By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Since Election Day and into the first weeks of the Trump presidency, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts” and clampdowns on the ability of scientists to present scientific evidence or speak to the press. Congress last week signaled its intent to neutralize the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments by cutting science out of the way they make policy.
But together, we can raise the political price of manipulating science or censoring scientists by exposing these actions and publicly communicating their consequences for public health and the environment. Sometimes, this requires people within government or who are funded by government to speak up and share challenges that they experience or perceive.
UCS has many years of experience working with government employees, journalists, and members of Congress to get stories out in a way that protects those with information to share. We want to hear about actions that compromise the ability of science to fully inform the policymaking process—and the consequences of those actions. We also want to hear your stories that describe how government data and government experts protect public health and safety.
Just as there are many steps in the policymaking process, so too are there many ways to attack and politicize science. People often think of the muzzling of scientists, or the censorship of documents. This happens, of course. But there are other, more subtle ways of inappropriately influencing how science is used to make decisions. A partial list is at the end of this post.
Political interference in science can be difficult to assess. It’s often not clear whether a person’s actions are normal or crossing the line—especially within an administration where some don’t want to leave a paper trail. To that end, feel free to share what you’ve heard or what you’ve been told verbally. Our staff are ready and willing to help you figure out the best course of action.
You should also consider approaching the official who is responsible for implementing your agency’s scientific integrity policy for advice. Outside of government, in addition to UCS Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Government Accountability Project, and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund are all good resources for learning more about your rights and responsibilities.
Now that partial list of subtle and overt ways that vested interests have used to undermine or politicize science, in no particular order:
- Prevent scientists from publishing research, or delay publication of research (see: former EPA clearance process)
- Prevent scientists from presenting at or attending scientific meetings that are relevant to their work (see: airborne bacteria)
- Diminish or destroy agency scientific libraries and library content or similar resources (See EPA, Department of Fisheries Canada)
- Allow agencies with conflicts of interest to second-guess or undermine the work of agency scientists through the inter-agency review process (see: the chemical perchlorate)
- Require scientists to manipulate scientific methods (See: lead in children’s lunch boxes)
- Restrict the types of information and methods that experts can use (See: attempts to prevent climate scientists from using scientific models)
- Manipulate or censor scientific information in testimony before Congress (see: CDC testimony on climate change and public health)
- Place misinformation on official government websites (see: breast cancer)
- Redefine terms to prevent the successful application of science to policymaking (see: OMB peer review guidelines, critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act)
- Promote scientifically inaccurate educational curricula (see: abstinence-only sex education)
- Refuse to comply with court-mandated analysis (see: endangerment finding)
- Waste scientists’ time with baseless subpoenas or open records requests
- Manipulate agency scientific documents before release to create false uncertainty or otherwise change the scientific meaning (see: endangered species)
- Limit or prevent scientists from communicating with the media, the public, or Congress, including social media, or through requiring minders that sit in on interviews with agency scientists (see: numerous reports from journalists)
- Prevent scientists from speaking to the press, or have “minders” present to ensure that scientists say the “right” thing
- Selectively route interviews away from scientists with inconvenient scientific analysis (see climate change and hurricanes)
- Remove or decrease accessibility to government data sets, tools, models, and other scientific information, or stop collecting data altogether (see Canada’s Harper Government)
- Appoint technically unqualified people or people with clear conflicts of interest to federal science advisory committees (see childhood lead poisoning)
- Use political litmus tests for federal advisory committee membership (see workplace safety panel)
- Threaten, demote, or defund scientists who refuse to change information (see Vioxx)
- Create a hostile work environment that causes scientists to self-censor (see FDA surveillance)
- Disregard the law by not making decisions solely on best available science when statutorily required to do so (see air pollution limits)
Threats to science-based policymaking and public access to scientific information— essential components of democracy—have never been more real. But scientists are also ever more committed to defending the integrity of science in the policy making process. We depend on sources with knowledge of what’s happening within government to help us prevent a weakening of the federal scientific enterprise and the public protections that science informs.
Once again, that link for reporting what you see: www.ucsusa.org/secureshare.