By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Two years into the Trump administration the damage done to science is significant, as we’ve highlighted in our just-released report, The State of Science in the Trump Era. But it would have been far worse without thousands of scientists and their allies calling out attacks on science and detailing the consequences of these attacks for public health and safety. The challenge now is to continue to build those public engagement muscles so that science has a constituency that is more powerful, relevant, and influential.
There’s never been anything like this
This is the golden age of scientist engagement in America. I have worked at the intersection of science and policy for 15 years. Many science policy experts have many more decades of experience. None of us have ever seen anywhere close to this level of sustained interest in defending the role of science in both societal and individual decisions.
Advocacy for science used to be contained to arguing for more funding. No more. At every scientific meeting, on every campus, at every happy hour, people are talking about how the science community can build resiliency to political attacks and articulate the future we want to see—in a way that empowers everyone who lives in this country.
I’m constantly energized and inspired by the experts and science supporters who take the time to learn and deploy advocacy and communications skills. Scientists in Montana organized a science policy workshop and are now sharing what they learned. Experts in Wisconsin are building their storytelling prowess. Science advocates from all over the United States regularly participate in public hearings to explain the real-world impacts of policy proposals.
And then there are the federal workers who take seriously their oath to serve the United States—even when they’re not getting paid and are worried about their mortgages and grocery bills and school fees. The ones who worked through the longest shutdown in American history, through attacks on their integrity from the political hacks leading their agencies, through censorship and uncertainty.
These are the people that keep me and my colleagues at UCS sane. These are the people who give us hope.
I truly believe that we are taking advantage of this time of great threat to both science and democracy to build an active, powerful constituency not only to counter the most egregious abuses of science but also to advance a future vision that makes science an indispensable part of equitable, fair, and just environmental and public public health decisions. After two exhausting years, our energy and determination and grit has only increased.
Out of two abominable years, hope
Federal science agencies were given authority to clean our air and water, protect us from unsafe products, encourage a level playing field among innovators, and make the American Dream more likely for everyone. This investment was driven by a conviction that research that prioritized the public interest was essential to our health and welfare. Over decades, these agencies built up incredible workforces who were not only top subject-matter experts but also understood how policy is made.
Yet the president’s early advisors pledged the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” which includes decimating these very federal science agencies. After two years under President Trump, on many levels, we are indeed a weaker country than we were two years ago, less prepared to meet complex environmental and public health challenges. The scientific workforce within government has fewer resources, less autonomy, and worse morale. Agency officials have often abandoned science advice, politicized the process of distributing scientific grants, and made it significantly easier for industries to influence the rules that are supposed to keep them honest.
But even with a hostile president, House, and Senate, a fully-engaged scientific community kept some of the worst attacks on science from being realized. At every step, scientists and their allies set expectations and spoke up loudly when those expectations were not met.
A letter to President Trump upon his election from thousands of experts laid out a roadmap for what a responsible presidency would look like. As these good government practices were violated again and again, scientists met with legislators, wrote op-eds, filed public comments, organized their peers, and even joined lawsuits to challenge illegal activity. And the Science Rising project mobilized thousands to inject science issues into the 2018 midterm elections.
Here’s a sampling of these successes, as highlighted in our report on the Trump administration’s first two years:
We stopped some of the most unqualified and conflicted nominees. The Senate was mostly a rubber stamp for the president’s judicial and executive branch nominees, with most of the swampiest swamp creatures sailing through. Yet science supporters were able to help make the case that several nominees were not acceptable. For example, Michael Dourson, nominated to fill an EPA chemical safety post, had a history of pushing counterfeit scienceon behalf of the chemical industry. Thousands of concerned citizens urged their senators to oppose the nomination, and after many senators said they would do so, Dourson withdrew from consideration.
We convinced the EPA to enforce Clean Air Act penalties on the dirtiest trucks. Under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA embraced flawed research on trucks with new bodies but older, polluting engines and then exempted them from Clean Air Act enforcement. Scientists joined advocacy groups and some companies to file thousands of public comments opposing the decision. Upon Pruitt’s departure, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler closed this enforcement loophole.
We helped a government analysis of toxic chemicals see the light of day. The White House tried to block the release of a report on the toxicity of PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to neurological damage, liver disease, kidney cancer, and ulcerative colitis. Thousands of UCS supporters asked their members of Congress to demand the report’s release, and now, many are closely watching the EPA’s progress in developing a plan to manage the chemical.
We forced the protection of an endangered species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service froze a science-based plan to protect an endangered bumblebee, which is critical to pollination. Several non-profits sued the FWS to implement the plan, citing the law, scientific justification, and public support for protections.
We stopped the administration from collecting less data on older LGBT Americans.Many social and public health scientists formally objected to a proposal to remove sexual orientation questions from a Department of Health and Human Services survey, arguing that the removal would make health care worse. The department decided not to move forward with the proposal.
We stalled a proposal to restrict how the EPA can use science in its decisions. One of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s top priorities was to remove thousands of public health studies from consideration as the agency develops public protections. After overwhelming opposition from scientists and their allies, that proposal stalled and has, for the moment, been deprioritized.
These are big victories, made more impressive by the fact that our president disdains the rule of law, lacks a basic comprehension of how agency decisions are made, and, as the recent shutdown demonstrates, has a fundamental misunderstanding of how negotiations work in a representative democracy. By the fact that for two years, a scared and complicit Congress did embarrassingly little to rein him in. By the fact that some federal agencies whose independence has been compromised by swarms of political appointees who came directly from the industries that their agencies are supposed to regulate. And still, we were able to stop some of the worst proposals from coming to fruition.
The game is changing
The Trump administration has failed to govern in so many critical ways. Yet now we are entering a new era, with a Congress that is no longer cowed into accepting the president’s reprehensible approach to governing. Hearings and oversight letters can bring accountability. A bully pulpit can call attention to actions that counter the best interests of the United States and its people. And legislation can chart a better path forward to prioritize health and safety for all of us.
Now is the time to double down. Now is the time to ensure that Congress steps forward to defend science and articulate a path forward. And in the coming months, we will need to articulate a vision for the future that presidential candidates in both major political parties can embrace.
If you’ve read this far, you’re clearly with us. So here’s your next step: if you’re a scientist, sign this letter to call on Congress to do all it can to hold the White House accountable. And join our Science Watchdog team, which helps organize the science community to oppose anti-science actions and push for science-based solutions to public health and environmental challenges.
If you’re not a scientist, call on the EPA to set science-based standards for PFAS chemicals that are making people sick. Then sign up to be a Science Champion to help us fight attacks on science, public health, and the environment.
And thanks for being a part of our movement.