This blog post was co-authored by Martha Kinsella, former senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. It was originally published in the blog STAT on November 10, 2023.
By Jacob Carter and Martha Kinsella
In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey brought Texas rain that just wouldn’t stop. After four torrential days, 75 people had died, and Houston — America’s fourth largest city — was deep under water. But given that the area is home to Superfund sites, fossil fuel fired power plants, and other petrochemical hubs, this wasn’t ordinary rainwater. It was more like a toxic soup. Aerial photographs taken in the aftermath of the storm show the luminescent sheen of oil slicks and other toxins spreading across the city. Dangerous chemicals were also in the air.
It wasn’t too long after the storm was gone that people started to feel sick. First responders’ and residents’ throats were burning, and many began to feel nauseous and dizzy. The National Aeronautics and Atmospheric Administration offered to fly an airplane equipped with the world’s most sophisticated air samplers over Houston to monitor air pollution. The plane can identify dangerous toxins, information that could have helped officials determine both possible health impacts to Houstonians from the disaster and the cleanup strategies to be used in recovering from the storm.
But an official with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality — who, in a former job, was a lobbyist for the petrochemical industry — declined NASA’s offer to use state of the art air quality monitoring equipment. Despite his agency’s legal obligation to monitor air quality, he said in an email uncovered by the Los Angeles Times, “we don’t think your data would be useful.” Meanwhile, residents and rescue crews continued to feel sick, despite assurances from officials that the air pollution posed no health threat. In fact, an investigation later showed that area residents, particularly those in low-income communities and communities of color, were exposed to carcinogens and other toxic substances.
This incident is one example in a report we’ve recently published cataloging times that state officials have abused their power by ignoring or manipulating data, intimidating government scientists, and more to politicize and distort science in the policymaking process. When they do so, it is the most underserved communities that tend to suffer the most. To keep such episodes from happening, states need to put in place laws and policies to safeguard the integrity of science used in policymaking.
For centuries, science and scientists have played an essential role in state and local governments, guiding initiatives and policy designed to protect the public, the environment, and more. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, state and local governments made some of the most consequential science-based decisions — about social distancing, masking, and school and business closures — to manage the spread of the disease.
But at the same time, news stories broke almost continuously about governors, mayors, and health officials in states from New York to Missouri to Florida manipulating infection and mortality statistics collected by government agencies, retaliating against public health workers, and suppressing research by government experts about the effectiveness of infection mitigation techniques.
Examples of abuse and manipulation abound outside of the health sphere, too. In Oklahoma, government officials with ties to the oil industry repeatedly pressured a seismologist working for the state’s Geological Survey to change findings in his research showing that fracking contributes to the occurrence of earthquakes. The seismologist ultimately left his job because he concluded that he “couldn’t be a scientist there.”
Officials at a California agency charged with regulating oil extraction in the state created fake records lacking required environmental impact analyses in order to authorize drilling permits, while maintaining substantial financial investments in companies that received the permits. And during lead contamination crises in Flint, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., government experts who discovered the contamination were ignored, silenced, and removed from their job, according to district attorney and inspector general investigations.
States lack the necessary safeguards to shield scientists and their work from politicization, and to hold wrongdoers accountable. A 2020 study from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund found that only two state agencies in the entire country — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — have publicly available policies to protect science in the policymaking process, often referred to as “scientific integrity policies.” Only 22 states have statutes that require state agencies to use the best available science in their work. According to analyses by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 12 states’ whistleblower laws do not protect state employees who disclose dangers to health, public safety, or the environment, while a staggering 41 states do not protect state employees who disclose violations of ethics rules. Oklahoma and Idaho have repealed their ethics laws entirely.
State legislatures must pass laws to protect science from politicization. That means shielding government scientists from politically motivated removal and ensuring that they can blow the whistle on abuse of science without fear of retaliation. State lawmakers must also strengthen government ethics laws to prevent abuses of science for financial gain and require state agencies to implement safeguards against politically motivated censorship of scientific research and data. Executive branch watchdogs — typically known as inspectors general — are needed to investigate and remedy abuse at state agencies with science-based missions.
Many of these reforms can be implemented as a matter of policy either in state agencies or by state governors, an approach that has had some success at the federal level. Scientists at federal agencies report that steps the Biden administration has taken to protect their work from politicization have had a positive impact, according to a recent survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists. When it comes to science-based policymaking in the states, federal agencies and Congress can raise standards at state agencies by requiring that they adhere to scientific integrity principles in the implementation of federal mandates and use of federal funds.
As the problems confronting all levels of government become more complex, the need for effective science-driven policy solutions becomes more imperative. That can only be achieved by addressing longstanding vulnerabilities to politicization of science at state and local government agencies across the country.