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Remembering Herb Needleman—The Hero Who Got Lead Out of Gasoline

Dr. Herb Needleman, a Pittsburgh pediatrician whose pioneering research into the toxic effects of lead on children led to the removal of lead from gasoline and other products, died last week at the age of 89. He was a tireless advocate for children’s health in the face of persistent attacks on his work and integrity from the lead industry. A decade ago, he showed up in my life in a pretty unexpected way.

In 2006, UCS  brought scientists from to Washington, DC to talk to legislators about the manipulation and suppression of science, and the consequences that has for public health and the environment. We recruited scientists from our Sound Science Initiative, the precursor to the UCS Science Network, and from the list of experts who had signed the scientist statement on scientific integrity that called on the Bush administration to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking.

Dr. Needleman’s research transformed our understanding of the impact of lead on children’s developing brains, and led to the removal of lead from gasoline. Photo: NIEHS

Dr. Needleman was on that list of signers. Yet we clearly hadn’t done our research. We had no idea who he was. I only knew him as a pediatrician with a low voice and large glasses.

There was a lot behind those glasses. Others have written extensively about his experiences, including in The Lead Wars and this extensive interview, better than I ever could. But briefly, Dr. Needleman conducted extremely novel research in which he collected and measured lead levels in children’s primary teeth, demonstrating a correlation between intellectual development and exposure to lead, even at low levels.

A 1979 study he published in the New England Journal of Medicine transformed the field, set the stage for restrictions on lead in gasoline, and put a target on his back.

He should have been celebrated. He was not. “He was attacked by the lead industry, hounded by columnists, snooped after by hired investigators, had his files endlessly combed over by high priced consultants, and was indifferently supported by many of his colleagues at his university,” remembered Richard Jackson, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.  

For years, the lead industry and affiliated individuals did their best to tarnish his reputation and take him down through unfounded allegations of scientific misconduct. At times, he could not even depend on his university to play fair. Via The Lead Wars:

The attacks on Needleman’s research and on his scientific integrity culminated in 1991 when Claire Ernhart and Sandra Scarr filed charged with the Office of Scientific Integrity at the National Institutes of Health, alleging that Needleman had engaged in scientific misconduct…They demanded, and received, another inquiry, which led to Needleman’s own university, the University of Pittsburgh, to begin another investigation of his research. It was a ‘horrible’ period in his life, Needleman recalls. The university refused to allow him to bring in outside experts, though it called on others who had previous professional relationships with his accusers. The university initially refuse to open the hearings to the public; it took a petition campaign from scientists around the country to persuade the campus officials otherwise. He was shunned by colleagues who worried about being associated with him. But in 1992, despite some methodological criticisms, Needleman was vindicated of wrongdoing by the university and, similarly, three years later by the office of Research Integrity of the Department of Health and Human Services.”

Dr. Needleman, ever determined and courageous, emerged from these battles with his professional reputation intact. And eventually, he ended up in a UCS conference room. Here was a man who had testified before Congress, been attacked repeatedly in multiple venues, and seen the way that science is politicized at the expense of children. A titan. He could have trained us. Yet he came to Washington DC and patiently listened to our basic explanations of how the Bush administration was manipulating and suppressing science, and how we needed to educate Congress about the importance of providing oversight.

Dr. Needleman at a 1991 congressional hearing. Photo: C-SPAN

It turned out that I was assigned to accompany Dr. Needleman and other scientists to meet with lawmakers. In each meeting, when it was his turn, he spoke softly but firmly about how as a doctor he relied on the government to provide guidance about the safety and efficacy of drugs. He talked about the importance of protecting children from harmful contaminants, and about how he had witnessed the consequences of politics getting in the way of protecting children from lead poisoning in his earlier years.

Not once did he discuss his pivotal role in keeping millions of children—including me—safe. He didn’t want to take over the show. He wanted the story to be about public health and the environment.

It was months later when I came across his name while doing some research. The more I read, the more foolish I felt for not recognizing the legend among us. Yet I also felt honored to have had the opportunity to cross paths. And I felt thankful that such an accomplished man was still committed to fighting for what was right.

I often refer to Dr. Needleman in talks to help make the point that political and industry pressure on scientists is not new, and that many have pushed alternative facts for years to further narrow agendas at the public’s expense. I hope that people will continue to study his life and remember that we can persevere in the face of extremely powerful interests to make the lives of others better.

Six Months into the Trump Administration: Science and Public Health Under Siege

My colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have released a report on how science—and public health—have been sidelined during the first six months of the Trump administration. The report documents a deliberate and familiar set of strategies that undermines the role of science, facts, and evidence in public policy and decision-making.

From a public health perspective, the short- and long-term impacts are truly frightening. The Trump administration—aided and abetted by a willing Congress—is actively pushing an ideological, anti-science agenda that will profoundly affect the health, safety, and security of children, families, and communities today, tomorrow, and for decades to come.

They claim their approach is pro-business, but on closer look, that isn’t true. It harms the many good business people who want to play by the rules and make a profit without harming the public or their workers. How? By giving an unfair advantage to unscrupulous businesses that will put profit ahead of public and worker safety and health.

Control, Alt, Delay: Public health protections on the chopping block

Mercury, lead, arsenic, ozone, beryllium, silica, chlorpyrifos. These substances all have several things in common:

  1. They have all been found to contaminate our air, water, soil, and/or food, as well as some of our workplaces and community environments.
  2. Robust and often long-standing science has proven that exposure to them can cause serious health effects, including death.
  3. Government agencies charged with protecting our health and safety have established rules and standards to prevent or minimize our exposure to them. (Note: these and other public health safeguards are increasingly denigrated as unnecessary regulations by the Trump administration and some in Congress.)
  4. Exposure standards established years ago have been found to be insufficiently protective.
  5. The Trump administration has taken steps to weaken, delay, and subvert recent science-based safeguards that enhance public protection from these toxic substances.

Make no mistake. There is an all-out assault on the agencies charged with using independent, unconflicted science to protect our nation’s public health—and on the critical resources and infrastructure they need to do just that.

The proposed draconian cuts to budgets, staffing levels, and programs at agencies like the EPA, CDC, FEMA,  NOAA, USDA, and OSHA speak for themselves. (And don’t even get me started on how current congressional efforts to reform health care will impact the health of our most vulnerable populations.)

But the real issue isn’t about protecting agency budgets or staff levels, essential as they are. It’s about protecting all of us from known (and emerging and future) threats to our health, safety, and well-being. What follows is just a snapshot of this administration’s siege on public health.

Children and women first? Not so much

Informed by a wealth of scientific evidence, and putting the health of children first, the EPA banned the indoor use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos back in 2000.

Chlorpyrifos, a potent neurotoxin, is known to affect brain development and cause developmental delays in children exposed in their homes, through their diets, and through their mothers in utero. It has also been shown to sicken farmworkers who apply it, and to contaminate drinking water supplies in farming communities.

In 2015, the EPA announced that it would revoke all tolerances for its use on or in food—essentially banning its use—noting that it was unable to find a safe level of exposure. On March 29, 2017, less than three months into the Trump administration and 20 days after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the advice of his  agency’s own chemical safety experts and reversed this decision—ironically noting that “By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making—rather than predetermined results.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced the decision. In its June 27, 2017, letter to Mr. Pruitt, the medical association called the risk of chlorpyrifos to infant and children’s health and development “unambiguous” and urged the EPA to listen to its own scientists and go forward with the proposed rule to end its uses on food.

The next time EPA is required to review the safety of the chemical is five years out—2022 to be exact. Until then, children will be eating peaches, pears, broccoli, and other foods grown with chlorpyrifos, as will pregnant women who are unknowingly putting their babies at risk.  Farmworkers and their families will also continue to be exposed—but hey, Dow Chemical, and the smaller manufacturers, will have “regulatory certainty.”

A West Virginia Coal Miner sprays rock dust

A West Virginia coal miner sprays rock dust 900 feet underground. OSHA has estimated that about 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica. Photo: courtesy of NIOSH

Protecting our nation’s workforce: Not in the cards

The assault on worker health is one that has particular meaning to me, having spent decades of my life specifically focused on occupational health and safety. And when I think about how long (decades) it takes to promulgate standards to protect worker health—even when their dangers have been known for eons—I am truly astounded by what the current administration and Congress have done.

Take silica. Its devastating health effects have been known for centuries. As far back as 1556, in his Treatise on Mining, Agricola described a pulmonary disease afflicting stone cutters and miners.  Bernardino Ramazzini, known as the father of occupational medicine, wrote about respiratory symptoms and sand-like substances in the lungs of stone cutters in his 1700 seminal work De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Diseases of Workers). The 1936 Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster at Gauley Bridge in West Virginia—one of the worst industrial disasters in US history—is as harrowing a tale of occupational exposure to silica as one would ever want to read about.

Silica causes lung cancer and silicosis, a disabling, non-reversible, and sometimes fatal lung disease, which can develop or progress even after exposure has ceased. OSHA has estimated that about 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing. Like most occupational illnesses and injuries, silicosis is preventable.

In keeping with scientific evidence, in 2011 OSHA sent a proposed tightening of its 40-year old silica standard to the Office of Management and Budget. In 2013, OMB gave OSHA the green light to actually propose the new rule, which OSHA promulgated as a final rule in March 2016, with an effective date of June 23, 2016. Industries were given different timelines to comply with most requirements—one year for construction, two years for general industry, and five years for hydraulic fracturing. In its fact sheet on the final rule, OSHA noted that “Many employers are already implementing the necessary measures to protect their workers from silica exposure. The technology for most employers to meet the new standards is widely available and affordable.”

So call me gobsmacked when in April 2017 OSHA decided to delay enforcement in the construction industry by another three months. That may not sound like a lot, but tell that to construction workers who may already have been breathing dangerous levels of silica dust for years. And call me crazy, but my confidence in OSHA sticking with even that schedule is somewhat shaken.

You’ll see why when you see how the administration has turned a two-month delay in implementing its new protective standards for workers exposed to beryllium into a proposal to “modify” (read “weaken”) protections for workers exposed to beryllium in construction and shipyards. I won’t rehash it here, as I’ve already covered it here and here.

The CRA could be used to undo important public health protections that are vital to protecting the most vulnerable populations.

The scientific evidence that ground-level ozone has serious health impacts is beyond dispute.

The EPA gives states a breather on ozone. People will suffer the consequences.

The EPA has been regulating ozone as a criteria pollutant since National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established in the Clean Air Act in 1970—and with considerable success.

Levels of ground-level ozone, the main component of in smog, have declined over time. Though many people still live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, the decline is evidence that air pollution requirements are working.

Good thing, as the scientific evidence that ground-level ozone has serious health impacts is beyond dispute. It increases the frequency of asthma attacks, can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and worsens bronchitis and emphysema. It can increase risk of lung infections. And it has been associated with early deaths from cardiovascular disease. Children, the elderly, and those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease are especially vulnerable.

For some current context:

  • The American Lung Association reports that more than one-third (36 percent) of the people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone pollution. Approximately 116.5 million people live in 161 counties that earned an F for ozone in this year’s report.
  • CDC national and state surveillance systems estimate that 8.4% of children under the age of 18 have asthma and that 4.7% of children between 0 and 4 years of age currently have asthma. And the number of reported missed school days among children with asthma was 12.4 million in 2003, 10.4 million in 2008, and 13.8 million in 2013.

Nearly five years ago, in 2013, scientists on the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board recommended that the EPA tighten its ozone standard, which was 75 parts per billion (ppb) at the time.  The experts recommended a range of 60-70 ppb, while noting that the upper level is likely not to provide the adequate margin of safety required by the Clean Air Act; that is, a 70 ppb standard was likely not protective enough of public health.

The politics involved in lowering the standard were fraught (no surprise here), with courts eventually weighing in. After years of foot dragging, the EPA issued a final rule (with a 70 ppb standard) in late 2015. In June 2017 the EPA decided to give the states another year to comply with the long-awaited standard, noting the increased regulatory burden and increased costs to business. But it’s not like states and businesses have not seen this coming. It’s been years in the making. Indeed, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board first recommended a range 60-70 ppb back in 2007!

