science advice. A cornerstone of science-based policy is the role of independent science advice feeding into policy decisions. But Congress wants to change who sits on science advisory committees and redefine what counts as science. The Regulatory Accountability Act, for example, would threaten how federal agencies can use science to make policy decisions. Past versions of the bill (which has already passed the House this year and is expected to be introduced soon in the Senate) have included troubling provisions. One mandated that government agencies could only use science if all of the underlying data and methods were publicly available–including health data, proprietary data, trade secrets, and intellectual property. In another case, the bill added more than 70 new regulatory procedures that would effectively shut down the government’s ability to protect us from new threats to our health, safety, and the environment. It is a dangerous precedent when politicians—not scientists—are deciding how the scientific process that informs policy decisions should work.
- Scientists face intimidation, muzzling, and political attacks. No one becomes a scientist because they want a political target on their back. But this is unfortunately what many scientists are now facing. While it won’t be enacted in its current form, the president’s budget shows the frightening priorities of the president, which apparently include major cuts to science agencies like the EPA, Department of Energy, and NOAA. Communication gag orders, disappearing data, and review of scientific documents by political appointees in the first month of the administration have created a chilling effect for scientists within the government. Congress has even revived the Holman Rule, which allows them to reduce the salary of a federal employee down to $1. It is easy to see how such powers could be used to target government scientists producing politically controversial science.
Hurting science hurts real people
Importantly, we must be clear about who will be affected most if science-based policymaking is dismantled. In many cases, these burdens will disproportionately fall to low-income communities and communities of color. If we cannot protect people from ozone pollution, those in urban areas, those without air conditioning, and those with lung diseases will be hurt most. If we cannot address climate change, frontline communities in low-lying areas will bear the brunt of it. If we cannot keep harmful chemicals out of children’s toys, families who buy cheaper products at dollar stores will be hurt most. And if we cannot protect people from unsafe drugs (FDA), contaminated food (USDA, FDA), occupational hazards (OSHA), chemical disasters (EPA, OSHA, DHS), dangerous vehicles (DOT) and unsafe consumer products (CPSC), we are all in trouble. This is about more than science. It is about protecting people using the power of science. We have everything to lose.
But we can take action. We can articulate the benefits of science to decisionmakers, the media, and the public. We can hold our leaders accountable for moves they make to dismantle science-based policy process. And we can support our fellow scientists both in and outside of the federal government. It starts with marching, but it cannot end here.