UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Congress Does Industry’s Bidding by Cutting Public Safeguards

The past month has not been kind to environmental and public health protections. A bevy of science-based rules are now on the chopping block thanks to the congressional sleight-of-hand called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows a simple majority in Congress to undo provisions issued within the final six months of the previous administration.

Right now, industries clearly feel empowered to try to roll back public safeguards in the name of profits. But the American public will pay a steep price from the erosion of these protections and science is being sidelined in the process.

Promoting water pollution

For a case in point, look no further than the recent overturning of the Stream Protection Rule issued by the Department of Interior’s Office of Stream Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). This science-based rule was designed to protect streams in the United States, including headwater streams, from the often devastating impacts of pollution with mining waste and debris.

All told, this rule would have improved the quality of some 263 miles of streams downstream of mines each year, the benefits of which would have been felt by nearby communities. But a CRA measure to overturn it recently passed in both the House and Senate and was signed on February 16 by President Trump.

The Stream Protection Rule was a commonsense safeguard based upon clear evidence that, once a waterway’s flow has been disturbed, it is very difficult to restore it to its original condition. This is bad news for all of the native plant and animal species in the ecosystem and for communities and farmers downstream who will reap fewer of the natural benefits that riparian buffers provide, like reduced flooding, filtration, and increased groundwater recharge.

Additionally, one of the mining techniques—known as long wall mining—extracts coal underground, which often causes sinkholes that can damage structures aboveground. This activity has led to all sorts of calamities including a cracked dam, homes and businesses with damaged foundations, structural problems with the sources of groundwater property owners rely upon, and even the disappearance of an entire lake once used for boating and fishing in a Pennsylvania state park.

Representatives Bill Johnson of Ohio and Evan Jenkins and David McKinley of West Virginia were among the sponsors of the legislation to revoke the Stream Protection Rule. Between them, they have taken more than $1 million in political contributions from the mining industry, which will no doubt benefit mightily from the removal of this commonsense check on their operations. The talking points of the National Mining Association and America’s largest mining company, Murray Energy Company, are also echoed in the representatives’ misinformed statements about the rule.

By overturning this protection, the bill’s sponsors are ensuring that residents across America will continue to see their water sources, their homes, and their environment degraded. And the message that their elected officials are sending is loud and clear: profits over people.

Sadly, several other efforts to rescind commonsense protections are also now underway. Here are some we’re watching closely:

Communities like Galena Park in east Houston need stronger health and environmental policies to protect residents from toxic air pollution and potential chemical release from nearby chemical facilities. Instead, Oklahama Rep. Markwayne Mullin is using the CRA to weaken those protections for the benefit of industry.

Undermining chemical safety

Oklahoma Representative Markwayne Mullin, who has received more than $410,000 from the oil and gas industry during just two terms in office, has introduced legislation to remove a rule issued by the EPA last year designed to improve safety at facilities that use or store large amounts of dangerous chemicals and to further protect first responders and fenceline communities. Major industrial facilities, including oil and gas companies, have been vocal in their opposition to this rule, and Mullin has become the elected mouthpiece of those entities.

The updated EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule is a commonsense, science-based provision designed to regulate industrial facilities all across America that release toxic chemicals. On average in recent years, approximately 150 catastrophic accidents have occurred annually at these facilities, posing often-grave risks to the workers and to the neighboring communities.

There are a significantly greater percentage of African Americans, Latinos, and people in poverty living near these facilities at higher risk for exposure to chemical releases. As noted in the 2016 report written by UCS and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s), Double Jeopardy in Houston: Acute and Chronic Chemical Exposures Pose Disproportionate Risks for Marginalized Communities, residents in Houston communities with RMP facilities have a higher risk of developing or worsening lung diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis due to exposure of high toxic concentrations of air pollutants including harmful chromium compounds.

Improvements to the RMP rule would have helped to make facilities safer for surrounding communities, reduced the number of catastrophes, and ensure that first responders were fully informed and protected. While the original rule will remain in place even if the amendments are rolled back using the CRA, the status quo has not been enough to fully protect Americans from toxic chemical exposures, and people of color and in poverty will continue to bear the brunt of health impacts from future accidents and spills at these facilities.

The CRA bill that would nullify the EPA’s rule is still pending a vote in the House, and industry representatives are lobbying hard for its passage.

Fostering air pollution and hastening climate change

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was issued to update the Carter administration regulation that governs how oil and gas is extracted on federal land. The update would have reduced some of the most dangerous impacts of fracking for natural gas extraction, including leaks, venting, and flaring, which was especially timely given that reductions in methane pollution are needed to get us on track to meet emissions standards.

Two of the sponsors of the legislation that would eliminate this rule are Utah’s Rob Bishop and Wyoming’s John Barrasso, who have received over $1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of their political careers. This effort is only the newest in a succession of attacks on this rule since it was first proposed. Recently released emails from the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General (yes, that of our newly confirmed EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt) reveal 2013 correspondence with a fracking company, Devon Energy Corporation, discussing how they both planned to meet with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to convince them to “completely do away with the present thrust” of the BLM’s methane waste rule.

Pulling the methane rule will result in the continued release of methane pollution, which perhaps not surprisingly occurs at the highest levels on tribal lands in Rob Bishop’s state of Utah—and John Barrasso’s state of Wyoming has one of the highest methane emission levels on federal lands, according to this 2015 report. Remember when a 2,500 mi2 cloud of methane floated over the borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in 2014? We can expect more of that phenomenon to occur without these rules. ‘

And what does that mean for the livelihoods of Wyoming and Utah residents and all Americans? Well, increases in methane pollution can lead to increased ground-level ozone levels as well as other hazardous air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide, which can trigger asthma and even cancer. Not only will air quality continue to get worse in areas of highest methane emissions, but we will all experience the impacts associated with a changing climate thanks to excessive and irresponsible release of the most potent greenhouse gas.

This CRA bill still requires passage in the Senate to move onto the President’s desk.

Vitally needed: checks and balances

Along with rollbacks to regulations allowing polluters to freely pollute, industry is referencing another page from its playbook to chip away at transparency measures designed to keep companies accountable for their business dealings. The President signed a CRA resolution last week to roll back a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring that oil and gas companies disclose payments to foreign governments. Ohio representative Sherrod Brown remarked, “This kind of transparency is essential to combating waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement.” Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, was a vocal critic of this rule before his confirmation and can check that off of his to-do list now that he’s a cabinet member.

The first few weeks of Trump’s presidency have affirmed that money talks, and that power can be bought and used to further maximize profits. We have seen a corporate takeover of our government, as 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 every one that it issues (with the intent of freezing regulation and allowing industry to get away with business as usual); and Congress is hastily working to nullify a slew of Obama-era regulations that would prevent industry misconduct, using the Congressional Review Act in an unprecedented fashion.

While industry is ready to profit from CRA rollbacks both here and abroad, a regulatory freeze, and industry-friendly cabinet appointments, everyday Americans will be missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits. And members of Congress who are using techniques like the CRA to undermine public health and safety are making a grave mistake that will surely catch up with them as Americans come to see the effects of these misguided rollbacks.