In the meantime, it’s people that will take the hit. Too many kids and others will continue to break out their inhalers, visit emergency rooms, and lose time at school and at work. The delay may work for some interests, but certainly not for public health.

And the latest: On July 18, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would delay enforcement of the EPA ozone standard until the middle of the next decade, giving companies an additional 100year reprieve on complying with the new ground-level ozone (a.k.a. smog) health standards. The bill also permanently alters the Clean Air Act’s timetable for updating air quality safeguards. It will likely face opposition in the Senate, but is just the latest signal that our air quality and public protections are under attack. (A similar provision has also been included in the House Interior spending bill as an ideological rider.)

Heavy metal:  Nothing to sing about

The serious and permanent consequences of lead exposure on children’s brains, development, and behavior have been known for decades. Its effects cannot be corrected; they will affect kids’ lives forever. Photo credit: CDC

It doesn’t take a toxicologist to know that heavy metals—like mercury and lead, and metalloids like arsenic—are not good for your health. Their ill effects have been known for hundreds of years.

In the 1800s, mercury exposure caused mad hatter’s disease in workers making felt hats. Industrial waste water containing methyl mercury was the source of two devastating outbreaks of neurological disease in Minimata, Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. And today, it’s common knowledge that eating fish and shell fish from mercury-contaminated waters pose dangerous risks to the developing fetus.

When it comes to lead, its serious and permanent effects on children’s brains, development, and behavior have been known for decades; even low levels have been shown to affect IQ, ability to concentrate and pay attention, language and communication fluency, and academic achievement.  And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected; they will affect kids’ lives forever. (Lead toxicity has been known since ancient times; it was described by the Greek physician Nicander as far back as the second century B.C.)

Government regulations eliminated lead in household paint in 1978 and in gasoline in the late 1980s. The ongoing crisis in Flint brings lead exposure to the present day. The CDC estimated that more than a million US children had lead poisoning when, in keeping with the science, it lowered its definition of poisoning to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in 2012.

Federal and state agencies provide lead screening, surveillance, and prevention programs, and continue to identify lead contamination in homes and children with unacceptable levels of lead in their blood. A quick web search will identify sources of state and even local data.  See, for example, here, here and here.

And about that metalloid (and human carcinogen) arsenic. In establishing its enforceable maximum contaminant level for arsenic in drinking water in 2001, the EPA reported that in the US, approximately 13 million individuals lived in areas with a concentration of inorganic arsenic in the public water supply that exceeds its concentration limit of 10 micrograms per liter (μg/L ).

You would think the established science about the hazards, and the current knowledge about populations at risk, would have the Trump administration actively pursuing public health protections in its desire to make America great again. Instead, we are seeing delays, repeals, and rollbacks.

In November 2016, Obama’s EPA issued a final regulation under the Clean Water Act to limit the amount of these and other toxic metals that power plants can release into public waterways. The EPA noted that due to their close proximity to these waterways and the relatively high consumption of fish, some minority and low-income communities face greater risk.  CleanEnergy.org reports that, according to the Water Keeper Alliance, nearly 35% of coal plants discharge toxic pollution within five miles of a downstream community’s drinking water intake and that 81% of coal plants discharge within miles of a public drinking water well.

Flying in the face of solid scientific evidence on the need to protect the public and public waterways from these toxic pollutants and siding with the polluting industry, in April 2017 Trump’s EPA announced it would delay and reconsider this regulation. Mr. Pruitt actually said that the delay would be in the public interest. I’m still trying to get my head around that one.

In a related but somewhat earlier action, Congress beat the EPA to the punch in striking a blow related to these toxic materials. In February, using the Congressional Review Act, our elected representatives repealed the 2016 Department of Interior Stream Protection Rule that would safeguard streams and provide communities with basic information about water pollution related to mountain top removal coal mining.

Read enough?

Sorry that this “snapshot” of a blog has turned into quite a large collection of worrisome examples. Our new report covers even more Trump administration actions that will impact public and worker health—and not in a good way. It also suggests steps we and others can take to hold the administration accountable when it prioritizes public health over bad actors in the private sector.

Most important is that we not lose hope or become inured to or exhausted by what is likely to be an ongoing assault on science, public health, and some of the fundamental elements of our democracy. It will be important to call out and speak out against such actions (and inactions) when you see them.We will do our best to track them, but we also need and value your help. So when you see something, let us know.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is in it for the long haul.

Photo: Petra Bensted/CC BY (Flickr)

An Administration Defined by Its Conflicts (and What That Means for Science and Policy)

The first six months of President Trump’s time in office have consisted of a whirlwind of questionable governing decisions. From the outset, the Center for Science and Democracy established a baseline of the types of protections for science within the federal government that should be maintained by the Executive Office of the President; to say that the Trump Administration is not up to the mark would be a gross understatement.

Our report released this week, Sidelining Science Since Day One: How the Trump Administration Has Harmed Public Health and Safety in its First Six Months, illustrates the ways in which President Trump and his administration have actively weakened the ability of federal scientists to conduct critical research and issue science-based safeguards; restricted public access to scientific data and information; and rolled back important environmental and public health policies designed to protect clean water, safe workplaces, and wildlife.

What democracy is and isn’t

Since the Trump Administration took office, the balance between public and private control of government has been skewed in favor of industry interests, at the expense of the protections that keep us safe and healthy. Is this means of governance characteristic of a functional democracy?

A democracy at its roots is a government by the people and for the people. The US government was designed to support the public good and the will of all, not the will of a select few.

This conflict between serving all and serving the powerful few is one that all US presidents have faced during their tenure. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to Congress in April 1938 about the importance of curbing monopolies, saying:

“The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.”

He continued:

“We believe in a way of living in which political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other—to ensure a maximum of human liberty not for a few but for all.”

Photo: UCS/John Finch

Strong science-based public protections and a thriving business community are not mutually exclusive. Yet, under the Trump Administration, important safeguards are being recklessly cut in the name of efficiency. In employing the strategic counsel from former industry lobbyists and choosing to roll back, delay, or otherwise weaken rules that curb the ability of these companies to pollute and harm us, the Trump Administration is acting to undermine the role of evidence, reason, and the will of the public within this democracy we have fought so hard to institute and maintain.

What ever happened to draining the swamp?

The Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Walter Shaub, resigned earlier this month. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “The great privilege and honor of my career has been to lead OGE’s staff and the community of ethics officials in the federal executive branch. They are committed to protecting that public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain.”

As its name suggests, The Office of Government Ethics is responsible for preventing conflicts of interest within the federal government. Shaub told the New York Times that there wasn’t much more he could accomplish in the office “given the current situation,” likely responding to the way in which President Trump has taken office with an unprecedented list of personal financial conflicts and a cabinet with extensive industry ties, despite campaigning on a promise to drain the proverbial DC swamp of corporate lobbyists.

In President Trump’s first six months, several individuals with strong industry ties were nominated and confirmed for key agency leadership positions; the President has issued legally questionable executive orders, one of which requires that agencies repeal two regulations for everyone that it issues (with the intent of freezing regulation and allowing industry to get away with business as usual); created deregulation teams at each federal agency, many of whom have deep industry ties; signed into law several bills aimed at nullifying Obama-era regulations that would prevent industry misconduct; and delayed a handful of science-based rules.

In sum, the Trump administration is disproportionately considering the policy agenda of the private sector, while neglecting the real-life implications of allowing corporations to operate without proper checks.

The trump administration’s decisions are impacting peoples’ lives

Despite a wealth of scientific evidence linking chlorpyrifos with neurotoxic impacts on children and adults, the pesticide is still used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, certain vegetables including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, and other crops. Photo: USDA/Flickr

The clear conflicts of interest of the President and his cabinet, combined with the lack of transparency that has thus far been characteristic of the administration, have created large vulnerabilities for science-based policy in this administration. While industry awaits its chance to profit from regulatory rollbacks both here and abroad, a regulatory freeze, and industry-friendly cabinet appointments, the rest of us are missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stalls in making a decision to ban the use of the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, farmworkers in California were getting sick from acute exposure to the chemical used according to its label instructions.

As the EPA delays implementation of the Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, communities like those surrounding Houston, Texas will have to wait even longer for much-needed protections from chemical facilities.

Yudith Nieto from Manchester, Texas was among the members of the public who made a public comment at EPA’s hearing in June regarding the proposed delay of the rule. She told agency officials:

“We have over a thousand refineries in the Houston area, as you may know, and I think you’ve probably heard throughout the day, I am sure of people that reported the work that they have been doing, the research work, the legal work that they are doing to support communities like  the community of Manchester, all around the country. And we depend on these kinds of rules and regulations to try to protect our communities, our children, people who live right next to refineries, pipelines, tank farms, and other exposures. With everything that’s happening right now in the country, we fear more for our lives, we fear or our livelihoods, we fear for our health, because we see that a lot of these Rules are being attacked.”

As the Department of Labor stalls implementing stricter exposure standards for silica and beryllium rules, the labor force in metal foundries and construction sites will continue to be exposed to levels of those chemicals that could result in eventual silicosis or chronic beryllium diseases.

Eddie Mallon worked in New York City tunnel construction for over forty years before being diagnosed with silicosis. When asked how the disease has changed his life at a 2014 hearing for the rule, he told OSHA staff:

“Well, yeah, I loved playing sports, but I can’t do that with the silicosis. It’s a problem. I like working around the house. It affects me. Playing with my grandchildren affects me. It has all different ways to affect you. I mean, you know, I’m 70. I may look a little younger than what I look, but my lungs, I’m sure, are a lot older than that. It’s a hidden disease, silicosis.”

He worries about the next generation without a stronger exposure standard:

“I strongly believe OSHA needs to implement strong silica standards. We need them and especially in my industry. I do believe that 50 years down the line, you will never see a 70-year-old man sitting up here talking about silica if things don’t change. These young kids today, what they’re going to face down the hole is nothing [like] what I did. For the first 30 years of working the tunnels, it was bad with the silica, but nowhere near what it’s like today.”

And as the Food and Drug Administration gives food manufacturers more time before enforcing revised nutrition facts labels with a line for added sugars, parents will remain in the dark on how much sugar is added to their children’s food. Alec Bourgeois, a DC dad, shares what the delays mean for his family:

“You can think that you are making reasonable, healthy decisions and realize later that you are absolutely eating junk and it’s incredibly frustrating…So much of the things that didn’t used to have sugar in them now have sugar in them. Like tomato sauce for example. There’s going to be some sugar in the tomato but they are also adding five or six tablespoons of sugar on top of that.”

While we’ve had some victories in stopping the Administration from making ill-advised policy decisions, we need to continue to monitor the horizon and fight back when science is attacked, misused, or ignored by our government.

Sign up here to join the vanguard of watchdogs poised to help us with this mighty task, and to read more about how the Administration has sidelined science so that powerful interests can push forward their own agendas, check out our new report here.

The Trump Administration’s Record on Science Six Months after Inauguration

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.

Environmental Injustice in the Early Days of the Trump Administration

When the EPA was established in 1970 by Richard Nixon, there was no mandate to examine why toxic landfills were more often placed near low-income, Black, Latino, immigrant, and Native American communities than in more affluent, white neighborhoods. Nor was there much recognition that communities closer to toxic landfills, refineries, and industrial plants often experienced higher rates of toxics-related illnesses, like cancer and asthma.

Yet these phenomena were palpable to those living in affected communities. In the 1970s and 80s, local anti-toxics campaigns joined forces with seasoned activists from the civil rights movement, labor unions, and with public health professionals and scientists, drawing attention to the unevenly distributed impacts of toxic pollution, and forming what we now recognize as the environmental justice movement.

The new administration has mounted a swift and concerted attack on the federal capacity and duty to research, monitor, and regulate harmful pollutants that disproportionately affect women, children, low-income communities, and communities of color.  Two examples demonstrate the potential consequences: overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos, and a variety of actions that reduce collection of and public access to the data on which environmental justice claims depend.

