This post is the first in a series of quarterly roundups on scientific integrity.
Nearly three years into the Trump administration, we’ve seen so many attacks on science—as well as some spirited defenses of it—that it can be hard to remember all that’s occurred. To help us all stay on top of fast-moving situations, I’m starting a new project: quarterly updates on scientific integrity actions. The somewhat belated update for the third quarter of 2019 is below.
As a public health researcher, I want to see our government uphold scientific integrity: make decisions based on scientific evidence and the best available data, and ensure that the public has reliable access to independent scientific information and analysis produced, funded, or acquired by the federal government without political interference. We’ve seen the Trump administration violate scientific integrity many times—but we’ve also seen scientists, advocates, researchers, and affected communities stand up for the role of science in advancing public health and wellbeing. The third quarter of 2019 included both such problems and solutions.
Scientific Integrity Actions, July–September 2019
Under pressure from the Secretary of Commerce, NOAA threw its scientists under the bus in an attempt to avoid contradicting President Trump’s inaccurate information about Hurricane Dorian. After Trump tweeted that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian, National Weather Service (NWS) Birmingham corrected this misinformation. Trump then attempted to make it look like he was correct by modifying an outdated map of the storm’s possible path, and NWS parent agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a statement that suggested Trump was not entirely incorrect and that Birmingham NWS staff shouldn’t have done what they did to correct misleading information. NOAA’s acting chief scientist announced an investigation of this apparent breach of the agency’s scientific integrity policy, and it emerged that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—apparently at Trump’s direction—had used threats of firings to generate the problem statement (which NOAA leadership hadn’t wanted to make). Three former NOAA leaders filed a scientific integrity complaint about the events and publicly called for “Congress, NOAA, NWS, and the Department of Commerce leadership and the department’s inspector general to restore the public’s confidence in NWS weather forecasts and warnings by scrutinizing this breach of public trust.”
Looking ahead: Supporters of scientific integrity will keep urging Wilbur Ross to resign, while awaiting the results of investigations by NOAA’s acting chief scientist, the Department of Commerce Inspector General, and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
The Trump administration stepped up actions that gut federal agencies. At several agencies (EPA, Education, Social Security, Health & Human Services, Veterans Affairs), leadership has cut off collective bargaining or imposed a contract the union didn’t agree to. EPA officials unilaterally imposed a new contract that, starting July 8, took away grievance procedures, slashed telework options, sharply reduced the amount of time employees can spend on union activities, and took away space unions had previously used. USDA made an abrupt (and possibly illegal) decision to move its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture from the DC region to the Kansas City area, and gave affected employees 33 days to decide whether to make the move or lose their jobs. Loss of expertise is apparently the goal. At the Department of Interior, nearly all Bureau of Land Management staff are being moved from the DC area to various different offices out West—and the agency missed its deadline for telling employees where they are being assigned to move.
House subcommittees held hearings on scientific integrity. “Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies,” a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Research and Technology and the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, included testimony from UCS’s Michael Halpern and DOI whistleblower Joel Clement, as well as John Neumann of the Government Accountability Office and Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado; EPA did not allow its scientific integrity officer, Francesca Grifo, to testify as requested. Statements, discussion, and letters (including one from 60+ groups supporting the Scientific Integrity Act) submitted for the record demonstrated that scientific integrity is a topic that affects a wide range of issue areas, and comments from Republican members indicated a possible openness to supporting scientific integrity legislation. Op-eds from Ken Kimmell & Christie Todd Whitman and Representative Paul Tonko & Senator Brian Schatz bolstered the case for the Scientific Integrity Act.
A week after that hearing, the House Committee on Natural Resources held the oversight hearing “When Science Gets Trumped: Scientific Integrity at the Department of the Interior,” featuring Maria Caffrey, who had to fight to keep references to humans’ role to climate change in a DOI report; Joel Clement; and UCS’s Andrew Rosenberg, as well as Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation. Questioning at this hearing followed more familiar partisan lines.
Looking ahead: Scientific Integrity Act supporters are still working to get Republican support.
Scientists pushed back against suppression and distortion of science. Climate scientist Maria Caffrey, whose contract with DOI was not renewed after she insisted mentions of humans’ role in climate change remain in a report on climate disruption’s impacts on national parks, filed a whistleblower complaint with the help of Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. CDC epidemiologist George Luber, who headed the CDC’s Climate and Health Program before it was eliminated but is now barred from speaking publicly about climate change and on administrative leave, also filed a whistleblower petition; he is represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility with support from Government Accountability Project. Scientists who served on EPA’s particulate matter review panel, which the agency disbanded in 2018 despite their group’s crucial role in setting air quality standards, agreed to convene for a public meeting, hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, so that their expertise can still inform regulation of pollution.
Looking ahead: As Trump’s actions endanger the whistleblower whose revelations inspired the impeachment process, it’s a good time to highlight the crucial roles whistleblowers play and the inadequacy of current protections. And there’s never been a better time to highlight the many resources available, like the 2019 “Caught Between Conscience and Career: Expose abuse without exposing your identity” from the Project on Government Oversight, Government Accountability Project, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
- USDA suppressed a major plan on responding to climate change (UCS blog post here)
- Health & Human Services blocked employees from using social media to correct Trump’s lies about gun violence (UCS blog post here)
- Department of Interior altered and ignored scientific input in its rush to sell leases for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
- Fisheries Service suppressed report on how proposed changes to Central Valley water operations would harm protected species
- GAO report criticized EPA secrecy around FAC member selection
- EDGI report: The New Digital Landscape: How the Trump Administration Has Undermined Federal Web Infrastructure for Climate Information (news story here)
- UCS report: Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days (news story here)
- Center for Progressive Reform report: Regulation as Social Justice: A Crowdsourced Blueprint for Building a Progressive Regulatory System (blog post here)
Liz Borkowski, MPH, is managing director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She serves as managing editor of Women’s Health Issues, the peer-reviewed journal of the Jacobs Institute, and works with a wide range of organizations on protecting scientific integrity in the federal government.
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