Our democracy is built on a foundation of checks and balances. Among these are the need for governmental protections to place a vital check on industry in order to keep our water, food, and environment healthy and our workplaces and our children safe. Unfortunately, in the current political environment, industry is influencing decision makers with political contributions, and effectively making many members of Congress beholden to them. The result: elected officials spouting off specious industry talking points and designing policies that leave industry excesses unchecked. When industry interference prevents government from making decisions based on science, it undermines our democracy and the public suffers.

We will continue to work to ensure that agencies have the freedom to fulfill their critical missions, and we will be ready to hold industry accountable for noncompliance or misdeeds.

 

Photo: Jack Pearce/CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS Photo: Tim Evanson/CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr

Overpopulation, and a Movie that Definitely Won’t Get the Oscar

As Oscar Night approaches, I’ve gotten to thinking about the movies I saw last year—not just the good ones, but a bad one too. It’s Inferno, which seemed to have everything going for it, but has sunk into cinematic oblivion with scarcely a trace. Why?

Before I saw it last fall, I thought it had all the elements that would make lots of Americans like it—including me. It stars Tom Hanks, the actor who would definitely be America’s Sweetheart if he weren’t so old and so male. It’s directed by Ron Howard, one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. Its title and underlying theme come from Dante’s description of Hell—seven centuries old but still unsurpassed.

Dante—a portrait by Andrea del Castagno, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Source: Web_Gallery_of_Art, Wikimedia.org

And it’s based on the best-selling novel by best-selling author Dan Brown of DaVinci Code fame. Put those four together, and how could we fail to like it? For that matter, how could I fail to like it? (OK, I’m not a Dan Brown fan, but Hanks, Howard and Dante are all favorites of mine, so three out of four…)

Well, even with all that going for it, there’s no way it’ll be mentioned Sunday night. In fact I suspect that Tom Hanks and Ron Howard would just as soon we forget they ever were associated with it. (Not sure about how Dan Brown or Dante are feeling). The critics’ consensus, as summarized by the Rotten Tomatoes web site, is “Senselessly frantic and altogether shallow, Inferno sends the Robert Langdon trilogy spiraling to a convoluted new low.” Ouch! And even more painful, Hollywood-wise, it made only $34 million at the box office. I.e., a total flop.

How could it fail so badly? I thought briefly that it might have to do with the plot and the villain. (Spoiler ahead, although frankly it’s so far past its sell-by date that this can’t make it worse.) Inferno’s evil genius turns out to be a millionaire who thinks the world’s fundamental problem is … overpopulation. Through TED-like talks he builds up a cult of Malthusian followers who conspire with him to kill off half the world’s people for the sake of preserving nature.

So, was that the problem? Was seeing a twisted kind of environmentalist as the epitome of Evil just too much for American audiences to take? Is our fear of population growth so strong that we refuse to accept any negative portrayal of that fear? Just too much cognitive dissonance?

Nahhh…..I don’t think so. It’s easy for us intellectuals to overthink pop culture, and in this case I think there’s a simpler explanation. It’s just a bad movie. And as Dante’s contemporary William of Ockham taught us, there’s no need to come up with a complicated explanation when a simple one will do just fine.

So, on Sunday night I won’t be regretting the fact that Inferno’s not in the running for Best Picture. Personally I’m rooting for Hidden Figures. It had me right from the opening scene in which a young African-American girl is walking down a lane counting “….eight, nine, ten, prime, twelve, prime, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, prime…”

Just the nerd version of sentimentality? Sure, I admit it. But it’s also a great movie. And nowadays science can use all the help it can get from pop culture, so I’m really hoping it wins.

Marginalizing Transgender Students Weakens Science and Diminishes America

Yesterday, the Trump administration turned back the clock on civil rights by giving schools more rights to discriminate against and bully transgender kids, some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The New York Times reports that the withdrawal of protections for transgender students comes at the behest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the objections of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

A student celebrates after the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Photo: Michael Halpern

The move comes amid recent research demonstrating that suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth decreased in the wake of state court decisions that formalized marriage rights for all Americans. It makes intuitive sense: actions that give an individual the opportunity to live a full life make it more likely that the individual will stay invested in that life. Legitimacy matters.

Science, like any creative endeavor, works best when people of different backgrounds are at the table. But LGBT people still face significant barriers to participation in the scientific enterprise. A recent American Physical Society report found that thirty percent of transgender scientists “characterized the overall climate of their department or division as ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable.'”

The action hurts and marginalizes transgender kids. It also undermines the promise of our public education system, which should welcome, not exclude, and give everyone an opportunity to learn and thrive. We all suffer when kids are prevented from reaching their full potential because they feel unsafe.

The most memorable part of the attorney general’s confirmation process involved the silencing of Elizabeth Warren, who was attempting to read a letter Coretta Scott King wrote in 1984 when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship. “It is only when the poor and disadvantaged are empowered that they are able to participate actively in solutions to their own problems,” King wrote, in reference to her concerns about Sessions’ willingness to defend the voting rights of black Americans.

I fear that this action is the first of many at the Department of Justice with the potential to weaken science and diminish America. The guidance makes some of the most bullied kids in America less safe.

The United States does not have a good history of leaving the protection of civil rights to the states. But for now, it is up to state and local governments and school boards to guarantee the ability of all students to pursue an education so that our country can continue to benefit from the contributions of all. Please take a moment today to weigh in with your local education officials and let them know that you want them to secure basic protections for all students so that every kid has the chance to thrive.

One Way You Can Help Fight Against Political Interference in Science: Tell Us About It

Since Election Day and into the first weeks of the Trump presidency, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts” and clampdowns on the ability of scientists to present scientific evidence or speak to the press. Congress last week signaled its intent to neutralize the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments by cutting science out of the way they make policy.

Truth and science cartoon

Federal employees can help create an accountable government by reporting political interference in science (even anonymously). More info: ucsusa.org/secureshare.

But together, we can raise the political price of manipulating science or censoring scientists by exposing these actions and publicly communicating their consequences for public health and the environment. Sometimes, this requires people within government or who are funded by government to speak up and share challenges that they experience or perceive.

Learn how to securely and/or anonymously communicate with UCS here. The shortlink is www.ucsusa.org/secureshare.

UCS has many years of experience working with government employees, journalists, and members of Congress to get stories out in a way that protects those with information to share. We want to hear about actions that compromise the ability of science to fully inform the policymaking process—and the consequences of those actions. We also want to hear your stories that describe how government data and government experts protect public health and safety.

Just as there are many steps in the policymaking process, so too are there many ways to attack and politicize science. People often think of the muzzling of scientists, or the censorship of documents. This happens, of course. But there are other, more subtle ways of inappropriately influencing how science is used to make decisions. A partial list is at the end of this post.

Political interference in science can be difficult to assess. It’s often not clear whether a person’s actions are normal or crossing the line—especially within an administration where some don’t want to leave a paper trail. To that end, feel free to share what you’ve heard or what you’ve been told verbally. Our staff are ready and willing to help you figure out the best course of action.

CensorMatic CartoonYou should also consider approaching the official who is responsible for implementing your agency’s scientific integrity policy for advice. Outside of government, in addition to UCS Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Government Accountability Project, and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund are all good resources for learning more about your rights and responsibilities.