Overturning the ban on chlorpyrifos

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, despite the fact that EPA scientists recommended that the pesticide be banned because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains. Photo: Zeynel Cebeci/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Chlorpyrifos is a commonly used pesticide. EPA scientists found a link between neurological disorders, memory decline and learning disabilities in children exposed to chlorpyrifos through diet, and recommended in 2015 that the pesticide be banned from agricultural use because of the risks it posed to children’s developing brains.

Over 62% of farmworkers in the U.S. work with vegetables, fruits and nuts, and other specialty crops on which chlorpyrifos is often used.  These agricultural workers are predominantly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, living under the poverty line and in close proximity to the fields they tend. A series of studies in the 1990s and 2000s found that concentrations of chlorpyrifos were elevated in agricultural workers’ homes more than ¼ mile from farmland, and chlorpyrifos residues were detected on work boots and hands of many agricultural worker families but not on nearby non-agricultural families.

In March 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt publicly rejected the scientific findings from his agency’s own scientists and overturned the chlorpyrifos ban, demonstrating the Trump administration’s disregard for the wellbeing of immigrant and minority populations. Farmworker families could be impacted for generations through exposure to these and other harmful pesticides.

Limiting collection of and access to environmental data

Because inequitable risk to systematically disadvantaged communities must be empirically proven, publicly available data on toxic emissions and health issues are crucial to environmental justice work. The Trump administration has already taken a number of actions that limit the collection and accessibility of data necessary to make arguments about environmental injustices that persist through time in particular communities.

Houston has a number of chemical plants in close proximity to low-income neighborhoods. Photo: Roy Luck/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Workers, especially those laboring in facilities that refine, store or manufacture with toxic chemicals, bear inequitable risk. The Trump administration has sought to curb requirements and publicity about workplace risks, injuries and deaths. For example, President Trump signed off on a congressional repeal of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required applicants for governmental contracts to disclose violations of labor laws, including those protecting safety and health. Without the data provided by this rule, federal funds can now support companies with the worst worker rights and protection records. President Trump also approved the congressional repeal of a rule formalizing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) long-standing practice of requiring businesses to keep a minimum of five years of records on occupational injuries and accidents.  While five years of record-keeping had illuminated persistent patterns of danger and pointed to more effective solutions, now only six months of records are required. This change makes it nearly impossible for OSHA to effectively identify ongoing workplace conditions that are unsafe or even life-threatening.

Another example is the administration’ proposed elimination of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, a program that provides toxicological assessments of environmental contaminants. The IRIS database provides important information for communities located near plants and industrial sites that produce toxic waste, both to promote awareness of the issues and safety procedures and as a basis for advocacy. These communities, such as Hinkley, CA, where Erin Brockovich investigated Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s dumping of hexavalent chromium into the local water supply, are disproportionately low income.

Responding to Trump: Developing environmental data justice

Data is not inherently good.  It can be used to produce ignorance and doubt, as in the tactics employed by the tobacco industry and climate change deniers.  It can also be used to oppressive ends, as in the administration’s collection of information on voter fraud, a phenomenon that is widely dismissed as non-existent by experts across the political spectrum.  Further, even the data collection infrastructure in place under the Obama administration failed to address many environmental injustices, such as the lead pollution in Flint, MI.  Thus we would argue that promoting environmental data justice is not simply about better protecting existing data, but also about rethinking the questions we ask, the data we collect, and who gathers it in order to be sure environmental regulation protects all of us.

 

Britt Paris is an EDGI researcher focused on environmental data justice. She is also a doctoral student in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, and has published work on internet infrastructure projects, search applications, digital labor and police officer involved homicide data evaluated through the theoretical lenses of critical informatics, critical data studies, philosophy of technology and information ethics.

Rebecca Lave is a co-founder of EDGI (the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative), an international network of academics and environmental professionals that advocates for evidence-based environmental policy and robust, democratic scientific data governance. She was the initial coordinator of EDGI’s website tracking work, and now leads their publication initiatives. Rebecca is also a professor in the Geography Department at Indiana University.

 Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Pesticide Action Network

The Wall Street Journal Gets it Wrong on EPA Scientific Integrity…Again

The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece yesterday titled “A Step Toward Scientific Integrity at the EPA” written by long-time critic of the EPA and purveyor of anti-science nonsense, Steven Milloy. His piece commends Administrator Pruitt on his recent dismissals of EPA advisory committee members, and questions the independence of advisory committees, like the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), claiming that they contain biased government grantees and have made recommendations on ozone and particulate matter that aren’t supported by science. His arguments are twisted and unfounded, but are not surprising based upon his history working for industry front groups that attempt to spread disinformation to promote a science agenda benefitting powerful interests.

I want to set the record straight on the independence of EPA’s scientific advisory committees. Here’s what Steven Milloy gets very wrong:

  1. The EPA’s advisory committees have not been stacked with “activists.” In fact, industry representation is on par with representation from non-profit organizations.

I agree with Milloy on just one point: federal advisory committees must be balanced and unbiased. The Federal Advisory Committee Act mandates that all federal advisory committees are “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” This is an important piece of the act to ensure that the recommendations flowing from these advisory committees reflect a diversity of viewpoints and a range of expertise. There are also required conflict of interest disclosures made by each and every advisory committee member to ensure that any conflicts will not interfere with their ability to provide independent advice. Milloy claims that “only rarely do members have backgrounds in industry,” which is simply not true. An analysis of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board membership since 1996 reveals that 64 percent of the 459 members were affiliated with an academic institution, 9 percent with industry, 9 percent with non-governmental organizations (including industry-funded organizations like the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology), 8 percent with government, and 7 percent with consulting firms.  I found a similar breakdown in an analysis of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and for all seven of EPA’s scientific advisory committees.

In conversations I’ve had with former EPA Board of Scientific Counselors members, it has been clear that industry scientists have always had a voice on these committees which is why it’s especially suspect that the current administration has decided not to renew the terms of many advisory committee members, hoping to better represent the industry.

  1. Government grants are a major source of funding for academic scientists and these funds are contributing to research projects, not used for private gain.

Milloy’s claim that academic scientists who have received grant money from the EPA are making biased recommendations to the agency is completely unfounded. Receiving EPA funding for unrelated research projects is a fundamentally different thing than serving on a committee to make policy recommendations. EPA awards grants to academic scientists to learn more about scientific topics without a policy agenda and grantees are free to conduct the science and produce results any way they want. There is no predetermined or desired outcome, and the process is completely separate from EPA policy decisions. No incentives exist for committee members to come to a particular policy answer in order to get grant money on an entirely separate scientific research question from a separate office of an agency. To conflate these misunderstands how science and policy work. To Milloy, receiving a grant from government to work on science in the public interest would be biased in the same, if not more severe, way than receiving funds from a corporation to promote a product or otherwise support a private interest. For the work of advisory committee members, ensuring that federal science best supports public protections is key.

Congress’ attempt to correct this supposed problem, which is championed by Milloy in his piece, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act, includes a provision that board members may not have current contracts with the EPA or for three years after service which would only deter academic scientists from pursuing SAB positions. This Act is supported by the likes of Milloy because it would likely provide more opportunities for industry interests, not in need of government funding, to join the SAB.

  1. The advisory committee selection process is and should be based on expertise and experience related to the charge of the committee, not how many times an individual is nominated.

In his piece, Milloy calls the EPA’s advisory committee selection process “opaque” because a certain nominee wasn’t selected after having the most duplicate nominations. But, the EPA’s process for for selecting SAB and CASAC members is actually one of the most open and transparent processes across agencies and advisory committees. Members of the public have the opportunity to submit nominations, view nominees, and comment on the EPA’s roster of appointees before final selections are made. Ultimately, it’s up to the EPA administrator to decide the strongest and most balanced roster of committee members based on the needs of the agency. It’s not meant to be a process whereby any entity can win a nominee based on the number of comments received. Despite receiving 60 out of 83 nomination entries, Michael Honeycutt was likely not chosen to be a CASAC member because he has questionable scientific opinions and documented conflicts of interest. which are completely reasonable justifications.

  1. Particulate matter from power plants and vehicle emission does indeed have demonstrated health impacts, supported by the scientific literature.

Milloy’s article asserts that the claims that particulate matter has negative health impacts is not scientifically justified. This is demonstrably false. Not only is there a wealth of peer-reviewed literature backing up the claim, there is an entire field devoted to studying it. Milloy claims that there was no evidence of these impacts in 1996, but that’s because scientists weren’t collecting that data back then. While Milloy lives in the past, two decades worth of research (over 2,000 studies) since 1996 has shown that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) has been linked to strokes, heart disease, respiratory ailments and premature death.

Wall Street Journal’s second strike on EPA integrity

The Wall Street Journal’s readers deserve better than to read this junk-science drivel without full disclosure about the peddler of the disinformation. In 1993, Phillip Morris funded Milloy to lead an industry front group called the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition that cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease. In 1998, Milloy found a new benefactor in ExxonMobil, serving on a task force that mapped out ExxonMobil’s strategy to deceive the public about climate science, and funding him for many years to sow doubt under the guise of a slightly renamed front group, the Advancement of Sound Science Center run out of his Maryland home. Milloy’s current employer, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, formerly the American Tradition Institute, is funded by the fossil fuel industry and has repeatedly filed inappropriate open records requests for the communications of climate scientists working at public universities. His most recent 2016 book is endorsed by none other than long-time junk science purveyor and climate change denier, Senator James M. Inhofe.

This is just a reminder that as we try to make sense of our government’s operations and the state of science for issues that affect our health and our planet’s health, we must consider the sources of our information very carefully. Facts matter, and here at UCS we’ll continue to draw attention to the silencing, sidelining, or distortion of scientific facts.

 

 

Climate Change Just Got a Bipartisan Vote in the House of Representatives

On rare occasions, transformative political change emerges with a dramatic flourish, sometimes through elections (Reagan in 1980, Obama in 2008) or key mass mobilizations (the March on Washington in 1963), or even court cases (the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision declaring marriage inequality unconstitutional.)

But most of the time, transformations happen slowly, step by arduous step, along a path that may be hard to follow and can only be discerned clearly in hindsight.

I believe that we are on such a path when it comes to Republican members of Congress acknowledging climate science and ultimately the need to act. I see some encouraging indications that rank and file Republican members of Congress are heading in the right direction.

In February, 2016, Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch and Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, launched the Climate Solutions Caucus, whose mission is “to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and to explore bipartisan policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.” Its ranks have now swelled to 48 members, 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats.

Last week, this group flexed its muscle. At issue was UCS-backed language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The provision, authored by Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin, would require the Pentagon to do a report on the vulnerabilities to military instillations and combatant commander requirements resulting from climate change over the next 20 years. The provision also states as follows:

Climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world where the United States armed forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflicts exist.

Republican leadership led an aggressive effort to strip the language from the NDAA on the House floor through an amendment offered by Representative Perry (PA-R). But in the end, 46 Republican members (including all but one of the entire climate solutions caucus) voted against it, and fortunately it was not adopted.

We are hopeful this important provision will be included in the final NDAA bill that passes the senate, and then on to President Trump for his signature. He probably won’t like this language, but it seems doubtful that he will veto a military spending bill.

Implications

One shouldn’t read too much into this. The amendment is largely symbolic, and the only thing it requires is that the defense department conduct a study on climate change and national security. There is a long way to go from a vote such as this one to the enactment of actual policies to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that are the primary cause of climate change.

But, it is an important stepping stone. If this bill becomes law, a bipartisan congressional finding that climate change endangers national security becomes the law of the land. Among other things, this should offer a strong rebuttal to those who sow doubt about climate science.

It is also a validation of a strategy that UCS has employed for many years—to highlight the impacts of climate change in fresh new ways that resonate with conservative values. This was the thinking behind our National Landmarks at Risk report, which shows how iconic American landmarks are threatened by climate change.

This was also our strategy behind our recent report which highlights the vulnerability of coastal military bases to sea level rise. This report was cited and relied upon by Congressman Langevin in his advocacy for the amendment.

UCS will work to make sure that this language is included in the final bill, and we will continue to find other ways to cultivate bi-partisan support for addressing climate change. There will be much more difficult votes ahead than this one. But for now, I want to thank the Republican members of Congress for this important vote, and make sure our members and supporters know that the efforts of ours and so many others to work with Republicans and Democrats, and to bring the best science to their attention, is paying off.

