One Year of Attacking Science: How the Trump Administration Measures Up

, research scientist, Center for Science and Democracy | January 9, 2018, 4:15 pm EDT
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Having collected evidence on the multiple ways that the Trump administration has been attacking science over the past year, it is becoming clear that this administration doesn’t just want to hide or ignore the facts. This administration is attempting to decimate the scientific process.

At the six-month mark of this administration holding office, we documented 44 attacks on science in our report, Sidelining Science Since Day One—that number has now jumped to 64. The implications are frightening.

An open letter to the Trump administration

Prior to the Trump administration taking office, more than 5,500 scientists signed an open letter asking then president-elect Trump and the 115th Congress to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being. There are now more than 6,000 signatories on the letter.

These scientists called on the Trump administration and Congress to take several actions to strengthen the role that science plays in policy making. So how has the Trump administration measured up against the demands of thousands of scientists?

Appointing unqualified agency heads

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that science-based agencies be led by officials with a strong track record of respecting science as a critical component of decision making. Yet the Trump administration has often chosen leaders for science-based agencies that are unqualified, conflicted, and/or openly hostile to the mission of their agency.

For example, Kathleen Hartnett-White was just re-nominated to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the office in charge of overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Hartnett-White’s anti-science views on climate change, air pollution and health, clean and renewable energy, and the role of science in public policy suggest she would do little but harm our environment and public health. She is unfit for the position.

Other government leaders now in charge of overseeing the regulation of industry have come directly from those industries – a clear conflict of interest. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has financial interests that are not severable to the agency’s work on cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. Therefore, the director of the CDC has had to recuse herself from discussions and decisions regarding this work even though they are important issues the US needs to address. Without leadership on these issues, will the CDC be able to properly address these health challenges?

Some leaders also have been openly hostile to scientists. For example, Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was recently entangled in a decision to hire Definers Public Affairs to handle the agency’s press coverage. However, there is evidence that Definers was also involved in targeting EPA staff who have expressed personal views not in line with those of the Trump administration by submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for their emails. This sends a chilling signal to staff to not speak out against any wrongdoing within the EPA.

Dismantling science-based policy-making

Scientists also called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that our nation’s bedrock public health and environmental laws—such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act—retain a strong scientific foundation, and that agencies are able to freely collect and draw upon scientific data to effectively carry out statutory responsibilities established by these laws. They should also safeguard the independence of those outside the government who provide scientific advice.

Yet, we’ve not seen the Trump administration or Congress protect the scientific backbone of these bedrock laws. The 115th Congress introduced 63 separate pieces of legislation to undermine the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, we have seen Congress attempt to include harmful anti-science policy riders in negotiations around the federal budget, all aimed at gutting the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

President Trump also began the process to rescind the US involvement in the Paris Agreement, which will have lasting effects on the planet’s atmosphere and air quality. Furthermore, this administration has made it more difficult for the public to access information and data that science-based agencies provide.

There are multiple other examples of how the Trump administration and the 115th Congress have and continue to undermine science…

Targeting government scientists

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to allow federal agency scientists the freedom and responsibility to:

  • conduct their work without political or private-sector interference
  • candidly communicate their findings to Congress, the public, and their scientific peers
  • publish their work and participate meaningfully in the scientific community
  • disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science
  • ensure that scientific and technical information coming from the government is accurate

Since the Trump administration has taken office, we have seen federal scientists attacked. Federal scientists have been censored. They have been reassigned to undertake tasks not affiliated with their expertise. They have been prevented from attending conferences.

At the EPA, it is possible that some scientists may have been targeted for their personal views of the Trump administration. Additionally, the Trump administration is using various strategies to hollow out agencies by diminishing their scientific workforce.

Perhaps the most devastating impact of all, however, is that these actions create a hostile work environment for agency scientists that stokes fear, results in self-censorship, lowers staff morale, and sends a chilling message to scientists across the country that their work is not valued.

Slashing science funding

Lastly, the scientific community asked President Trump and Congress to provide adequate resources to enable scientists to conduct research in the public interest and effectively and transparently carry out their agencies’ missions.

Instead the Trump administration has proposed to cut a number of key research programs and slash substantial amounts of funding from science-based agencies. The administration has even withheld funding from research programs illegally. Congress also has attacked the funding of graduate students.

But when it comes to science funding, the true measure of the administration and Congress will be judged when a final decision on FY18 funding is made over the coming weeks, and a decision on FY19 funding is made over the coming months.

Scientists are keeping their word

The letter that scientists penned to President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress was an assurance that the scientific community would hold them accountable for the misuse of science in policy-making decisions.

Scientists have kept their word and are not taking these attacks on the scientific process lightly. They have successfully pushed back against and defeated anti-science nominees like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Graduate students mobilized like we’ve never seen before to defeat a provision in the new tax reform law that would have prevented poor and middle-class Americans from pursuing scientific careers. Scientists are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to march and let this administration know that they’re not scared to use the powers bestowed upon them in this country to fight back. And more than one thousand scientists have stepped up to watchdog the administration by speaking to the media, delivering testimony and public comments, reporting on missing data, creating sign-on letters to officials, exposing misinformation on social media, showing up at town halls, and building relationships with their legislators’ offices. You can learn more and join them here.

Science has saved many lives and provided our society with extraordinary benefits. We cannot afford to let this administration undermine it.

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  • papayaman

    Suspect #45 has no academic exposure to science after 8th grade general science, which he might have failed.