Now that partial list of subtle and overt ways that vested interests have used to undermine or politicize science, in no particular order:

  1. Prevent scientists from publishing research, or delay publication of research (see: former EPA clearance process)
  2. Prevent scientists from presenting at or attending scientific meetings that are relevant to their work (see: airborne bacteria)
  3. Diminish or destroy agency scientific libraries and library content or similar resources (See EPA, Department of Fisheries Canada)
  4. Allow agencies with conflicts of interest to second-guess or undermine the work of agency scientists through the inter-agency review process (see: the chemical perchlorate)
  5. Require scientists to manipulate scientific methods (See: lead in children’s lunch boxes)
  6. Restrict the types of information and methods that experts can use (See: attempts to prevent climate scientists from using scientific models)
  7. Manipulate or censor scientific information in testimony before Congress (see: CDC testimony on climate change and public health)
  8. Place misinformation on official government websites (see: breast cancer)
  9. Redefine terms to prevent the successful application of science to policymaking (see: OMB peer review guidelines, critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act)
  10. Promote scientifically inaccurate educational curricula (see: abstinence-only sex education)
  11. Refuse to comply with court-mandated analysis (see: endangerment finding)
  12. Waste scientists’ time with baseless subpoenas or open records requests
  13. Manipulate agency scientific documents before release to create false uncertainty or otherwise change the scientific meaning (see: endangered species)
  14. Limit or prevent scientists from communicating with the media, the public, or Congress, including social media, or through requiring minders that sit in on interviews with agency scientists (see: numerous reports from journalists)
  15. Prevent scientists from speaking to the press, or have “minders” present to ensure that scientists say the “right” thing
  16. Selectively route interviews away from scientists with inconvenient scientific analysis (see climate change and hurricanes)
  17. Remove or decrease accessibility to government data sets, tools, models, and other scientific information, or stop collecting data altogether (see Canada’s Harper Government)
  18. Appoint technically unqualified people or people with clear conflicts of interest to federal science advisory committees (see childhood lead poisoning)
  19. Use political litmus tests for federal advisory committee membership (see workplace safety panel)
  20. Threaten, demote, or defund scientists who refuse to change information (see Vioxx)
  21. Create a hostile work environment that causes scientists to self-censor (see FDA surveillance)
  22. Disregard the law by not making decisions solely on best available science when statutorily required to do so (see air pollution limits)

Threats to science-based policymaking and public access to scientific information— essential components of democracy—have never been more real. But scientists are also ever more committed to defending the integrity of science in the policy making process. We depend on sources with knowledge of what’s happening within government to help us prevent a weakening of the federal scientific enterprise and the public protections that science informs.

Once again, that link for reporting what you see: www.ucsusa.org/secureshare.

UCS Founder Kurt Gottfried Wins AAAS Award

Kurt Gottfried, a founder of UCS in 1969 and a guiding spirit and intellect since then, has won the prestigious 2017 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award, which recognizes Kurt’s lifetime of dedication and achievements. AAAS said it is to recognize Kurt’s “long and distinguished career as a ‘civic scientist,’ through his advocacy for arms control, human rights, and integrity in the use of science in public policy making.”

Source: UCS

Kurt receiving this award also means a lot to me personally, since he has been one of the biggest influences on my professional life. I first met him in 1978 when I took his quantum mechanics course as a physics grad student at Cornell. He was a wonderful teacher and communicator, and generations of students have learned the subject from his classic text book (now in its second edition).

But I actually got to know him a couple years later—early in the Reagan presidency—when we were part of a group at Cornell that brought high-level speakers to campus to talk about the nuclear arms race, which was heating up. I’ve been privileged to have continued to work with him since that time. Kurt’s way of thinking about the world and approaching the problems he worked on have helped shaped my own.

Kurt’s history

I would guess that even the people who know him may not be aware of the range of activities Kurt has taken on over the years.

Kurt was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He has had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist. He received his PhD from MIT, became a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and has been a physics professor (now emeritus) at Cornell since 1964.

At the same time, he has dedicated boundless energy to improving the world, in areas including international security and nuclear arms control, human rights, and preventing political intervention in scientific input in policymaking. For example:

Science, International Security, and Arms Control

On leave at MIT in 1968-9, Kurt helped draft a statement encouraging scientists to consider society’s use of technical knowledge, and calling on scientists and engineers across the country to join a national effort to discuss these issues in university classes on March 4, 1969.

Following the success of that effort, Kurt co-founded UCS that same year. His goal was to help scientists bring their expertise to bear on public policy issues that had an important technical component. From the beginning, the vision was to build a research and advocacy organization that combined technical experts with experts in policy analysis, media engagement, and outreach and education for the public and policy makers, while keeping issues of science and technology at the core of its work.

Today, UCS has grown to more than 180 staff members and has an annual budget of more than $27 million. More than 45 years after UCS’ founding, Kurt remains a valuable member of the Board of Directors.

Over the years, UCS not only helped inform debates and shape policy on a wide range of issues, it also helped legitimize the active role of scientists in these debates and created staff positions allowing scientists to work on these issues full time. And it helped engage a broad set of scientists in part-time policy work, educating them about the issues and training them in writing and speaking for policy makers.

Working with UCS, Kurt was among the first people to raise concerns about the development of missile defenses, co-authoring a report on the topic in 1969. Kurt and UCS were particularly active in the debate in the 1980s and 1990s following President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. Kurt weighed in with articles and op-eds in Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and co-authored the influential books The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984) and Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System (2000).

Kurt at a 2000 press conference in Washington. Source: UCS

Kurt also worked to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons and weapons based in space. He wrote and spoke widely about this issue and worked with Dick Garwin to develop a draft treaty banning anti-satellite weapons, which he presented to the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees in 1983 and 1984.

In addition, he authored or co-authored articles on nuclear weapons, command and control systems and crisis stability, and cooperative security in Nature, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. He edited two books on these issues—Crisis Stability and Nuclear War (1988), and Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation (1990)—and contributed chapters to several others.

Scientists and Human Rights

Kurt was also very active in human rights issues for many years—activities he undertook outside his work with UCS. During the 1980s he traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with and support refuseniks, and he urged others in the scientific community to actively support these dissidents.

Kurt was a major figure in the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), which helped oppressed scientists in the Soviet Union and other countries. CIFS described its goal as:

The Committee was formed to deal with those matters of an international nature that endanger the abilities of scientists to function as scientists. The Committee is to be particularly concerned with acts of governments or organizations, which through violation of generally recognized human rights, restrict or destroy the ability of scientists to function as such.

Kurt served as CIFS’ first chair in 1980 and 1981. One of CIFS’ innovations was its use of “small committees,” typically consisting of three or four people, who would pick a persecuted scientist and regularly write to the scientist and his/her family, friends, and local officials.

Even when these letters were intercepted by the authorities, they raised the profile of the scientist and made clear that international attention was focused on this person. By 1983, these committees were writing to 63 scientists, and the number continued to increase through the mid-1980s.

Kurt also helped found the organization Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky (SOS) to focus attention on three of the most prominent Soviet refuseniks. He served on the SOS Executive Committee from 1978-90. SOS’s call for a moratorium on scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union to highlight concern about the treatment of scientists was joined by nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers from 44 countries, and gained international attention.

Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov was jailed for a decade in the Soviet Union after forming Moscow Helsinki Watch to monitor Soviet actions on human rights after it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Kurt’s involvement in his case led to Orlov coming to Cornell after his release in 1986 and joining the physics faculty.