How President Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Harm Early Career Scientists

Kaila Colyott is coming close to graduation as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, but she’s not finishing with the same enthusiasm for her career prospects that she began graduate school with.  At the beginning, she wasn’t particularly worried about getting a job after graduation. “I was a first generation student coming from a largely uneducated background. I was pretty stoked about doing science, and I was told that more education would help me land a job in the future.”

She wasn’t ever informed that, under the current market, academics graduate with significant debt and without a promise of a job. Ms. Colyott said that she became more concerned about her job prospects as she learned more about the job market in academia, “I became more concerned over time as I witnessed academics hustling for money all the time.”

President Trump’s proposed across-the-board cuts to scientific research and training would make this problem worse. While they are out of step with what Congress wants and have yet to be realized, they would have tremendous impacts on our nation’s scientific capacity  and ability to enact science based policy.

Incentives for scientific careers are dwindling

According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) report, American universities awarded 54,070 PhD’s in 2014, yet 40% of those newly minted doctorates had no job lined up after graduation. There is a connection between funding for scientific research and job opportunities for early career scientists: one can slash the hopes and dreams of the other.

I am fortunate to work in science policy because of the funding and training opportunities afforded to me as an early career scientist. Having received two fellowships as a graduate student from NSF, one that allowed me to take on an internship in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a post-doctoral fellowship through the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, I received robust training in both science and policy analysis.

Such training also offered me a career path outside of academia, made necessary by a limited number of tenure-track positions available at universities. Thus, I view this type of funding and training as essential for early career scientists as many will need to seek career paths outside of academia given the job market. Yet, President Trump’s proposed budget cuts signal to me that these same opportunities may not be afforded to a younger generation of scientists—such a signal is concerning.

Government funding of science is essential to early career scientists

There was a time when most PhD-level scientists would enter into a tenure-track position at a university after graduation. Today, even the most accomplished students pursuing a PhD have a particularly difficult time landing a tenure-track position because there are very few jobs and competition is stiff.

This creates the need for other options. Among those graduating with a PhD in 2014 who had indicated they had a post-graduate commitment, 39% were entering into a post-doc position (a temporary research position most common in the sciences). While many of these exist in research labs at universities across the country, there are also many post-doc positions available in the federal government.

Such opportunities can expose early career scientists to the process by which science informs the policy-making process in government while still allowing them to conduct research. This allows early career scientists the chance to increase both their interest and efficacy in science policy. Additionally, agencies such as the NSF and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) offer graduate students and post-docs fellowships and grants that allow them to build skills in forming their own research ideas and writing grant proposals.

Opportunities for early career scientists to obtain government fellowships or grants in the sciences may decrease under the Trump administration, if the administration’s budget cuts are actualized. For example, President Trump has proposed to cut NSF’s budget by 11 percent. As NSF struggled with its 2018 budget request to meet the 11% cut, the agency decided it would need to cut half of the annual number of prestigious graduate research fellowships offered to PhD students.

Such a cut would significantly reduce the availability of fellowships for biologists and environmental scientists, especially since the NSF biology directorate announced in June that it would cease its funding of Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs) due to the time needed to manage the program. Additionally, many other fellowships and grants have been proposed to be cut or re-structured such as the STAR grant program at EPA, the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program at NASA, and the Sea Grant program at NOAA.

These programs have led to many scientific advances that have reduced the costs of regulations, protected public health and the environment, and saved lives. For example, the STAR grant program at EPA implemented several major pollution focused initiatives such as the Particulate Matter Centers, Clean Air Research Centers, and Air, Climate and Energy Centers, which have together produced substantial research showing air pollution can decrease human life expectancy. A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences noted that this research likely saved lives and reduced healthcare costs, having helped to inform policies that improved air quality nationwide.

While many of the extreme proposed cuts to science funding will likely not come to fruition, given bipartisan support of scientific funding in Congress, even small cuts to government programs that offer funding for science could really impact job prospects for early career scientists. And the uncertainty created by these suggested cuts will discourage young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, from pursuing scientific careers at all.

Neil Ganem, a School of Medicine assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Boston University, described how the realization of these cuts would have a negative economic effect. “It would mean that hospitals, medical schools, and universities would immediately institute hiring freezes. Consequently, postdocs, unable to find academic jobs, would start accumulating and be forced into other career paths, many, I’m sure, outside of science. Jobs would be lost. The reality is that if principal investigators don’t get grants, then they don’t hire technicians, laboratory staff, and students; they also don’t buy [lab supplies] or services from local companies. There is a real trickle-down economic effect.” Indeed, such cuts could be devastating to post-docs and their families, especially in the case a post-doc was offered a position only to see that funding pulled at the last minute.

Early career scientists are paying attention

When asked if Trump’s proposed budget cuts to basic research made her more concerned about her job prospects, Colyott said that they were one of many factors, but she expressed greater concern for the generation of young scientists below her. “These cuts make me concerned about younger scientists who won’t have the same resources that I had at my disposal—like NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowships or the DDIGs. Having the ability to propose my own ideas and receive funding for them built a lot of confidence in me such that I felt I could continue to do science.”

Colyott has been very active in science outreach as a graduate student and is very passionate about this field, and intends to seek a job in outreach after graduation to get first generation students like her interested in science. However, she is now worried about encouraging young students into academia. “Why would I want to encourage others to enter science when I already am nervous myself about my own job prospects?”

Even if President Trump’s egregious cuts to scientific funding do not come true, they most certainly send a signal to scientists, especially young scientists, that their skills are not valued. This message can be particularly disheartening to students attempting to gain a career in science, which may dissuade them from entering the field.

So, I have my own message for these younger scientists. I see you, I hear you, and I completely understand your fears about your job prospects. You deserve a chance to advance our understanding on scientific topics that are vital to better humanity. Your scientific research is valued and it is important, and there is a huge community of others who believe the very same thing. Science is collaborative by nature—I assure you, we all will work together to lift you up and make sure your voice is heard.

President Trump’s Budget Leaves Workers Behind

Budgets reflect priorities; they also reflect values. And the Trump Administration has signaled where it stands loud and clear via its agency appointments (Scott Pruitt, need we say more?) and its FY18 budget proposals. We have already said plenty about what the proposed cuts to the EPA budget mean for public health and the environment.

A recap here, here, here, here. Many others are also ringing that alarm bell (here, here, here).

Less in the public eye is the Administration’s budget proposals for agencies that protect another critical resource—our nation’s workforce! We do have some indication of where Congress and the Administration stand on worker health and safety (here, here)—and it’s not reassuring.

Trump budget puts worker health on chopping block

Let’s cut to the chase. President Trump’s FY18 budget proposals are not good for working people; these are our loved ones, our families’ breadwinners. They are also essential contributors to powering our economy…you know, making America great.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the cuts our President has proposed for our primary worker health and safety agencies—the agencies that safeguard and protect our nation’s workforce:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). $9.5 million budget cut; staffing cuts in enforcement program; elimination of safety and health training grants for workers. OSHA was created by Congress to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” It is our nation’s bulwark in protecting workers by setting and enforcing standards and providing training, outreach, education and assistance to employers and workers. At current budget levels, OSHA can only inspect every workplace in the United States once every 159 years.
  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). An astounding 40% budget cut. NIOSH is our nation’s primary federal agency responsible for conducting research, transferring that knowledge to employers and workers, and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related illness and injury. These draconian cuts will essentially eliminate academic programs that train occupational health and safety professionals (occupational medicine physicians and nurses, industrial hygienists, workplace safety specialists) that serve both employers and workers. It will eliminate extramural research programs that conduct, translate, or evaluate research, as well as state surveillance programs for occupational lead poisoning, silicosis, and other diseases.
  • Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). $3 million cut to the agency’s budget on top of previous $8 million cut. This will reduce the number of safety inspection in U.S. coal mines by nearly 25%. MSHA was established in 1977 to prevent death, illness, and injury from mining and to promote safe and healthful workplaces for U.S. miners. (The first federal mine safety statute was passed in 1891.)
Some context

My reflections on this year’s Worker Memorial Day pretty much capture it. But here’s a quick summary:

  • In 2015, 4,836 U.S. workers died from work-related injuries, the highest number since 2008. That’s about 13 people every day! In the United States!
  • Deaths from work-related occupational disease—like silicosis, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung), occupational cancer, etc.—are not well captured in data surveillance systems. It is estimated that another 50,000-60,000 died from occupational diseases—an astounding number. And, for many, their deaths come years after suffering debilitating and painful symptoms.
  • And then there are the nonfatal injuries and illnesses. Employers reported approximately 2.9 million of them in private industry workers in 2015; another 752,600 injury and illness cases were reported among the approximately 18.4 million state and local government workers.
  • There were nine fatalities and 1,260 reportable cases of workplace injury in the US coal mining industry in 2016.
Speak out opportunity this week

The House subcommittee on Labor–HHS Appropriations has scheduled the markup on the FY 2018 Labor–HHS funding bill for Thursday, July 13, 2017. This is the bill that funds OSHA, MSHA, and NIOSH, as well as the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Now is the time to give the appropriators an earful on these proposed cuts—cuts that seriously endanger workers’ safety and health, essentially leaving them behind. Reach out to members of the House appropriation subcommittee and committee and urge them to oppose these cuts to our worker health and safety agencies. Also urge them to oppose any “poison pill riders” to block or delay the implementation of worker protection rules.

Here’s a list of members of the Labor–HHS subcommittee. Members of the full Appropriations Committee are listed here.

How the Senate Healthcare Bill Bolsters the Tanning Industry’s Misinformation Campaign

The American Suntanning Association (ASA) and the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA) are trade organizations representing the interests of indoor tanning manufacturers, suppliers and salon owners. The product that these trade organizations sell to customers is artificial UV radiation. The ASA has called itself a “science-first organization” and spouts off so-called scientific information on their website, TanningTruth.com, designed to correct “misinformation” about the harms of indoor sun tanning.

One problem, though: the science doesn’t support their position. In May 2013, several scientific researchers wrote in JAMA Dermatology about the ASA’s biased scientific agenda and how its unscientific messages can negatively impact the public: “Clinicians should be aware of this new counter-information campaign by the [indoor tanning] industry and continue to inform their patients about the risks of [indoor tanning] and the existence of potentially misleading information from the ASA and other organizations. Scientists and clinicians have a duty to remain cognizant of such issues and to voice concerns when agenda-based research is presented in order to “defend and promote” a product with potentially devastating health consequences.”

Like the tobacco industry, sugar industry, and fossil fuel industries before them, the indoor tanning industry is refusing to accept its ethical responsibility to inform customers of the harms of its products. Instead it is actively working to create uncertainty around the science and question the integrity of the governmental and scientific institutions that are acting in the public’s best interest.

The indoor tanning industry seeks to become “great again”

As President Trump took office, the ASA began the derivative slogan, “Make Indoor Tanning Great Again” in the industry’s monthly magazine, SmartTan. By “great again,” the industry means repealing the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) inclusion of a 10% tax on indoor tanning services. In its advertisement, the ASA urges readers to join the movement and add to its effort of “building relationships with key policymakers and educating the federal government about our industry’s scientifically supported position.” In the June issue of SmartTan, in an article titled “Axing the Tan Tax,” the author brags that three full-time ASA lobbyists over the course of four years have convinced Congressional leadership (including current HHS chief Tom Price and Vice President Mike Pence) that the American tanning industry has been treated unfairly and that there is science supporting the benefits of non-burning UV exposure.

I’ll let The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) take this one.

The AAD recommends that individuals should obtain vitamin D from a healthy diet, not from unprotected exposure to ultraviolet radiation, because there is “not scientifically validated, safe threshold of UV exposure from the sun or indoor tanning devices that allows for maximal vitamin D synthesis without increasing skin cancer risk.” Anyway, even if there were benefits of UV exposure, the business model of these salons operates upon the retention of customers throughout the year, not just during the busy season. And more trips to the salon means an increased risk of burns and unsafe exposure.

