The Damage to Science that President-Elect Biden Can Undo with a Stroke of a Pen

November 10, 2020 | 4:07 pm
Great Snapz/Flickr
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

The last four years were not great for science-based decisionmaking, but President-elect Biden can undo a good amount of damage by rolling back President Trump’s executive orders that sidelined science.

We have tallied over 170 attacks on science by the Trump administration…and counting! The list includes a slew of different types of attacks including misconstruing scientific information, suppressing scientific publications and reports, censoring scientists, and even trying to restrict the use of science in decisionmaking. Even during a pandemic that has resulted in thousands dead – science has still been sidelined.

Luckily, not all was terrible over the past four years. Because an administration turned to such unprecedented measures to sideline science, measures that we never thought an administration would turn to, we have learned how to better protect federal scientists and their work. We have published a slew of recommendations for how to get science back to the forefront of decisionmaking, ranging from how a Biden administration should strengthen scientific integrity policies to how they can increase scientific capacity.

While it may take a long time to fix all the damage to science-based decisionmaking that has occurred during the past four years, a Biden administration can easily reverse a lot of damage on day one. With a simple stroke of a pen, President-elect Biden can undo many of President Trump’s executive orders that attacked science-based decisionmaking.

Here is a list of the executive orders that the Biden administration should undo on day one:

Executive Order 13771 — entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs“— is an executive order that directs agencies to repeal two existing regulations for every new regulation. This executive order is ludicrous. For every new public health safeguard that an agency creates (e.g., setting a new standard for air pollution), the agency then has to undo two of its prior rules (e.g., limiting mercury pollution and carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles). It doesn’t make sense to undo more public health safeguards to create less of them. As UCS President Ken Kimmell previously wrote about this rule, “If a new regulation is warranted, it should be issued.  If an existing regulation is outdated or no longer effective, it should be changed. One shouldn’t be held hostage for the other.”

Executive Order 13766 — entitled “Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects” — and Executive Order 13807 — entitled “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects” —  establish a new system that limits scientific information by expediting environmental reviews. These executive orders join other efforts by the Trump administration to streamline environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Protection Act. The orders force scientists to limit their findings to a certain number of pages and place restrictions on the number of years that scientists must conduct environmental assessments. But what if an environmental assessment takes longer for scientists to conduct than two years, for example? Or what if they need more pages to document their findings? Where do they sacrifice the science and what does that mean for our environment? I will tell you—ultimately it means more harm to our environment that we could have prevented if we let the scientists conduct their work.

Executive Order 13875 — entitled “Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees” — mandated the elimination of one-third of federal advisory committees. These committees, often scientific, consist of outside experts who provide advice to the agency on their policies and rules. They are a critical component of science-based decisionmaking and often serve as an external check to ensure the agency is making a decision that is consistent with the best available science. As my colleague Genna Reed wrote in a post on EO 13785, “This is an attack on the way that facts and verified information feed into our government. Its very premise threatens our democracy.”

Executive Order 13950 — entitled “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” — has slowed progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in federal agencies, as well as restricted social scientists speaking to federal employees about social issues such as explicit and implicit bias. The executive order requires DEI trainings to be stopped across the federal government. While such trainings will not entirely solve sexism or racism in the workplace, they help to carve a path forward for progress. The order also could potentially restrict many social scientists from studying DEI issues. We’ve already seen this EO affect DEI work, for example employees at NOAA were instructed to take leave time to attend DEI trainings under this EO. Let’s be clear – racism and sexism absolutely exist in the workplace and there need to be trainings and systems in-place to combat both of these issues. Additionally, these trainings and systems should be informed by the best available science on DEI, and scientists who study these issues should be supported.

Executive Order 13957 — entitled “Creating Schedule F In The Excepted Service” — does two things that undermine science: 1) makes it easier to fire federal scientists who don’t fall in line with the administration’s agenda, and 2) helps bury anti-science political appointees in the federal service for years to come after they should be gone. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy, said that “the only thing the new order does regarding the ‘deep state’ is make it more of a reality than it ever has been.”

These executive orders have weakened strong science-based processes that protect public health and our environment. The Biden administration should reverse them immediately to stay true to their course of relying on scientists and their work. This won’t fix all of the damage created over the past four years, but it’s a start and a way for the Biden administration to quickly show that they will value science and the protections it affords to all of us.