Kurt was also instrumental in winning the release in 1978 of the physicist Elena Sevilla, who was imprisoned in Argentina because of political activities by her husband, a newspaper reporter. On her release, Kurt arranged for her to come to Cornell to finish her graduate studies in physics.

Kurt’s work not only helped the refuseniks and other oppressed scientists. His actions over the years have helped inspire others in the scientific community to recognize and act on their ability and responsibility to help scientists who were denied basic human rights.

For his work on these issues, Kurt was awarded the APS Leo Szilard Award in 1992.

Scientific Integrity/Science and Democracy

In the wake of growing evidence that some officials in the George W. Bush Administration were distorting scientific knowledge and the scientific advisory process to an unprecedented degree, Kurt recruited 62 preeminent scientists to sign a statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, which was released in February 2004.

The statement charged the Bush Administration with widespread “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions” and called out the administration’s misrepresentation of scientific evidence, appointment of unqualified members of scientific advisory committees, and silencing of federal government scientists—actions that threatened the integrity of science in policy making.

The statement drew wide public attention to these issues. It was signed on-line by more than 12,000 scientists.

Subsequently, Kurt led the effort to create a new program at UCS to work on this issue, which researched examples of abuse, engaged the scientific community on this issue, and worked with administration agencies to reform their practices, including writing draft rules on scientific integrity for these agencies. Kurt was also the force behind evolving that program into the UCS Center for Science and Democracy in 2012, arguing there was a need to address a broader set of issues related to the role of science and evidence-based analysis in democratic society.

* * *

Kurt, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

For half a century, Kurt has engaged the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public on important issues related to international security, human rights, and the role of science in democratic society. Moreover, he has encouraged his colleagues to become involved, mentored younger scientists in these issues, and created an organization that has magnified his efforts and will continue this work well beyond his lifetime.

Kurt has been an inspiration to me and other scientists who decided to make a career of applying our technical backgrounds to important policy issues, and helped break the ground to make a career of this kind more possible.

Congress is Trying to Protect Federal Scientists Because President Trump Isn’t

Today members of the Senate, led by Senator Bill Nelson, introduced a bill to strengthen scientific integrity in federal decision making. If ever there was a time that such a bill is needed, it is now.

Today, members of Congress introduce a bill to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies and enhance protections for government scientists. Photo: USDA

The Trump administration has already revealed its disrespect for the use of science in federal decision-making. From instating sweeping gag orders on federal scientists right out of the gate, to across-the-board hiring freezes and disruptive holds on grants and contracts, early indications suggest that this administration is not likely to be a leader in championing scientific integrity in government decision-making.

Moreover, the administration’s pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has expressed limited understanding and respect for the EPA’s scientific integrity policy, noting in his confirmation hearing, “I expect to learn more about EPA’s scientific integrity policies.” In the face of such abuses, a move to strengthen scientific integrity at federal agencies is certainly welcome.

A bill to strengthen federal scientific integrity

Aimed “to protect scientific integrity in federal research and policymaking,” the bill requires federal agencies that fund or conduct science to adopt and implement scientific integrity policies, an idea initially introduced by the Obama administration in 2009. Specifically, the bill compels science agencies to develop scientific integrity policies that include specific provisions to enhance scientific integrity.

Importantly, the bill reinforces key elements of some federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies. It includes provisions requiring agencies to develop procedures that allow scientists to review and ensure the accuracy of public-facing materials that rely on their work, such as reports, press releases, and factsheets. This provision could help safeguard against political interference that might come from political appointees or public affairs staff that edit scientific documents before they are released. This type of political interference happened in several instances under the George W. Bush administration. Julie MacDonald, for example, a political appointee at the Department of the Interior, edited the scientific content of a document that served as evidence for listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

A safeguard against such abuse could prove useful under a Trump administration, which has already suggested that it will emphasize uncertainty on climate science on NOAA websites and appears to be keeping a tight control on agencies’ scientific communications. The provision could be made even stronger by granting scientists the right to approve the scientific content of the public-facing materials that rely on their work.

Preventing political tampering

Another provision of the bill requires agencies to develop procedures that “identify, evaluate the merits of, and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.” This is an important inclusion since to date, not all scientific integrity policies at federal agencies have detailed procedures for assessing the validity of and addressing allegations of scientific integrity abuses.

This lack of clarity in current agency policies has had damaging impacts on scientists who raise, or are accused of, scientific integrity violations. A scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, appeared to have lost his job over publishing a paper that the Department of Energy didn’t like. When a scientist at the US Department of Agriculture was accused of violating the scientific integrity policy, he was subjected to a long review process that may not have included an independent assessment of the claims. Thankfully, both the DOE and USDA have revised their scientific integrity policies to strengthen the allegation evaluation procedures.  A law requiring all science agencies to make allegation procedures clearer would improve evaluation of scientific integrity violations across the government and give federal scientists fairer assessments.

The bill also requires the National Academy of Public Administration to conduct a study of scientific integrity across the government. This is a great idea and one that was included in our recent policy recommendations to the Trump administration. An independent assessment of the effectiveness of scientific integrity policies would provide illuminating findings on how the relatively new policies and procedures could be further improved.

A positive step in uncertain times

To date, 24 federal agencies have developed scientific integrity policies. The policies vary in quality, but in general they afford federal scientists rights to communicate, and include provisions to safeguard against political interference in science-based decisions. The bill would strengthen these provisions by uniformly applying some basic protections across all science agencies. This raises the floor on scientific integrity in the government.

Kudos to all the 26 senators co-sponsoring this welcome legislation. This includes the ranking members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (Sen. Carper), the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (Sen. Cantwell), the Senate Health, Labor, and Pensions Committee (Sen. Murray), the Senate Armed Services Committee (Sen. Reed), and of course, the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Committee (Sen. Nelson).

Advancing Scientific Integrity Through Federal Advisory Committees

Back in October, I provided a comment at a public meeting for a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) advisory committee that was set up to review the process to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Their first charge was to write a report with recommendations on how the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) selection process could be improved to provide more transparency, minimize bias, and include committee members with a range of viewpoints.

After some time to assess the DGAC’s process and consider the public feedback they received, the committee released the report last Friday. It includes several important proposals that would be beneficial for the DGAC, and really all federal advisory committees (FACs), to employ. My assessment of the report will come later, but first, I want to talk a little bit more about the importance of FACs, generally.

Quick facts on FACs

FACs play an indispensible role in providing independent science advice for our government’s decision making. The government relies on this technical advice from scientists outside the government on everything from drug approvals to air pollution standards to appropriate pesticide use. There are over 1,000 advisory panels within the federal government, some of which offer technical scientific advice that may be used by agencies to inform key policy decisions. Some advisory committees are mandated by law, while others are created for ad hoc policy guidance. The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that agencies take measures to ensure transparency and ample public participation, but how and the degree to which these are implemented varies depending on the agency.

In our most recent report, “Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking,” we discuss the opportunity to improve the way in which federal agencies obtain objective technical advice from advisory committees so that conflicts of interest are minimized and fully disclosed. Several studies have shown a positive association between authors’ financial conflicts of interest and recommendations that benefit those vested interests. Likewise, an individual on an advisory committee may choose to sideline the evidence and instead make recommendations that favor his or her special interest, especially if they stand to profit in some way. Federal advisory committees have been co-opted by industry for political reasons before, including when G.W. Bush administration officials pushed existing committee members out and replaced them with appointees in order to reject the prospect of stricter lead poisoning standards.

