What Should the Next President do to Restore Science to Decisionmaking?

January 29, 2020 | 10:00 am
David Everett Strickler/Unsplash
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

Today, we’re releasing a new report, Presidential Recommendations for 2020: A Blueprint for Defending Science and Protecting the Public. In this report, we outline a suite of recommendations that the next president can take to protect the health and safety of the public through restoring science to government decisionmaking processes. The report focuses on strengthening three major principles underlying science-based decisionmaking: independence, transparency, and free speech.

Why care about science-based decisions?

Throughout the nation’s history, the safety and health of the public have depended on the government’s commitment to and use of science. The scientific process remains humanity’s best tool for understanding the natural world. It is our best method for finding cures for illnesses, assessing threats to human health and safety, protecting our air and water, forecasting dangerous weather, and developing solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems.

But the Trump administration’s unprecedented attacks on the use of science to inform critical decisions (120+ and counting) are hampering progress on our nation’s urgent and pressing issues. The Trump administration recently skirted the advice of scientists and put into place a rule that will make it easier for industries to pollute our country’s waterways. The president defied meteorologists through issuing an incorrect pathway for a major hurricane, and in doing so stoked fear in the heart of many Alabamans. The current administration also has suppressed several scientific reports preventing critical information from informing policies that would protect the health and safety of people.

While political interference in science-based decisionmaking is not new, the Trump administration has proven unprecedented in its attacks on science. And when science is sidelined, the public’s well-being is put at risk. That means that the Trump administration has really placed our health and safety in jeopardy. Therefore, regardless of who is next to sit in the oval office, it is imperative that they put in the work to restore science to the center of decisionmaking.

What do we recommend?

We have a lot of recommendations so you should check out the full report to see them all—or see our checklist to get a glimpse of the most important steps the next president should take to bring science back to its rightful place in policy. Our recommendations fall within seven broader categories: promoting science-based decisionmaking, strengthening scientific integrity, enforcing transparency in decisionmaking, addressing conflicts of interest, safeguarding pathways for government scientists, fostering public participation in decisionmaking, and protecting democratic processes.

Without giving away too many of our recommendations, I’d like to highlight some that I think are incredibly important for the next president to take. The first is that the president should strengthen Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, issued in 1994. Low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities are often the individuals who are first and most strongly affected when administrations sideline science from decisions. Yet, federal agencies are not mandated to consider justice and equity consequences when they form new rules, often do not consult with these communities or environmental justice experts when drafting safeguards, and do not have to consider the cumulative impacts of all existing chemicals in a community. It’s time that these communities receive the science-based protections they’ve needed for a long time. We can no longer wait for safeguards to be put into place for these communities, the next president must address these long-standing inequities.

Another recommendation that will be important is that the next president encourage diverse, widespread, and fair participation in the rulemaking process. Our government is supposed to work for us, and that’s why there is a system set-up so the public can comment on the safeguards that federal agencies put in place. But the process is sometimes flawed as it may only allow privileged individuals to participate or may not be long enough to allow an individual to give a substantive comment. The next president should make sure that the public can participate in the rulemaking process, and that the process by which one makes a comment is transparent and understandable.

There’s a lot of work to do

As mentioned previously, there are many more recommendations in the report, and I can’t possible lay them all out here. The next administration will have their work cut out for them, and that work is incredibly important. It is important because people’s lives, their health, their children’s health, their livelihoods all stand to be greatly impacted.

But you have your work cut out for you, too! The next set of leaders who will determine what role science plays in our government will be set by you. There’s a lot you can do to ensure that science and the values of equity and integrity are at the forefront of this election. You can educate yourselves about where the candidates stand on science and the values of equity and integrity. You can talk to others in your communities about why science matters and where candidates stand on science-based issues. And most importantly, you can register to vote and then head to the polls and vote for science! If you’re looking for more opportunities to make sure science is a vital issue discussed as part of this election year – check out what more you can do to be a voice for science and democracy.

I’ll be remembering the wise words of Rosalind Franklin this year, “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”