The tanning tax has a twofold goal: help reduce skin cancer risk, especially in young adults, and to use funds to help pay for implementation of the Act. The science on the association between indoor tanning and increased risk of skin cancer supported the case for the inclusion of this policy measure in President Obama’s healthcare bill. A quick spotlight on that science can be summed up by the headline on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website addressing the topic: “indoor tanning is not safe.”

The Surgeon General issued a call to action to prevent skin cancer in 2014 which warned of the risks of indoor tanning. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has said this of tanning bed related exposure: “citing evidence from years of international research on the relationship between indoor tanning and skin cancer, the IARC, affiliated with the World Health Organization, placed this type of UVR in its most dangerous cancer category for humans, alongside offenders such as radon, asbestos, cigarettes, plutonium, and solar UVR.” Incidence of one of the most dangerous types of skin cancer, melanoma, has been rising over the past 30 years. And, people who started tanning before age 35 have an increased risk of developing melanoma. Because indoor tanning is popular among adolescents and it’s a risky behavior to start while young, restriction of indoor tanning would help public health outcomes.

The FDA has proposed a rule restricting indoor tanning bed use to adults over 18 and requiring users to sign a risk acknowledgement certification stating that they understand the risks of indoor tanning. Taxes are also an effective way to curb demand for a substance, the use of which has worked to decrease cigarette smoking and more recently, sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. However, the tanning industry has joined the ranks of the tobacco and sugar industries to fuel a misinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about the body of science showing harm and delay or quash policies that hurt their bottom line.

Shining a light on the tanning industry’s misinformation campaign

The tanning industry has long fought any regulation or control of its messaging and has funneled money to members of Congress to help in these efforts.

Burt Bonn, immediate past president of ASA, told Smart Tan magazine in February 2017 that “[t]he science has been in our favor from the very beginning…Our opponents have relied on just a few out of hundreds of studies on the risks of UV light to make their case. Nearly all of those studies have been debunked.” He continued, “I think the science is already at a point that it ought to be embarrassing to have someone in the medical profession advise complete and total sunlight abstinence or suggest that a tanning bed operated in a professional tanning salon is a major issue.” Embarrassing? Tell that to the American Academy of Dermatologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, representing thousands of experts in their fields who have recommended that all adults reduce UV exposure, and that children under 18 eliminate UV exposure altogether.

The tanning industry has been on fire in its repeated attempts to misrepresent the science on UV exposure in multiple venues. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged that the ITA made misleading representations in its advertising and marketing for indoor tanning including falsely claiming that indoor tanning poses no risk to health, including no risk of skin cancer. The 2010 administrative order from the FTC prohibits the ITA from making representations that imply that the indoor tanning does not increase the risk of skin cancer. In March of 2017, the FTC wrote to the ITA informing them that its FAQ page on its website that claimed that “indoor tanning [was]more responsible than outdoor tanning” and that “melanoma was not associated with UV exposure from tanning bed[s]” were not allowed.

Apparently, the failure to remove that language since 2010 was an oversight by the ITA, but those non-scientific bits of information had persisted on their website, and had been picked up and used on third-party websites, for years! Not only are the indoor tanning industry trade associations still distributing their own unscientific materials to convince users of their products’ safety, but they are using these same arguments to attempt to meddle with public messaging and federal policy at the CDC and FDA and in its lobbying for tanning tax relief since 2011.

According to the tanning industry’s January 2015 issue of Smart Tan, the ASA’s legal and lobbying teams succeeded in getting the CDC to remove claims of a 75% increase in melanoma risk from sunbed use from its website, and “the ASA legal team is following appropriate CDC protocol to challenge even more language that we believe is not supported by sound science.” ASA’s Burt Bonn told the industry magazine that the previous leadership of the CDC and the Surgeon General were unwilling to consider the appropriate scientific evidence regarding indoor tanning and seems hopeful that the new directors will be more “open-minded.” He continued, “The federal government is currently treating tanning like smoking, when there’s no science to support that ridiculous comparison. The consumer advocacy campaigns need to stop…The science is overwhelmingly supportive of sunlight and human health, and we currently have an administration that seems to be driven more by politics than current science. But now they are gone and change is coming.” It should not surprise us that the Administration that coined the moronic oxymoron “alternative facts” would be supportive of an industry wed to the abusive use of such things.

The ASA and ITA’s 2016 comment to the FDA opposed its proposed rule that would restrict the sale, distribution, and use of indoor tanning beds to minors on the basis that the science that the agency relied upon is outdated and doesn’t support the “onerous requirements” of the FDA’s rule.

Section 118 of the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 would repeal the 10% excise tax on indoor tanning services established by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, its repeal would reduce revenues by approximately $622 over ten years and would drastically reduce funding to implement the Affordable Care Act.

There have also been several failed Congressional attempts to repeal the ACA tanning tax, lobbied for by none other than the ITA. In 2015 and 2017, Representative George Holding introduced a bill to repeal the tanning tax after receiving over $6,000 from the Indoor Tanning Association. Representative Michael Grimm had introduced a similar bill in 2011 and 2014 and received over $8,000 in 2012.  And now, the indoor tanning industry is cheering the introduction of the provision within the draft Senate healthcare bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, that would repeal the tax.

The truth about indoor tanning risks must inform federal policy

In spite of the tanning industry’s best efforts so far, the government’s messaging on the risks of indoor tanning and the policy measures instituted to reduce its use are working. CDC data from the High School Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that the number of high school students who used an indoor tanning device decreased by more than half since the ACA and the tanning tax went into effect, from 15.6% in 2009 to 7.3% in 2015. In light of the great body of scientific evidence demonstrating the risks of UV exposure, we should be doing even more to educate and protect teenagers and adults alike from the harms of UV exposure, rather than rolling back important policies aimed at accomplishing just that.

The Senate healthcare bill ignores the science on health impacts of indoor tanning and caves to the tanning industry and their misinformation campaign. It is currently opposed by nearly all scientific voices that work in healthcare. The American Academy of Dermatology opposes the repeal of the tanning tax provision, and the full bill is opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the list goes on.

We have the right to make decisions based on accurate scientific information, not the information cherry-picked and screened by an industry who stands to profit from our ignorance. We should put the Indoor Tanning Association and the American Suntanning Association in the hot seat (and not the kind you find in a tanning salon) for perpetuating falsehoods about their products that could harm consumers’ health. This goes for the current draft Senate healthcare bill and any other future measures that would limit the amount of information available to consumers about the risks of indoor tanning or otherwise compromise policy solutions aimed at keeping us safe.

Photo: Marco Vertch/CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia)

Congress Is Trying to Give the Trump Administration a Short Cut to Ignore Public Input and Science: It Shouldn’t

There is no question that elections matter. We follow the process and accept the results even if that results in many, many battles over the direction of the country. The election of Donald Trump and the 115th Congress seems to be a watershed moment for the country in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the rule of law or the fundamental principles of our democracy have gone away. Or have they?

I am not referring to the big controversies we see every night on the news about foreign interference in the election, or questions of conflicts of interest surrounding the President and many of his appointed officials. Those public debates are important and often seem to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

I am talking about more obscure actions buried away in the federal appropriations process that would literally set aside the ability of the public to be involved in making a key public policy decision and set aside the need to justify that decision based on good science. Sound scary? Damn right.

A dangerous appropriations bill “rider”

Just before the 4th of July recess, the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development included a provision to their spending bill to allow the Administration to withdraw the Obama-era Clean Water rule “without regard to any provision of statute or regulation that establishes a requirement for such withdrawal.” If that provision becomes law, it would allow Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers to ignore legal requirements that the public be informed about and have an opportunity to comment on changes to a regulation. It means the Administration would be authorized to set aside scientific analysis that was developed as the basis for the current Clean Water rule without specifically addressing any of the scientific evidence. Pretty scary for six lines unrelated to government spending tucked into a complicated spending bill.

Why would anyone want to do this? Is the Clean Water rule so very different from all other public policies that we should waive the law including the Administrative Procedures Act which has applied to all sorts of public policy for more than 60 years, as well as the requirement to base rules, whether they be implementing or changing regulations, on good science? Actually, no it isn’t. But the Clean Water rule has become a cause célèbre for many conservative politicians, a poster child for so-called “government overreach” or “bureaucratic excess.” Unfortunately, as is all too common, much of the overheated opposition to the rule is based on a false narrative.

The Clean Water Rule

The Clean Water Rule defines the scope of the Clean Water Act (CWA) by clarifying which bodies of water are considered in implementing the Act, through which Congress mandated the nation’s efforts to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” In 2006, the Supreme Court weighed in with a split decision that also instructed the EPA to clarify the scope of their CWA efforts. So the Obama Administration did just that—after years of additional analysis, proposals, and hundreds of thousands of public comments. The resulting rule expands the footprint of CWA actions by about 3 percent. In other words, it requires federal agencies and state and tribal partners to consider pollution impacts on waters and wetlands connected to larger “navigable” water bodies in some additional circumstances.

So who is so opposed? Developers, because it means they may need to be more careful in ensuring their activities don’t pollute the lakes and rivers we rely upon for our drinking water supply or for recreational activities like fishing and swimming. Mr. Trump issued an Executive Order to withdraw the rule. The Pruitt EPA has proposed going back to the pre-2006 definition, which they believe is clearer, despite the Supreme Court saying it was that very approach that was causing confusion. Clearly this is a complicated and controversial public policy decision.

Now, the Appropriations Subcommittee language says, let’s cut the public out of the process and make it easier for Pruitt to listen to his friends from industry. Let’s forget about the science. Let’s ignore anyone whose opinion we don’t like or whose evidence doesn’t support our views.

No short cuts

Outraged? You bet I am! I hope you are too. I believe this administration should have to follow the law just as previous administrations have done. Want to change the rules? Fine, propose an alternative, present your factual analysis, accept public input and explain your decision. And be subject to judicial review. No short cuts. Do your job. I think this Administration needs to hear that message loud and clear at every opportunity. And this Congress should not be adding harmful poison pill riders into must-pass spending bills.

Pride Month Offers Lessons of Inclusion—Science Should Listen

This year’s pride month is coming to an end, and with it I take many valuable lessons learned. In many ways, pride 2017 was historic. In Washington, DC, protests erupted along the route of the pride parade by the group No Justice, No Pride to advocate for inclusivity of marginalized groups at pride activities. Along these same lines, Philadelphia kicked off their pride month by unveiling a rainbow flag with two new colors added, black and brown, to represent LGBQT individuals of color. Our community somberly remembered the 1-year anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history when 49 people, mostly LGBQT Latinx identified individuals, lost their lives at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We also were reminded that even as we trudge along behind the heels of a presidential administration that is hostile to the LGBQT community, our brothers and sisters around the world are risking their lives to even celebrate pride month.

These issues of inclusion have made me wonder, what is representation like of LGBQT individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields?

Data on LGBQT individuals in STEM fields is lacking

At the 2012 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America poster session, I began to notice the increased presence of researchers investigating the representation of women and minorities in biological sciences. They had lots of data showing women and people of color are underrepresented not only in biology but STEM overall, even data showing which science-based fields these minorities were most underrepresented in, and they were beginning to ask the question of “why are these groups underrepresented in STEM fields?” While we must do more work to answer this question and address these disparities, I found myself standing among these many posters thinking, “where are the data on LGBQT individuals in STEM fields?” “Am I, as a gay man, underrepresented in STEM?” I would find that the data didn’t exist.

While the National Science Foundation (NSF) compiles detailed statistics about women, underrepresented minorities, and the prevalence of various disabilities among US researchers and STEM students, it does not ask about LGBQT identification. Nor are there large-scale systematic independent studies that address the representation of LGBQT individuals in the STEM workforce, or question what the social environment is like in STEM places of work for these individuals.

Yet, in the STEM workforce, we know that many LGBQT scientists still fear coming out to their colleagues. This is likely because publishing, receiving tenure, and getting grant funding all heavily depend on the judgment of colleagues, who might be influenced by their own explicit or implicit biases. We know that studies conducted over the past few years suggest such biases play a role in women and people of color receiving STEM awards and grants—there is no reason to think that our community would be exempt from these same biases.