The DGAC plays the essential role of analyzing heaps of nutrition and epidemiological data and making recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to inform the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that is released every five years. As a lover of food and a student of food policy, I rely on the DGAC to translate science into objective recommendations that will ultimately shape federal nutrition guidance and regulations spanning from school lunches to nutrition facts labels. UCS commended the DGAC on its 2015 report to HHS and USDA, most notably for the way in which it followed the science to recommend that Americans consume no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars.

NASEM’s report challenges undue influence of science

The NASEM committee’s report identified five values upfront that would enhance the integrity of the DGAC selection process, which closely echo the core values we identified for ensuring scientific integrity in federal policymaking:

  • Enhance transparency
  • Promote diversity of expertise and experience
  • Support a deliberative process
  • Manage biases and conflicts of interest
  • Adopt state-of-the-art processes and methods

For the reasons I mentioned earlier, the fourth value could use strengthening to something more like “Minimize and manage biases and conflicts of interest,” to emphasize that conflicts should be avoided, if possible, to maximize objectivity.

Figure: NASEM

As for its concrete guidance, the NASEM committee suggested changes to HHS and USDA’s process (see figure at right), including that when the departments first solicit nominations for the DGAC, they should “employ a third party to review nominations for qualified candidates.” This would add a crucial layer of independent review into the process, especially if, as NASEM recommends, the third party is an “organization without a political, economic, or ideological identity,” and not necessarily an expert in nutrition or dietary guidance. The NASEM committee would also add a public comment period after the provisional committee is selected by the departments, allowing an opportunity for the public to weigh in on any potential biases or conflicts of interest of the proposed members. We strongly agree with NASEM’s assertion that “candid information from the public about proposed members is critical for a deliberative process.”

The report also recommended that the departments create and make public strict policies on how to identify and manage conflicts of interest and mandate that committee members sign a form that captures nonfinancial conflicts of interest and biases, since that is not currently covered by the required Office of Government Ethics form. Additionally, the committee elaborated on what “management” of conflicts of interest looks like in practice and had some helpful ideas like granting waivers in limited amounts (and making them public) depending on the type of conflict, asking that individuals sell stock or divest property to avoid conflicts, excluding members with conflicts from certain discussions and voting, or allowing for a review of potential conflicts of interest to be discussed at the beginning of each meeting. The committee also suggested that a statement be added to the final DGAC report to review how biases and conflicts of interest were managed throughout the advisory committee’s work.

Overall, the report managed to cover most of the recommendations I made in my public comment, but one thing that I hope the committee explores in its future deliberations is the prevention of undue influence from department leadership after the DGAC report has been submitted, since that is where the translation of science into policy is most critical. DGAC is solely advisory and should not have a role in writing the final Dietary Guidelines report, but it would be appropriate for former DGAC members to have a role in peer review and to make sure that the report language fairly considers the best available science and aligns with DGAC’s recommendations. This last part of the process proved to be controversial in the most recent version of the Dietary Guidelines when the DGAC recommended that environmental sustainability concerns be included in the DGA because the overall body of evidence points to a dietary pattern higher in plant-based foods, and lower in meat, but the final report did not include these important concerns.

NASEM should follow its own advice on conflicts of interest

In light of this report, it seems that NASEM should follow its own advice as it considers itself to be a purveyor of nonpartisan, objective guidance for policymakers, but has been recently scrutinized for conflicts of interest on its own panels. This past December, the New York Times reported that NASEM put together a committee of 13 scientists to make recommendations on regulation of the biotechnology industry, and failed to disclose the clear conflicts of five of the committee members. In fact, the majority of committee members had conflicts (7 out of 13), and the NASEM study director was applying for a job at a biotechnology organization while he was putting together his recommendations for committee members. If that isn’t egregious enough, three of the committee members he recommended for the NASEM biotech panel were actually on the board of the organization at which he was seeking employment. This level of undisclosed conflict is completely inappropriate and should have been caught in the early stages of the committee selection process, not uncovered after the final report had already been released. NASEM should strive to “promote diversity of expertise and experience,” as the committee identified as a core value, rather than stack committees with individuals that have similar industry experience and connections.

Ode to independent science

Independent science at its core must be free from undue political or financial pressure. We of course acknowledge that all policy decisions are not made based on science alone, but in order to create the best possible government policies, the relied-upon science must be independent. We appreciate the work that this committee is putting into advising DGAC on how best to ensure the process facilitates truly objective science advice, because FACs are vulnerable to politicization or interference if not carefully managed. This report should be considered by all federal agencies and other entities, including NASEM itself, that seek to provide scientific advice to policymakers for the benefit of us all.

The Fate of the Clean Power Plan under President Trump

Shortly, we are likely to see and hear much more about what jurists, Congress, and the new Administration think about the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our nation’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Regardless of how the court rules—and how Congress and President Trump respond—there’s no denying the reality of climate change or the many compelling reasons to double down on the clean energy transition already underway.

Imposing limits on carbon pollution would help the President deliver on two campaign promises—to create jobs and protect clean air.

Protesters rallied outside the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit early yesterday as judges prepared to hear arguments on the Clean Power Plan.

Accelerating the clean energy transition

Market trends are already driving a transition to cleaner energy. The costs of wind and solar energy are dropping dramatically, driving new renewable energy deployment that is outpacing all other new energy resources. This transition is delivering huge health and economic benefits to communities around the country.

The Clean Power Plan would lock in those gains and create a framework for continuous improvement, in the exact same way the Clean Air Act took on pollution problems in previous eras (acid rain in the 70’s, soot and smog in the 80’s, and mercury earlier this century). While these pollutant still cause problems, sometimes concentrated  in low income or racially diverse neighborhoods, the CAA required significant pollution prevention measures to taken. We need to do the same for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

How Tillerson and Pruitt view US Climate Action

As we wait to hear the DC Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, expected to be issued in the near future, we’ll likely see confirmation votes for Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of the world’s largest fossil fuel company, and possibly Scott Pruitt, one of the state AG’s who sued to have the Clean Power Plan overturned.

On left: Scott Pruitt. On Right: Rex Tillerson

As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be called upon by the foreign ministers of 190 countries to account for how the US plans to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement. While additional policies to limit harmful global warming emissions beyond the CPP would still be needed to meet the US international climate targets, the CPP  is the down payment.

Tillerson has said he would like to see the US maintain a ‘seat at the table’ of the climate talks. If the Administration is casting aside cost-effective emission reducing actions like the CPP, he’ll find that seat more than a little warm.

As part of the EPA Administrator confirmation process, Scott Pruitt conceded that carbon is a pollutant subject to Clean Air Act regulation, indicating that the CPP has a strong legal foundation. The Clean Air Act itself, and subsequent elaborations through the 2007 Mass v. EPA Supreme Court decision and a 2009 Endangerment Finding by the EPA, make this absolutely clear.

However, when asked if there was an EPA program or rule he supported, he could not or would not cite a single one—which doesn’t bode well for his leadership of the agency.

The Clean Power Plan is the Clean Air fight of this generation

I’ve had the privilege of working with clean air advocates for 20 years. I’ve heard the stories of how they successfully fought for laws that would curb the acid rain contributing to the dying lakes in the Northeast; measures to reduce the emissions of soot that settled on cars downwind of Midwest coal plants; tailpipe standards to reduce smog-choked cities; and limits to mercury that was contaminating fish in our streams.

