The United States has a complicated history when it comes to science. The very birth of the nation is bound up with the European Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the notion that reason should inform the self-government of free peoples. President Jefferson wrote that science “is more important in a republic than in any other government.” Decades later, President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences to “provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”
But science has also been frequently misused by the US government. And in the Trump era, independent scientific advice is increasingly under threat. Such advice has been ignored and devalued across federal agencies under this administration, including at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), where last year, we might well have had a “Chief Scientist” with no scientific credentials at all, but for that nominee’s past racist statements and unseemly ties to Russians during the Trump presidential campaign.
And it is at the USDA that we are observing what follows after merely ignoring scientists. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is relocating, defunding, muzzling and otherwise belittling the standing of his department’s scientists. In a move that stunned the staff and administrators of the Department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Secretary summarily announced, without consultation, that these agencies would be banished from their DC locations and that the ERS would be shuffled from its current position in the organizational chart, where it logically reports to the Department’s Chief Scientist, to within the Secretary’s office.
Lest you believe that these are obscure bureaucratic moves of little consequence, opposed only by self-interested researchers and administrators who are threatened by what Perdue is characterizing as a cost-saving, streamlining move, take stock that no informed observers accept or understand the Secretary’s stated rationale, including professional scientific societies, farmer organizations, and even the members of Congress charged with USDA oversight. In fact, over 1,100 scientists have stated their resolute opposition to this move.
But what is clear is that the agencies will become less effective in fulfilling their mission to support independent scientific research and analysis, that the agencies will be less appealing to scientists and economists, and that ERS in particular will be subjected to political pressure to ensure its analysis supports the Secretary’s agenda. In the words of Susan Offut, former ERS administrator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Secretary is “throwing away a world class research institution.” The Chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senators Roberts (R, Kansas) and Stabenow (D, Michigan), wrote Perdue asking for fuller explanation of the Secretary’s irascible move, including its legal premises. Rather than elaborating and illuminating his rationale, the Secretary responded obstinately, only restating his original rationale, the equivalent of a breezy teenage “whatever.”
And why would an administrator seek to diminish and dilute the labor of a first-rate scientific establishment? One doesn’t need to look too intently to realize that the various outlandish claims on which Perdue’s agenda is based are contradicted by the objective analysis of his department’s own scientists, ranging from the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the degree of economic concentration in agriculture and the asymmetrical distribution of government subsidies to large corporate farms.
Many won’t remember, but the Trump USDA’s efforts to suppress inconvenient facts are not without precedent. The predecessor to ERS was the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), shut down in the 1950s by the racist namesake of the USDA’s main building on the mall today, Jamie Whitten. Late in his life Whitten recanted some of his earlier odious social views, but when it mattered, the Representative from Mississippi and chair of the powerful House Agriculture Appropriations Committee opposed, among other progressive measures, all efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act. And he did to the USDA’s economists what Perdue is again attempting to do now. The crime of the BAE? They documented the USDA’s discriminatory practices against the African-American farmers of Whitten’s home state of Mississippi. When Whitten was persuaded by President Kennedy to approve reestablishment of today’s Economic Research Service, he did so subject to the condition that its economists refrain from repeating such “hound dog studies.” In other words, this has happened before. It can happen again.
Let us be clear—as citizens of the 21st century, and particularly as people living in the United States—that none of the world’s current challenges, from climate change to clean power to agricultural sustainability, can be addressed effectively without sober and competent scientific perspective. For all their flaws and imperfections, the nation’s founders were creatures of the Age of Enlightenment and students of the Scientific Revolution. They fancied themselves giving pride of place to the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. The United States was the socioeconomic and political experiment they set up to to implement these novel and powerful insights. They envisioned the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together. In this, they exemplified a kind of bold, novel pragmatism that aspired to put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base government policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.
That experiment, fraught as it has been, is—shall we say—clearly teetering at the moment. But it is an intent well worth remembering in today’s highly polarized political environment.