The American Physics Society also produced a 2016 report showing that 1 in 3 LGBQT physicists considered leaving their department or workplace in the last year, which correlated strongly with both personally experiencing harassment or witnessing it. And it’s possible that such issues, in addition to dealing with the hardships of identifying as LGBQT, keep LGBQT students from entering the STEM workforce, but we don’t have the data to know this. Without these data, we don’t know if LGBQT students are not entering STEM fields or being retained in them, if enough support and counseling for LGBQT scientists is being offered, or even if LGBQT individuals are equally represented in the STEM fields as compared to the overall workforce.

Yes, it gets better, but we still have work to do

The first of its kind, a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Homosexuality suggests that LGBQT scientists feel more accepted in their fields as compared to their peers in other professions. That is great news since we know that when individuals are allowed to express their identities openly they are happier, healthier, and more productive workers, and can serve as role models to the next generation of young scientists. Still, over 40% of those LGBQT STEM workers surveyed were not out to all of their colleagues.

In the US, it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation in 31 states. While universities generally have policies in place that include protections for sexual orientation, there have been claims from individuals that their academic tenure was denied because of their LGBQT identity, especially in states lacking non-discrimination laws (see here, here, and here). We’ve still got protections to fight for—the fight didn’t stop at marriage equality, and it especially doesn’t stop under the current administration.

Let’s continue to remember LGBQT scientists

Our community has been represented well by amazing LGBQT scientists in STEM historically. James B. Pollack was an American astrophysicist and senior space research analyst at the NASA Ames Research Center whose work led to many advances in our understanding of the solar system. Lynn Conway, a transgendered woman, was renowned for her pioneering work in microelectronic chip design. And Alan Turing, the British mathematician known as the father of modern computer science, not only made computers possible for us, but also deciphered secret German military code, contributing enormously to the Allied victory in World War II. We shouldn’t just celebrate these amazing LGBQT scientists in June, we should pride ourselves on the significant contributions our community has made to science all year long!

There could be an LGBQT individual right now who could solve the issue of antibiotic resistance or discover the secrets of dark matter. This is why it’s important to create a STEM workforce where LGBQT scientists thrive.

Where solidarity used to be defined by what LGBQT members are not (straight), pride 2017 reminded us that definition has to broaden out. We should remember well such lessons of inclusion in the STEM community.

It’s the Fourth of July! What Could be More Patriotic Than Serving on a Science Advisory Board?

Earlier this month, I wrote about my experience serving on various federal science advisory boards and committees. In that post, I encouraged my fellow scientists to consider taking on this challenging but rewarding task. A lot has happened over the last two weeks that makes this even more important.

Just this week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its call for nominations for the EPA Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Science Advisory Council, and several subcommittees. At the same time, as my colleague Genna Reed has written, there has been an ongoing, intense controversy about the Trump Administration’s handling of these important groups, which provide independent science advice to the EPA and other agencies. In essence, the agency is seeking to change the membership of the boards and even, perhaps, to make them less independent from regulated industry. That would be a real mistake.

What can scientists do?

The EPA Administrator does have the authority to appoint scientists to the advisory boards, as do other heads of agencies such as the Department of Interior, NOAA, and the FDA. But it would be a shame if they could use the excuse that they didn’t have that many applicants outside a narrow community of scientists.

Are you a scientist with expertise in the fields described in the call for nominations? The notice for just the Science Advisory Board states,

The SAB Staff Office is seeking nominations of experts to serve on the chartered SAB in the following disciplines as they relate to human health and the environment: analytical chemistry; benefit-cost analysis; causal inference; complex systems; ecological sciences and ecological assessment; economics; engineering; geochemistry; health sciences; hydrology; hydrogeology; medicine; microbiology; modeling; pediatrics; public health; risk assessment; social, behavioral and decision sciences; statistics; toxicology, and uncertainty analysis.

The SAB Staff Office is especially interested in scientists in the disciplines described above who have knowledge and experience in air quality; agricultural sciences; atmospheric sciences; benefit-cost analysis; complex systems; drinking water; energy and the environment; epidemiological risk analyses; water quality; water quantity and reuse; ecosystem services; community environmental health; sustainability; chemical safety; green chemistry; homeland security; uncertainty analysis; and waste management.

That’s a lot of disciplinary expertise needed. And even more fields are requested for the other boards, including:

So why not put your name forward? I am sure many outstanding scientists are willing and able to contribute. If you are an expert who has currently or recently served with SAB or CASAC, the nomination/self-nomination form is here. If you haven’t served before, you can nominate/self-nominate here. The deadline for submissions is July 27.

So sit out in the summer sun, watch the fireworks, feel patriotic, and put your name forward to serve as a science advisor. It is a patriotic thing to do, and we will all thank you. Happy Independence (for Science too) Day.

Science Institution Can Help Alleviate Puerto Rico’s Crisis—If It’s Free of Political Interference

In the midst of Puerto Rico’s most severe social, political, and economic crisis in its modern history, a public institution shines brightly to help develop the economy by advancing science and technology. The Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust is an independent, non-partisan entity that provides grants and infrastructure for academic and enterprise-focused research, fostering the business, environmental, human health, and biotechnology research communities in Puerto Rico.

The Trust has helped develop, for example, the Universidad Metropolitana’s Photonics Institute, dedicated to optical sciences and engineering research, and the Environmental Research Laboratory, which provides valuable laboratory and analytics services in support of air, water, and soil environmental protections. The Consortium for Clinical Investigation, another initiative launched by the Trust, serves to facilitate clinical trials and improve human health through a collaboration between 22  research centers, including Yale University. In the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship, Parallel 18 and Colmena 66 assist international startups seeking to launch in Puerto Rico with incubation and resources.

But the Trust’s ability to fund research initiatives is under attack, and so is its non-partisan, independent nature. An amendment to the bill that created the Trust in 2004 was introduced and passed late last Saturday night—without a public comments process—through Puerto Rico’s legislature. The amendment renders the Trust ineffective, as it rescinds the Trust’s authority to fund research, science, technology, and knowledge production. It will also facilitate political interference to undermine the Trust’s mission. Chamber Bill 1122, if signed by Governor Rosselló, will eliminate the current Board of Trustees and replace it with political appointees that the Governor himself will nominate and the senate will confirm. The bill will also change the term of appointees from six to three years, hindering the continuity of projects.  But no matter who is appointed to the Trust’s board, if the Trust can no longer fund scientific work, it will no longer be an effective organization to do what is needed.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to federal research make it even more critical that the government of the Commonwealth takes action to protect science and technology funding. The flagrant attempt at undermining the scientific integrity of the Trust’s mission and governing structure is at odds with Governor Rosselló’s stated vision of maintaining continuity in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s agencies and dependencies as a way to minimize disruptions following general elections. Governor Rosselló is a scientist, holding a PhD. in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan. Surely, the governor knows the value of a well-funded research infrastructure.

Research and innovation are two critical components that can contribute to solving Puerto Rico’s grave fiscal crisis needs. Dr. Rosselló must reject this damaging piece of legislation that deprives Puerto Ricans of valuable research and technological innovation.

Trump Administration Delays Protections for Construction and Shipyard Workers, Weakens Beryllium Rule

More bad news for workers coming from the Trump administration. Last Friday (June 23), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced its proposal to “modify” (read “weaken”) protections for workers exposed to beryllium in construction and shipyards.

Beryllium is a very dangerous material. It’s a carcinogen and the cause of chronic beryllium disease, a devastating illness. There’s no real rescue from this slow, incurable, and often fatal lung disease.

While it leaves in place the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for beryllium (0.2ug/m3), OSHA now proposes to eliminate the “ancillary provisions” of the rule that would extend certain protections to construction and shipyard workers. Protections like exposure monitoring, a written exposure control plan, personal protective equipment, and medical surveillance. These “ancillary provisions” are actually basic public health protections for workers dealing with a really hazardous material.

An unwarranted delay

In March, I wrote and bemoaned OSHA’s two-month delay in implementing its new protective standards for workers exposed to beryllium—an unwarranted delay following decades of work and solid scientific evidence. A delay in implementing standards that lowered the PEL and also, importantly, extended needed protections to workers in shipyards and construction. A delay that guaranteed two additional months of serious, ongoing risk to exposed workers.

That two months will now stretch for who knows how long into the future for shipyard and construction workers. In its press release last Friday, OSHA stated that “Representatives of the shipyards and construction industries, as well as members of Congress, raised concerns that they had not had a meaningful opportunity to comment on the application of the rule to their industries when the rule was developed in 2015-16.” Seriously. Even though in a lengthy (very lengthy) rule-making process, OSHA specifically solicited stakeholder comments on whether its final beryllium rule should extend protections to workers in these two industries. Seems like enough time, no?

The latest blow to worker and public health protections

The OSHA press release also noted that “it has information suggesting that requiring the ancillary provisions broadly may not improve worker protection…” OSHA didn’t cite any evidence, except perhaps mentioning the “concern” of the regulated industry.

Public health professionals (and workers) would beg to differ on the value of measuring exposure levels, requiring personal protective equipment, and providing medical surveillance of exposed workers.

This new proposal is just the latest blow to worker and public health protections coming out of the Trump administration—see, for example, here,  here, and here. The proposal is scheduled to be published tomorrow in the Federal Register, which will open the public comment period.

Let’s use the opportunity to remind OSHA—and to send a message to all of our regulatory agencies—that their FIRST priority is protect the health, safety, and security of the American people.  Private interests must not trump the public interest.

American Prosperity Depends on International Science: Our Border Policy Should Reflect That

At first, the new ‘laptop ban’ sounded like a minor nuisance. This is a part of a recent executive order prohibiting large electronics as carry-on items on flights to the U.S. from eight countries in northern Africa and the Middle East. Only when I saw a Facebook outburst from my American colleague in Africa did it become clear how even a small encumbrance like this can cast a devastating blow to science.

This travel restriction is one of several that could fast cripple scientific and technological progress in the US. That is bad for the US economy and the livelihood of its citizens. Here’s why.

Christine is a climate change scientist working in Kenya. She posted to Facebook:

“This latest [Executive Order] just eliminated four out of seven of my major routes home from Nairobi. As a professional scientist, I cannot travel without my laptop. I see devastating impacts on collaborations with professionals from the targeted countries, and those who live in Africa and Asia and use these airports to connect to the U.K. and the U.S.”

Sure, technically she could check her laptop, but would you abandon yours to the potential of being rained on, crushed, stolen, or “examined” by security agents, risking the leakage of personal data and the loss of your primary tool? Obstacles like this, combined with sweeping immigration bans, will steadily reduce our scientific connectivity to the world.

The position of the US as a frontrunner in science is sustained by engagement with the international scientific community. We need foreign partnerships because societies across the globe face a suite of common challenges. Many are interconnected by economies of trade, others by planetary physics. And many of these challenges require science-based solutions that are not resolvable in national isolation. Three examples are climate change, emerging technologies, and sustainable food production.

Climate change

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the responses of some regions will have greater impacts on future climate than others. For example, tropical forest biology is a driver of atmospheric circulation. The US Department of Energy funds US scientists to travel abroad for tropical research, because biological responses to climate change there have the potential to alter weather, and thereby energy security, in the US.

We need to work with scientists around the world to learn about climate migration and displacement from sea level rise and other climate impacts. Photo: Jason Evans/Georgia Sea Grant

The human response to climate change is another shared problem. The US is far from immune to population displacement by future sea level rise. We would be smart to work with social scientists abroad to learn how climate migrations are being managed elsewhere.

But we cannot simply travel abroad and study at will. Doing my dissertation work in Brazil, I learned that international partnerships are carefully cultivated through fair, reciprocal exchange. If we hassle our foreign partners to hand over their social media passwords upon entry to the US, how welcoming will they be to us?

Emerging technologies

China and India are now two of the world’s leaders in investment in renewable energy. Saudi Arabia and Morocco are funding ambitions for large-scale solar. Each country will be innovating to overcome the significant challenges of production, storage, and distribution that an energy market dominated by renewables faces. The latter two countries have air hubs on the laptop ban list.