The pattern is always the same: scientists study the problem and identify the causes; advocates petition EPA and Congress for action; and industry casts doubt about the science and fights the solutions with claims of economic collapse.

Ultimately, when all legal remedies are exhausted, industry complies at a cost far less than predicted and the promised health improvements from cleaner air are realized. My colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her blog the benefits of EPA for real people and cited the finding that “over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.”

While we are far from having pristine air quality, we have a science-based process underlying the Clean Air Act that results in ratcheting down the regulations as better information becomes available and new cost-effective pollution control technologies become available.

My career has largely been spent trying to get carbon pollution treated the same way as these other pollutants.  Carbon is the pollutant driving the most pressing environmental problem of our generation. Its impacts go beyond typical local and regional air pollution effects, like the aggravation of asthma and other respiratory diseases, to threaten the ‘regulator’ of the planet, the very climate that makes human existence possible.

Climate impacts demand a response

As global average temperatures rise, arctic ice melts, sea levels rise, heat waves are more frequent and last longer, and extreme weather events intensify. Scientists and advocates began calling for action to reduce carbon emissions at least as far back as the early 1990s, hoping to prevent these events from coming to pass.  We are now seeing these impacts as our reality. They are becoming more common as every day passes, leaving little room for doubt that our climate is changing.

The predicted impacts are coming to pass, and despite the doubt continuing to be peddled by the likes of Tillerson and Pruitt, scientists do know—with a great deal of certainty—that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of those impacts and they can predict, with ever improving reliability, what a warmer world would look like.

And it’s not good, it’s not something we can ‘adapt to’ and it’s coming to pass faster than expected.

Both legally and morally, this Administration is compelled to act on clean air and climate. Many local and state governments are fully committed to continuing clean energy and climate progress because it’s good for public health and their local economies, and many businesses will continue to ramp up their clean energy investments because it’s good for their bottom line.

Throwing out the Clean Power Plan won’t bring back coal. Coal is increasingly uneconomic for a variety of reasons, including cheaper alternatives like natural gas and, increasingly, wind and solar. Those market conditions will exist with or without the CPP. That’s why the Trump Administration and the Congress must do something real to help miners/coal dependent communities instead of meaningless posturing around the CPP. The clean energy transition is good for our health and is one of the fastest growing job creators. Now we need to make it work for all Americans.

The Clean Power Plan could also prevent us from becoming over-reliant on natural gas.  A rush to gas would hit consumers the hardest, due to the price volatility that results from the boom and bust cycles of gas exploration.  While I’m sure it is hard for an Oklahoma oil company attorney like Mr. Pruitt to believe, but too much natural gas is bad for the economy and our health.

Natural Gas Gamble

What’s your climate plan, President Trump?

So the real question is, regardless of how the court rules, what will this Administration do to tackle today’s air pollution crisis: the need to reduce the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming?

The Clean Power Plan rule did not come about on a whim. It wasn’t rushed out the door as the Obama Administration was leaving. After decades of inaction by Congress, the EPA crafted these rules over a three year period that included consultation with scientists, state officials, power companies, and public hearings. They reviewed millions of comments from citizens around the country.  Similar to healthcare, this Administration has an obligation to replace if it intends to repeal.

Before Pruitt is confirmed, Senators and all Americans are entitled to know, if not the Clean Power Plan, then what? President Trump, how will your Administration address this huge environmental and public health problem?

Erika Bolstad Ecowatch Union of Concerned Scientists

Will the FDA’s Picture of “Health” Match Ours?

As we enter month two of 2017, our New Year’s resolutions of leading healthier lives might be starting to plateau. But that of course depends on how we are defining “healthy.” What’s healthy to me might not be the same kind of healthy to you. My vision of a healthy day done right might be eating a Sweetgreen salad for lunch and walking back and forth to the metro, while yours might entail a ten-mile morning run and a steak dinner.

What does the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) consider “healthy”? Well, the agency currently has an open comment period asking the public to weigh in on how it should redefine the term to stay up to date with evolving nutrition science. You would think that the FDA’s definition of “healthy” would be a bit more straightforward, since it has a wealth of consumption and nutrition data at its fingertips. However, in draft guidance to industry on the term “healthy,” the FDA has so far failed to include added sugar as an ingredient that can only bear a “healthy” claim if it meets an enforceable limit, despite the scientific consensus surrounding added sugar’s role in chronic disease risk. And depending on who ends up being appointed to run the FDA, the definition of “healthy” could be scrapped completely if it’s deemed too burdensome for food manufacturers (more on that later).

What’s “healthy,” anyway?

Under the FDA’s current definition, in order to bear a “healthy” claim on a food package, a food must have at least 10 percent of the daily reference value (DRV) for at least one of either vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber and not have more than a certain limited amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Unacceptably high levels of these ingredients, known as disqualifying levels, bar a food from being labeled as “healthy.” Notably absent from the list is added sugar.

How does this play out at the grocery store? Well, have you ever reached for a box of cereal with a big “healthy” claim on the front, only to find out that it has more sugar in a serving than you might like to eat in an entire day? This is entirely common, and especially concerning given the fact that these claims are allowed on packages for children as young as two years old. And it is these kinds of deceiving claims that contribute to the excess amount of added sugars that Americans consume every year.

The FDA must take further action to protect consumers from misleading food claims

That is why we submitted a citizen petition to the FDA last week to ask that the agency set a disqualifying level for added sugars that would apply to nutrient content and health claims, including the term “healthy.” Over 30,000 men and women across the country signed onto our petition in support of this measure!

It’s high time that the agency take action to protect consumers from misleading statements about the health of a product with regard to added sugar. There should be a clear limit on added sugars deemed by food manufacturers to be “healthy” to help consumers navigate the food environment that has become chock full of sugar. A brand new U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report looking at trends in food and nutrient availability data revealed that Americans are still eating far too much added sugar: about 366 calories (23 teaspoons) per day, which is 83 percent higher than the Dietary Guidelines recommended limit of no more than 10 percent of calories (less than 200 calories or 12.5 teaspoons per day).

While President Trump’s “2 for 1” executive order will certainly make rulemaking an even tougher lift for agencies, as they’ll have to get rid of two rules for every new rule issued, the FDA should continue to build on its progress around added sugar. Just last May, the agency released its nutrition facts label revisions that created daily reference values (DRVs) for added sugar so that new labels will include a discrete line for added sugars beginning in July 2018.  Now that the FDA has set DRVs for added sugar, and overwhelming evidence—supported by leading medical and public health organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization—has illustrated that excessive added sugar consumption is linked to several chronic diseases, the FDA has the science on its side and the authority to add a disqualifying level for added sugar.

A strong FDA means a healthier America

The science certainly supports the FDA moving forward with this commonsense measure on added sugar, but the political reality is that the Trump administration seems to be fairly uninterested in science-informed policies so far. Last week began with scientists at agencies like the EPA and USDA being told by leadership not to communicate their taxpayer-funded scientific findings with the public and that there would be a freeze of hiring, grants, and contracts at the EPA. And then earlier this week, President Trump signed an executive order requiring that agencies must eliminate two rules for every one new rule issued (which is likely illegal, according to UCS president Ken Kimmell). All of these directives have a chilling effect on federal scientists, with the “2 for 1” order forcing agencies to make impossible choices between protecting the public from one threat to their health versus another.

