By Jacob Carter, Union of Concerned Scientists
To address unsolved questions, scientists develop experiments, collect data and then look for patterns. Our predictions of natural phenomena become more powerful over time as evidence builds within the scientific community that the same pattern appears over and over again. So, when the 2016 presidential candidates began speaking out about their positions on science policy, the scientific community was listening, collecting data, and looking for patterns.
In particular, candidate Donald Trump’s positions on space exploration, climate change science, and vaccines sent a chilling and frightening signal to the scientific community of what science policy might look like under a President Trump. We no longer have to wonder if candidate Trump’s positions on science policy would be indicative of President Trump’s positions, as we now have six months of data on the Trump administration’s science policy decisions.
Today, we release a report on President Trump’s six month record on science. In this report, we present evidence of patterns the President is using to systemically diminish the role of science in government decision making and in people’s lives. In its first six months, the Trump administration has sidelined independent science advice, placed profits over public protections, and reduced public access to government science and scientists.
Sidelining independent science advice
In the first six months of the Trump administration, senior level officials have misrepresented or disregarded scientific evidence even when such evidence has been pertinent to policy decisions. For example, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt refused to ban the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos even though the science provides evidence that this chemical affects neurological development in children. The administration also has circumvented advice from scientific experts outside the agency by dismissing experts from agency science advisory boards. For example, in April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended support for the Department of Justice’s National Commission on Forensic Science. The administration also has clearly dismissed years of research showing that climate change is primarily caused by humans and is affecting public health now. Additionally, President Trump has left many scientific leadership positions in the federal government vacant. Where President Trump has appointed someone to a science leadership position, those individuals have largely come from the industries they are now in charge of regulating.
Placing profits over public protections
When science is disregarded on decisions where scientific evidence is vital, one can logically question the basis of that decision. And that void can be filled by inappropriate influences. The Trump administration, aided and abetted by Congress, is displaying a clear pattern of disregarding science to benefit priorities of powerful interests at the expense of the public’s health and safety. In part, to accomplish this, the Trump administration quickly turned to a rarely used tool of Congress, the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows Congress to render regulations issued within 60 days of the end of the House or Senate sessions null and void. Since its enactment in 1996, the tool had only been used once—the Trump administration has used it 14 times!
One of the regulations nullified, the stream protection rule, was intended to keep communities’ drinking water clean where mountaintop coal mining occurs. The Department of Interior had put this rule in place based on scientific evidence that there is a causal link between higher rates of birth defects, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in communities nearby areas where mountaintop coal mining occurs. As my colleague and co-author of the report Genna Reed revealed, two representatives who sponsored this CRA legislation, Bill Johnson of Ohio and Evan Jenkins of West Virginia, received over $1 million in political contributions from the mining industry, and echoed talking points from the National Mining Association and Murray Energy Company in their statements of support for the rule’s repeal. The CEO of Murray Energy Company also was invited to watch President Trump sign the CRA resolution into law.
Countless other examples like this exist under this administration regarding the rollback of policies related to climate change, vehicle fuel economy standards, ozone pollution, and chemical safety to name a few. In fact, the White House is boasting about rolling back many of these regulations. Apparently, removing protections that safeguard children from harmful neurological effects and that protect disadvantaged communities from getting cancer are things that our administration applauds nowadays.
Reducing public access to government science and scientists
While there are valid reasons why the government keeps some information sensitive or classified, usually there is no such valid reason why science cannot be communicated openly. Yet, the Trump administration has been actively working to reduce public access to scientists and their work. For example, many government webpages have now been altered or removed, particularly those that focus on climate change. The Trump administration also has retracted questions from surveys intended to support disadvantaged communities.
Additionally, scientists in federal agencies have been restricted from communicating their work to anyone outside of the agency, and also have been barred from attending and presenting at scientific conferences. Yesterday, Joel Clement, former Director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Interior Department, blew the whistle on the Trump administration for their attempts to silence his work to help endangered communities in Alaska prepare for climate change by reassigning him to a position in accounting. As Clement rightfully points out, removing a scientist from their area of expertise and placing them in a position where their experience is not relevant is “a colossal waste of taxpayer money.” The public has the right to access government science and to hear from the scientists that produce it.
The attacks on science keep rolling in
The examples that I’ve highlighted in this blog entry are merely a smattering of the attacks on science discussed in our report. All of these attacks are happening at the same time that the President has proposed deep cuts to scientific agencies and funding for basic research, sending a signal to scientists that their work is not valued. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida recently took to the floor to call for an end to the “blatant, coordinated effort by some elected officials to muzzle the scientific community.” It is becoming difficult to suggest that a war on science doesn’t exist when evidence is piling up, and suggests that the Trump administration intends to silence science and scientists wherever and whenever possible.
We cannot retreat from progress that the use of science in decision making allows us to make: more children living a healthy life without asthma, a number of lives spared due to vaccinations, the protection of America’s endangered wildlife. Scientists and science supporters are already speaking up and taking to the streets to march, to advocate for the use of science in decision making. We can resist the Trump administration’s attacks on science—our democracy gives us the right to do so.