As Africa’s tech workforce grows in numbers and ability, other useful technologies are emerging such as mobile-phone banking, and nimble cloud-computing services. These technologies are likely to become imports to the US, just as the crisis-mapping software Ushahidi, originating in Kenya, has been adopted for disaster relief coordination and elections monitoring around the world. It will be difficult to import Africa’s experts to develop similar technologies here if we eliminate skilled worker visas.

Sustainable food

As we deal with drought here in the US, we have a lot we can learn from scientists abroad. Photo: NASA JPL.

Much of our imported food production depends on fossil water—water in aquifers that will not be replenished in our lifetimes. That includes sources in Mexico, our dominant international supplier. Determining the longevity of deep reservoirs is a hard scientific problem. Through international research collaborations, we can aid in predicting the sustainability of water sources on which our food supplies depend, and help develop appropriate farming practices. We can again look to Africa for expertise, where indigenous superfoods are gaining popularity as vegetables that are more nutritious and require less water than our staple European brassicas.

Here again, US scientists may be reluctant to cross the border for collaborative research with Latin American suppliers if we are subject to unlimited laptop and cellphone searches upon re-entry. And Mexican industries may not welcome our scientists if our leaders continue to paint the country in an unfavorable light.

International collaboration promotes science and peace

Just as face-to-face communication with international colleagues fosters trust and begets lasting collaborations, fair and open international exchange cultivates mutual understanding and respect between countries. Our border policies must carefully balance the tradeoffs between restriction and openness. Where possible, we should seek synergies. By facilitating collaboration with other countries on shared problems, we can encourage both peace and expedient solutions.

What can you do to help? Share this post, and present the central concept to your senators and representatives. Share the insight that our country’s economic prosperity and peace depend on international scientific exchange.

I am grateful to my international scientific colleagues for valuable comments on this essay: Dr. Christine Lamanna (American in Kenya) in Kenya; Dr. Bernardo Flores (Brazilian); Dr. Alberto Burquez (Mexican); and Dr. Karen Taylor (American).

 

Dr. Tyeen Taylor studies the shifting ecology of tropical forests amid the onset of rapid climate warming. He avidly shares the joy and practicality of scientific knowledge with non-scientists through films, photography, writing, and public events. Public Facebook page: /TyeenCTscience. Twitter: @TyeenTaylor. YouTube: Tyeen Taylor. Website: www.ttphilos.org

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Better Ways to Describe the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science

It is not exactly a secret that these are challenging times for both science and democracy in the US. From attacks on science and science-based policies, to the increasing body of evidence that we may not be able to count on the federal government to protect public health and safety, the days are long, and not just because of the summer solstice. Leading the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists gives me, and my terrific colleagues, the opportunity to be in the middle of the fight to defend the role of science in our country. But there are a lot of things coming at us, and many of them are, to say the least, negative.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary (M-W) has come to our rescue with new ways to say “this sucks.” The increased ability to use descriptive language may save my sanity. So here goes, my first try at using this great new resource:

First on the list, Pessimum, defined by M-W as “the least favorable environmental condition under which an organism can survive.” This seems to fit the conditions for EPA employees to a tee. These dedicated public servants are now overseen by a hostile staff of political appointees with direct ties to regulated industry. Their Administrator not only ignores science but seems to go out of his way to make decisions contrary to the scientific evidence. And while many senior scientists and technical experts are leaving, with encouragement from the Trump administration, it seems nearly impossible for new talent to come on board one of the premier public health agencies in the world. That’s about as unfavorable as conditions can get. In their definition, M-W illustrate with a quote about the Irish population during the Great Famine. Maybe next time they can refer to our poor underappreciated colleagues at the EPA.

Next, Catastrophe, defined by M-W as “utter failure”, which in the 16th century meant “the final action that completes the unraveling of the plot…” Sounds like the President’s budget proposal to me. Reductions in funding across programs AND personnel on the order of thirty percent at EPA, Interior, Energy, NOAA and other agencies, with science programs in the crosshairs. Reductions in grant funding proposed for NIH, NSF, and even cuts at the CDC. It is not even clear what the theory of change is here, other than “unraveling” or destruction. The budget proposal even signals that this administration doesn’t think universities should be able to charge overhead at levels that enable our great research institutions to continue to function and train new scientists. On second thought, maybe catastrophe is too mild a descriptor….

But then there are many uses for the next word in the list, Worstest. Even though M-W views its definition as “a substandard variant of worst”, it seems that the Trump Administration can lay claim to many of the worstest actions in its first six months of any administration in modern times. The program for regulatory rollbacks leaps to mind, including the President’s Executive Order requiring federal agencies to withdraw two regulations for each new one put in place. It is the worstest idea I have ever heard to base the decisions on public health and safety protections solely on costs to industry, with no consideration of benefits to the public. The whole reason for regulations is to protect the public interest, as a recent report from the Center for Progressive Reform so clearly lays out.

Merriam-Webster defines The Limit as “a very annoying and upsetting person or thing.” I have to go with withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as The Limit so far. Annoying and embarrassing for our country, yes. Upsetting? Oh yeah. Backing away from leadership in the world. Reneging on our agreements with the international community. Refusing to face up to one of the major challenges of our generation—that’s The Limit.

The word Putid, M-W tells us, means “rotten, worthless.” That’s a perfect description for the decision by EPA Administrator Pruitt to essentially gut the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) for the agency. These independent scientists, appointed for their expertise, are non-partisan and have great value in helping guide the scientific program of work for EPA. They don’t weigh in on regulatory decisions. They are offering their expertise to make sure the science is strong. But apparently the new administration doesn’t want that advice and has failed to renew their appointments, suggesting they can reapply for these positions. Given that all of the Counselors are highly respected scientists with full-time jobs and were serving this extra duty in order to serve the public, that’s a putid offer.

Maleficent is an elegant word meaning “productive of harm or evil” according to M-W. Perhaps there is no better illustration than appointing lobbyists from regulated industries to oversee regulatory programs in federal agencies. Like the American Chemistry Council lobbyist who is now directly managing the new rules for protecting our families from toxic chemicals. Passing the law was a signature bipartisan achievement of the last Congress. But, the rules are maleficently being weakened, making us all less safe.

Merriam Webster has given us a few more on the list. But I should save those for another time, as I don’t think we have seen the last action by this administration that undermines the role of science in our democracy and causes us to reach for the dictionary.

It is better to end on a more positive note. The M-W also gives us synonyms for “optimistic” such as auspicious, heartening, promising, propitious, and upbeat. And there is so much energy in the scientist community, along with those who care deeply about science, that we can and must fight back. This spring we saw an auspicious beginning for that energy in the March for Science. It is propitious that here at UCS we have seen more and more scientists joining our Science Network. That’s heartening. Later in July, we’ll be reporting on the first six months on the Trump Administration’s attacks on science in more detail. So let’s fight back for our public health, safety and the environment. We can win.

Photo: Freddie Alequin/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

When the Floods are Certain But (NOAA’s) Funds Are Not

Did you know? Arriving tomorrow and continuing over the weekend, our coasts can expect some of the highest tides and most extensive flooding of the year (we’ll see these King Tides again in July and August). The number of days with coastal flooding is expected to be 35% above normal this year, and “normal” already includes a steep increase over historic levels, courtesy of sea level rise. Well underway is an extra-active Atlantic hurricane season.

There are reasons for all of these things, some of which we’ll get to. And the fundamental reasons that we know about these reasons are (a) science and (b) NOAA—our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the nation’s most vital scientific agencies.

Did you know that just fourteen percent of US coastal counties (not states!) produce 45 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). NOAA also finds that close to three million jobs (that’s one in 45) are directly dependent on the ocean economy? And the ocean economy (using 2014 numbers) accounted for 149,000 business establishments, 3.1 million employees totaling $123 billion in wages and contributing $352 billion in gross domestic product.

Hey, thanks NOAA, cool to know. And did you know that 180 million Americans  use their hard-earned dollars annually to make 2 billion visits to beaches? In fact, coastal states receive about 85% of the tourist-related revenues in the US.

What happens on our coasts matters greatly to the US economy and, apparently, to our collective sanity.

Wait, there’s more. Did you know our coasts continue to see rapid population growth (39% of US population) and development (1355 building permits issued daily in ten years) including in flood-prone areas, even as sea levels are projected to rise 4, 6, possibly 8 feet this century? (How do we know that? Science and NOAA.) Or that $882 billion worth of homes (almost 1.9 million nationwide) is in reach of sea level rise by the end of this century?

The convergence of these trends creates colossal risks for our country’s economy, for businesses, and for people and their homes. These are tenuous circumstances along our coast that need to be managed carefully if our communities are to grow resilient in the face of such change. But many states and communities are trying to mitigate their risk and prepare for rising seas using data and tools, courtesy of NOAA. Its Digital Coast, for example, connects digital elevation models with sea level rise projections and enables sea level rise risk to be visualized and understood by residents and planners alike. And NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Grants as well as the Sea Grant Program help provide funding resources to communities and state governments who match these funds to implement planning and projects that reduce flood risks and increase natural habitats.

What does a sensible federal administration do in light of all of the above?

Enhance NOAA’s ability to help coastal states and communities adapt to change, continue our nation’s thoughtful investment in this agency’s vital coastal resilience building resources, and double-down where risk is greatest.

What is this administration doing?

Proposing budget cuts that would gut NOAA’s capacity to do these things and outright eliminate some of these core taxpayer-built assets that provide vital data and build coastal communities’ resilience. Some of these NOAA’s programs that communities are using go back to 1970’s and help communities’ ability to plan, respond to, and mitigate coastal risk events. Here’s a deeper look at one of the many places that will experience sunny day flooding: South Carolina.

Since 1980, South Carolina has been impacted by 51 billion-dollar coast hazard natural disasters causing impacts to the 1,241,048 people who call the 2,876 miles of coastline their home (this includes  offshore islands, sounds, bays, rivers, and creeks). Approximately half (49% or 175, 613) of these people live in the floodplain (coastal and riverine), 54% of these residents are over the age of 65 and to 56% are considered to be lower income or in poverty. In fact, a total of 83,833 coastal properties in South Carolina worth $45 billion could be under water due to sea level rise by the end of this century.

Recent studies indicate that we’ll see more coastal flooding due to sea level rise, which is happening faster than originally thought. At a minimum we are likely to see that 10 cm rise would take place in about 30 years’ time.

NOAA’s grants under National Ocean Service (NOS) and Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) have contributed greatly to helping make South Carolina’s coastal communities more resilient to these coastal hazards. For example, in one year (from FY 2015 – 2016) in South Carolina, the SC Sea Grant Consortium provided 25 coastal community resilience trainings, assisted 11 communities in implementing sustainable development practices and plans, enabled 6 mayors to develop regional plans for critical natural areas, and activated volunteers to restore 2,681 acres of beach habitat.

In 2017 South Carolina has received 12 grants from the NOAA’s National Oceans Service (NOS) totaling over $25.5 million. Under the President’s FY18 budget, funding under NOS could be cut by a quarter. South Carolina also received 9 grants from NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research (OAR) totaling almost $10.2 million, under the President’s budget by one-third.

Under the President’s FY 18 budget, both the NOS Competitive Grants under Coastal Science and Assessment and Coastal Zone Management Grants and Regional Coastal Resilience Grants would be zeroed out as well the Sea Grant funding under OAR including National Strategic Investments, Small Business Innovation Research and state program funding, among other funding opportunities.

But what does that look like on the ground?

Here are a few snapshots of how NOAA is bringing South Carolina shorelines, and it’s communities to life:

  • NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer showing 4 feet of sea level rise (current projections estimate much higher sea level rise by the end of his century).

    NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer, Regional Coastal Resilience Grants and the City of Charleston, South Carolina: The City of Charleston is one of the hot spots for frequent tidal flooding with a  409% increase in nuisance flooding since 1960’s. Imagine that based on NOAA projections, from 1970 to 2045 Charleston’s tidal flooding will increase 2 days per year to 180 days—the equivalent of experiencing flooding conditions every other day!