The Trump administration’s cabinet selections haven’t been heartening, either. Whether it’s the climate denying and EPA-suing Scott Pruitt or the agribusiness-supporting Sonny Perdue, it’s looking pretty clear that the corporate cabinet will favor industry talking points over actual science to inform policies. The FDA commissioner has yet to be nominated, and while this job usually goes to someone with a science background and an interest in protecting public health, the Trump administration appears to be focusing its search on individuals with experience working in the biotechnology industry, advised by venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, who has some pretty radical ideas about how to run the FDA more like a Silicon Valley startup. Some of the names that have been mentioned as being in the running for FDA commissioner include Thiel’s associate Jim O’Neill, American Enterprise Institute fellow Dr. Scott Gottlieb, executive director of Lewis Center for Healthcare Innovation and Technology Dr. Joseph Gulfo, and former biotechology company executive Dr. Balaji Srinivasan.

This shortlist of men is riddled with conflicts of interest in their former and current ties to biotechnology companies, and features a man who thinks drugs should be approved if proven safe, regardless of efficacy (O’Neill), a man who has criticized the FDA for being too restrictive in its regulations (Gulfo), a man who has claimed that FDA regulations have nothing to do with health and are merely “safety theater” (Srinivasan), and a man who has accused the FDA of “evading the law” due to an overregulated drug approval process (Gottlieb). Note that none of these men have expertise in the food and nutrition space, and it seems like any regulation that inhibits the ability of drug or food manufacturers to approve and introduce an endless stream of new drugs and food additives will be unpopular under this administration.

Whether it’s one of these men or not, whoever is selected to lead the FDA must respect the role of public servant and abide by the agency’s mission to first and foremost “protect public health,” guided by science, not by drug and food manufacturers’ interest in increasing their quarterly earnings. In this case, there’s only one way to define a “healthy” public, and that’s one whose safety and well-being is protected over the profits of Big Pharma and Big Food. Taking further action to regulate added sugar amounts on front of package labels would be a strong science-backed policy maneuver that will advance the crucial fight against obesity and help all Americans make clearer decisions to improve their health. That’s my kind of “healthy.”

Join UCS and urge the FDA to include a limit for added sugar in its “healthy” definition by submitting a comment on regulations.gov before April 26.

President Trump Just Put America’s Workers at Risk

Every day, men and women across this country go to work with the expectation that they will come back to their homes and families at the end of the day—healthy and in one piece.

From fields to factories and mines, from hospitals and nursing homes to schools and stores, from office buildings and construction sites to fishing vessels and fire stations—workers are the real engines of our economy. (Not to mention the irreplaceable place they hold in our hearts as our partners, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and friends.)

Earlier this week, President Trump decided that one way to make America great again was to order federal agencies to identify for elimination two regulations for every new one they might propose in fulfillment of their statutory responsibility to protect our health, safety, and environment.

Aside from questioning the legality of such a directive, let’s take a look at what this means for working men, women, and even children in this country.

Think you’ve had a hard day at work?

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths still take a grave toll on our nation’s workforce.

In 2015 (the last year for which data are available), 4,836 workers died after sustaining an injury at work. That’s 13 people every day. In America. Another 2.9 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers and an estimated 752,600 injury and illness cases were reported among state and local government workers.

The economic burden is immense, over $250 billion annually in medical and productivity costs.  And cost estimates cannot begin to capture the pain, suffering, and loss experienced by these workers and their families.

Two for one: Who would you protect?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), have been given the authority and responsibility to help protect our nation’s workforce.

President Trump has now sent them a chilling directive. If you find a new hazard or new exposure that threatens the health and safety of workers, and want to require employers to control or eliminate then, then repeal two existing rules.

Which protections would you eliminate?

  • Rules requiring personal protective equipment  such as hard hats, respirators, and safety goggles to avoid head injuries, lung damage, burns, cuts, or blindness?
  • Ventilation to ensure air quality and prevent exposure to harmful dusts and chemicals?
  • Noise control or ear protection to avoid hearing loss?
  • OSHA’s new beryllium standard rule  that offers protection to many thousands of workers in construction, shipyards, and general industry (like electronics, telecommunications, and defense). (Beryllium causes lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease.)
  • Protection from needle stick injuries and the transmission of blood-borne disease?

This kind of across the broad directive defies common sense. It essentially forces the agencies to pick which workers will be winners and losers when it comes to safety on the job. Or, as my friend Celeste Monforton so aptly said, “one step forward, two steps back is never a good thing.”

What message is President Trump sending?

Well, that’s pretty clear.  He wants to chill, halt, and stop the use of a critical tool in the public protection toolbox.

Here’s what he said:

“If you have a regulation you want, number one we’re not going to approve it because it’s already been approved probably in 17 different forms. But if we do, the only way you have a chance is we have to knock out two regulations for every new regulation. So if there’s a new regulation, they have to knock out two. But it goes way beyond that.” 

Yes, it sure does.  The same Executive Order set a budget of exactly $0 for the total incremental cost of any new regulations in 2017.

While nobody loves the abstract idea of government regulation, I think we can all agree on the need for rules that keep our nation’s working men and women safe and healthy. They, after all, are what has and will continue to make America great.

President Trump is sending a clear message. It’s time to send a message right back. Let him and your representatives in Congress know that this new policy puts our nation’s workers at risk and is not acceptable.

Standing Up for Science: Notes from the Field

The February issue of San Francisco Magazine on shelves today is titled “Resistance,” and features stories of politicians, lawyers, activists…even scientists who are involved in challenging some of the early actions of the Trump administration. My colleague, Jimmy O’Dea, and I are both featured with other scientists who attended the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). With approximately 24,000 attendees, AGU’s annual meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world — but the 2016 conference was different. Faced with an incoming administration that has demonstrated disrespect for science and denial of climate change, hundreds of the scientists left the meeting halls to protest on the streets.

Below, are the interview questions sent to me by San Francisco Magazine (in italics) and my responses:

What specifically inspired you to take action and protest?

I was at AGU to present my research on the impact of climate change on California’s groundwater. I was approached by a fellow scientist who was passing out fliers about the protest. I was immediately intrigued. I have been to several AGU conferences over the years and I have never seen any kind of protest take place.

As my colleague, Peter Frumhoff, who spoke at the protest stated: “Science and evidence is at risk. It is on us to ensure it is protected.” In my lifetime, I have never seen the scientific community as politically organized as it is now. Scientists are rightfully concerned about what it means to live and work in a “post-truth” or “post-science” society.

I think people rarely think of scientists as politically active in that way…tell me why that is a misconception.

Scientists are typically focused on researching specific, technical questions, but in almost all cases these questions are connected to public policy in one way or another. Scientists care deeply when research, facts, and evidence are misstated or ignored. That’s actually what led to the creation of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In 1969, scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were concerned about the misuse of science by the U.S. government. Senior faculty members, including the heads of the biology, chemistry, and physics departments, drafted a statement calling for scientific research to be directed away from military technologies and toward solving pressing environmental and social problems.