  • City officials are working to prepare for the next 50 years with a comprehensive, 5-phase sea level rise strategy with an estimated cost of $154 million and a completion target of 2020. The plan calls for hiring a chief resilience officer, as well as capital improvements that include better drainage systems, raising the elevation of streets, building and extending seawalls, and retrofitting public housing.With NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer, city council members were able to use flood projection maps and realistic visualizations of sea level rise impacts on local landmarks to help inform their flood risk management strategies. Thanks to NOAA, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium will have $766,887 in funding through a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant to advance these critical sea level rise resilience and recovery efforts as described in their 2107 strategic plan.

Beachfront Vulnerability Index (BVI) for the southwestern end of Folly Beach, South Carolina. This map shows the ArcGIS Weighted Overlay assessment using data on elevation, long-term erosion rates, number of dunes present, wave height, tidal range, a habitable structure’s proximity to an inlet, and a habitable structure’s distance from the state’s lines of jurisdiction. The results of this assessment established a BVI score for each parcel.

  • Building Resilient Communities Using a Beachfront Vulnerability Index: Just in the last two decades, South Carolina’s eight coastal counties have experienced rapid growth and erosion. In fact, NOAA’s data show that 3,773 square miles of change (17 percent), including a 21-percent increase in developed areas from 1996 to 2010. To help improve their resilience, South Carolina’s coastal zone management program utilized NOAA’s data including elevation, long-term erosion rates, number of dunes present, wave height, tidal range, and a setback line and baseline to develop a beachfront vulnerability index. This index helps planners to assess community exposure and susceptibility and provides a vulnerability score for each parcel along the South Carolina coast. It also incorporates mitigation and adaptation strategies in both local and state beachfront management plans.

    Community-Based and Larger-Scale Oyster Restoration in ACE Basin NERR, South Carolina

  • The ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), named after the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Native American tribes (as well as rivers) is located in South Carolina’s St. Helena Sound and is one of 29 reserves that make up the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS). With funds from NERR Science Collaborative the reserve and state worked together to engage over 1,000 community volunteers to restore two miles of shoreline with vital oyster reefs building coastal communities’ resilience to storms and sea level rise.

Each of these programs requires buy-in at the state and local levels with an in-kind match to the federal investment. The SC Sea Grant Consortium for example leveraged $2,649,008 in funds (FY 2015 – 2016) which is an equivalent of a 433% return on the state’s investment, not to mention $4.9 million in economic benefit and 167 jobs. Thanks NOAA!

As our friends in Charleston, SC and all of America’s coasts witness the sunny day flooding today and the next few days, we know that their minds won’t be on President Trump’s latest tweet or whether he will call them to discount the reality of sea level rise. Instead these communities will be wondering how to continue to survive and thrive as this administration guts the very resources they need to see tidal flooding and other coastal hazards coming, and determine how to respond.

Time to defend NOAA’s budget

Without NOAA’s Digital Coast, NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer, Coastal Zone Resilience Grants, or the Sea Grant Program, among many others, these communities will be flying blind and patching together funding to keep their sea level rise strategy moving forward, even as they face faster rising seas and more frequent and intense hurricanes.

Now is a good time to reach out to Congress to ask them to keep these places in mind and to resist these cuts to NOAA’s budget. Here and here are more reasons why.

US Census Bureau NOAA Office of Coastal Management, Digital Coast South Carolina Department of Natural Resources

Science Needs to Learn Lessons from the LGBTQ Rights Movement

The recent March for Science did not help public support for science. That is what the majority of Americans told a recent Pew Research Center survey and what certain news outlets are quick to put in their headlines. My response: Who cares? If my years of organizing for LGBTQ rights taught me anything, it’s that the success of the march should not be measured by the day, but by the movement it creates.

I am a scientist by academic background. However, I spent more time organizing protests and rallies in support of LGBTQ rights than I ever did on my physics homework (and I have the grades to prove it). At one point, I even joined the board of a newly formed local grassroots LGBTQ rights organization. The group had a few very energetic members who were always looking for the next reason to hold a protest in downtown Boston, one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in New England.

Events like these were incredibly important, but we were not able to single-handedly change the hearts and minds of the country on issues like marriage equality through the cunning use of protest signs. Despite the beautiful artwork and creative slogans, the only people who really saw them were people who agreed with us. Even worse, after spending some time looking at the communication of climate science, I’m fairly certain that our signs would only harden the opposition in their worldview.

Knowing that these protests would be a total waste of time unless it led to direct political action, I organized a volunteer team to go through the crowd at every rally armed with clipboards. Their instructions were to get the contact information for as many people who attended the rally as possible. We then recruited people from those lists to be volunteers on future actions that were focused on political impact.

In the months that followed, we put them to work making phone calls and knocking on doors all over New England. The goal of this effort was to identify registered voters from neighboring states who supported marriage equality and ask them to directly lobby their state representatives. It was part of a broad campaign to win marriage equality throughout all of New England and, five years later, we succeeded.

This amazing feat was not the direct result of any one of our marches or rallies. Those events were simply a catalyst used to build momentum for our cause. The real impact came from the hard work our rallied-up supporters took on in the years that followed.

Tens of thousands of science supporters braved the rain to support the March for Science in Washington, DC. Photo credit: D. Pomeroy

With this perspective, I think it’s fair to declare the March for Science a huge success. Tens of thousands of people braved the weather to show up to a sopping National Mall in Washington DC, stand in a downpour for four hours, and then march through the rain to Capitol Hill. There were also more than 600 satellite marches across the world. Thousands of people showed up in places like Boston, Los Angeles, New York and as far away as Sydney.

Whether or not the March will have impact on public support for science is now left up to what we do with the energy of the crowds we turned out. To be successful we will need to get people involved in every aspect of the movement. We will need scientists to speak out in their local communities to explain the importance of their research. We will need supporters to attend local school board meetings and ensure the next generation receives a science-based education. We will need everyone to go to their local, state, and national legislators and demand evidence-based policy. Some of us may even need to leave the lab and run for office.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch in this endeavor. I am hopeful that long standing science advocacy organizations, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will be able to team up with newly forming organizations, like the March for Science and 314 Action. Together we can take this momentum forward and make real change. However, it will take time and it will take a sustained effort.

In the meantime, if you’re able to make it to a Pride event this month make sure to sign a petition or two. If an organizer follows up with you, don’t be afraid to take the next step and become a volunteer. Your involvement will not only be good for the cause; it will teach you a bit about political organizing. And, if we’re going to turn the massive crowds at the March for Science into a movement, we’re going to need as many organizers as possible.

 

Dr. Dan Pomeroy received his Ph.D. in physics from Brandeis University in 2012 studying high energy physics as part of the ATLAS experiment at CERN. He then served as a post-doctoral fellow, at the National Academy of Sciences and as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow in the office of Senator Edward J. Markey.  He also has extensive experience in grassroots political organizing, running LGBT rights campaigns as well as field offices during the 2008 elections.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

Want to Squash Science? Follow Pruitt’s Lead at the EPA

The Trump Administration double downed on its overhaul of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) this week, notifying members whose terms would be ending in 2017 and early 2018 that their terms will not be renewed and cancelling subcommittee meetings for the rest of the year. This means that just 3 out of 18 executive committee members and 11 out of 49 subcommittee members will remain, with just 10 days to reapply to their positions.

This will stall the work of the committee, which was set to begin looking at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s (ORD) plans for the next five years. According to the Board’s chair, Deborah Swackhamer, it’s an inauspicious sign of what’s to come for other advisory committees with members whose terms are coming to an end, like many members of EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

Scientific advisory process is already open, inclusive, and diverse

Scientific advisory committees, like BOSC, provide independent advice to the federal government, allowing agencies to seek outside expertise on critical issues. The EPA has seven advisory committees that are scientific or technical in nature, including the Science Advisory Board (SAB), the FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP), the Board of Scientific Counselors, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the Chemical Safety Advisory Committee, the Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board, and the Human Studies Review Board.

Most recent membership includes a wide range of expertise, of scientists from a variety of backgrounds whose affiliations range from an academic setting to the private sector.

As appropriate, a diversity of expertise is represented on these advisory committees, the work of which ranges from reviewing epidemiological studies on a particular pesticide to advising the EPA on a contentious scientific review, like fracking impacts on drinking water.

Advisory committees should be made up of a balance of expertise, not just because it’s required under the Federal Advisory Committee Act but because it promotes a breadth of opinions, an opportunity for creative solutions to complex problems, and challenges members to come to a consensus on certain charge questions.

The EPA’s advisory committees are also very transparent. All members serving on these committees must sign ethics forms, disclose funding from the past two years, and be prepared to submit a waiver to the administrator if there is a clear conflict of interest explaining how it will be mitigated.

This is about science advice, not politics

A representative from the American Chemistry Council told the Washington Post that the emptying out of BOSC was welcome and would address their “concerns in the past that EPA advisory boards did not include a diversity of views and therefore frequently presented a biased perspective on issues before them.” But this criticism doesn’t make sense for the BOSC.  Its executive committee is composed of scientists with diverse research expertise, equipped to give advice on ORD’s research agenda without making policy prescriptions where a bias would come into play.

I want to reiterate something that the BOSC’s chair repeated several times in a hearing before the House Science Committee in May. She told members of congress that “robust science, not politics, should form the bedrock” of environmental policies and that all of the members who could have been renewed for a second term had been fully qualified, vetted, and ORD-recommended.

There was no justification for their dismissal. Swackhamer was rightfully offended by the implication that BOSC members would display allegiance to the administration under which they are appointed, telling the Star Tribune that, “I resent the fact that we are considered biased because were appointed during [President Barack] Obama’s tenure,” she said. “I would behave the same way if I were appointed by Pruitt.”

Independent science advisors should be judged based on their qualifications to make scientific recommendations, which don’t change just because there’s a new EPA administrator. Now instead of working to help ORD decide how in the world they will deal with likely cuts to several of its research programs, BOSC will be incapacitated for at least the next year, which according to one of the subcommittee members who resigned last month, Peter B. Meyer, will mean that “guidance to shape the coming agenda will be lost so cost-effectiveness of research will suffer, as will science.”

Of all of the EPA’s advisory committees, BOSC is the last one I would expect to be caught up in a political fight. And I’m still worried about the future of EPA’s other important science advisory committees. Let’s remember that the SAB often works on policy-relevant issues, and its current nomination process is already stalled this year.

Every year since 2007, the EPA has put out a call for nominations around the same time in April. Except this year, that call never came, despite there being 15 slots opening up this September that need to be filled. Likewise, CASAC’s chair’s term is ending in September and the EPA has so far done nothing to recruit for her replacement, even though without her the committee will be unable to function. EPA staff has reported that Pruitt has a draft notice for nominations on his desk, but he hasn’t issued it yet. Without CASAC’s chair, the committee will be unable to issue recommendations on soot and sulfur oxides that the EPA relies on for further air quality rulemaking.

The crucial role of independent science advice

Delaying the work of these advisory committees is another example of this administration’s apparent philosophy of death by delay. The inability of CASAC to continue advising the EPA on its National Ambient Air Quality Standards means that the EPA will go without independent scientific advice on the six criteria pollutants of ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and lead. Changes to BOSC means that ORD will have less input on how to make cost-effective changes to its research programs while encouraging important scientific development. And if the SAB gets treatment similar to BOSC, SAB’s ongoing work to review EPA’s water quality criteria to protect aquatic life and to peer review EPA’s toxicological assessments of several chemicals, including ethyl tert-butyl ether will languish.

We must protect federal advisory committees, for they are the objective body that every agency needs in order to take on some of the most difficult questions facing our country today. The work that these advisory committees do feeds into the crucial research conducted by and the safeguards issued by the EPA. Advisory committee members volunteering their valuable time to public service to advise agencies on how best to protect us and the environment are unsung heroes. We should acknowledge and praise them more often.

It’s a shame that Administrator Pruitt is doing the opposite: actively working to offend committee members by questioning their objectivity under a new administration and devaluing their work by shifting committee composition and cancelling committee meetings. Gutting our government’s capacity for independent science advice is an attack on science. We will be keeping a watchful eye on the appointment of new BOSC committee members to make sure that scientific expertise and research experience, not political views, are the basis for qualification.

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