The statement began: “Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind…The concerned majority has been on the sidelines and ineffective. We feel that it is no longer possible to remain uninvolved.” We remain true to that founding vision. The Union of Concerned Scientists has followed the example set by the scientific community: we share information, seek the truth, and let our findings guide our conclusions.

What are some of your biggest concerns/political flash points concerning the forthcoming Trump administration?

My biggest concerns revolve around transparency and democracy. As a single party takes the presidency and both houses of Congress, the normal oversight system of checks and balances is weakened, as evidenced by the recent attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Watchdogs  like non-profit organizations and journalists will take on an even more important role in holding the incoming administration accountable. Transparency is a key ingredient to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.

Are you planning on taking future action in response to the Trump administration? Anything specific planned?

My hope would be that we can find constructive ways to work with the administration, though I am very concerned about some of the early statements and proposed appointments that point to a lack of understanding of the role, principles, and practices of science.

Responding to the misuse of science is in the very DNA of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists was formed during a time of political upheaval, it was founded by people who believed that the ethical use of science and knowledge could help build a better and safer world.

It is more important now than ever for scientists and citizens to work together, engage in our democratic processes, and push for reforms to ensure that our policies are informed by science and evidence – our Center for Science and Democracy was specifically established to advance these goals. Together, we will continue to stand up for science.

President Trump Just Put Your Child’s Safety at Risk

My guess is that most parents are far too busy to be following what President Trump did yesterday with the stroke of a pen. But his hot-off-the press Executive Order (EO) has serious and long-term implications for keeping your infants and toddlers safe and healthy.

President Trump has ordered federal agencies to identify for elimination two existing regulations for every new one the agency may propose. The EO also sets a budget of exactly $0 for the total incremental cost of any new regulations in 2017.  While the order exempts the military and national security from this policy, let’s see how this might play out for the agency that we all count on to ensure the safety of our consumer products.

Like car seats? Baby cribs?

Don’t take for granted the childhood safety protections brought to you by our nation’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), like these safety requirements for cribs.

Don’t take for granted those childhood safety protections brought to you by our nation’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

If the CPSC finds that a new toy or other new product poses a safety risk to your child (or to you for that matter), such that it warrants regulatory protection, President Trump says that two existing rules have to go. Like what? Safe cribs? Or the rules that say crib mattresses and kids’ pajamas must be non-flammable? Or how about the rules that set safety standards for the car seat you strap the child into when you’re running errands?

Any one of these safety protections could be on the chopping block if the CPSC wants to protect your children from a new toy whose eyes might fall off or is made with something you wouldn’t want in your child’s mouth.

Setting the clock back

One way this new order is likely to play out is that new rules simply won’t be made. CPSC will be presented with new products that have caused problems –such as a baby bottle or pacifier made with an unsafe new material—but because CPSC will not want to give up essential existing regulations, it will be hard pressed to  regulate new products.

That could expose our babies and toddlers to more dangerous products over time.

What value do you place on your child’s safety?

When it comes to your kids’ health and safety, what would you trade off?  President Trump’s Executive Order means that our consumer protection agency—and other agencies that provide health and safety safeguards—will be given this onerous  responsibility, overseen by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

This kind of across-the-board 2 for 1 directive defies common sense. Trading off one childhood protection for another is a Sophie’s Choice that no parent would want to make. More than short-sighted, it is downright dangerous.

Nobody loves the abstract idea of government regulation, but we can all agree we need to have rules to keep consumer products safe. The administration would have you believe that these rules come about by some bureaucratic process run amok, but in fact rule-making is a deliberative process, ideally informed by the best available science.

Congress has given the CPSC authority to issue rules to protect our families from unsafe products. CPSC scientists study products, gather information from stakeholders, and monitor products on the market. We rely on this process and this agency for the safety of the products we provide for our children and for recalling them when the products put them at risk.

Throwing out this careful approach will undermine the very purpose of these safety standards to protect our families. Let the White House and your representatives in Congress know that this new policy puts our children’s safety at risk.

Thank a Government Scientist Today. Their Work—and Our Health and Safety—Is Under Attack.

Today President Trump signed an executive order mandating that for any new rule issued from an agency, two would have to be revoked. Such a proposal is absurd, illogical, and threatening to our public health and safety.

Last week, the Trump administration also issued a government-wide hiring freeze, instituted a far-reaching gag-order, and stopped the normal flow of grants and contracts issuance at federal agencies. All of these actions were major hindrances to government employees’ ability to do their jobs.

But actions like these affect us all. When it comes to science-based agencies and the scientists that work there, it is worth reminding ourselves of the crucial role they play in in our daily lives.

Here are six reasons you should thank a government scientist today:

Did you check the weather forecast today?

Did you thereby know how cold it was? Or if it would rain? Or whether there were hurricane force winds outside? You can thank a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration!

Scientists at NOAA’s National Weather Service work across the country and around the clock to monitor weather conditions and warn you about life-threatening severe weather events, protecting life and property. And how do they get their information?

It is NOAA and its supercomputers that run complex atmospheric models to predict future weather at all points on the globe and it is NOAA that makes the model results publicly available. It is NOAA and NASA that work together to launch weather satellites that provide real-time information on weather patterns day and night and again, this information is publicly available.

Where do you think your weather app gets its information?  It is this freely available data from the government that allows your app, that TV station, and any private forecasting company to produce weather forecasts. Did you think you think your app was running atmospheric models? There’s not an app for that.

Did you eat something today? Did you avoid food poisoning?

You can thank a food scientist at the US Department of Agriculture! Scientists at the USDA inspect meat, poultry, and eggs at plants around the country. Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do the same for our fruits and vegetables and dairy products.

These scientists work to make sure the American public doesn’t get sick from contaminants in food. And when food-borne illness does happen, they work quickly to find the source and stop its spread. Remember that time you had to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and learn about the horrible conditions inside industrial agricultural operations at the start of the 20th century? Luckily we don’t have this kind of nightmare of a food system anymore because scientists at the USDA and FDA maintain standards that keep us safe from foodborne illnesses.

Did you take any medications today? Did they work? And did they not kill you?

You can thank a doctor at the US Food and Drug Administration! Scientists at the FDA carefully review new drug applications from pharmaceutical companies and use all available scientific information to determine if the drugs are both safe and effective. Only if drugs are proven to be both by FDA experts and their scientific advisory panels do they reach the market.

Remember when some governments thought giving pregnant women Thalidomide was a good idea? It wasn’t. And thankfully the US FDA didn’t approve thalidomide for use in the US, preventing countless babies from being born with debilitating birth defects. Thanks, FDA scientists!

Did you use any products today?

You know, everyday items like a hair dryer, a couch, a door, a swivel chair, a TV, a bicycle, a jacket, a coffee mug. Were you able to use such products without them catching on fire, choking you, cutting you, or otherwise harming you?

You can thank a scientist at the Consumer Product Safety Commission!  Scientists at the CPSC study product safety. They make sure that products can be used safely and don’t create unintended dangers, especially for babies and children who can more easily choke, be strangled, or be crushed by products meant for adults.

When CPSC scientists notice major problems associated with products, they can issue recalls and rules to prevent products from harming more people. You might not often think about the potential for your desk lamp to burst into flames or for your coffee mug to lacerate you (both of these recalls were issued this month!), but that’s exactly the point. CPSC scientists are working to keeping the products in our homes safe for us and our families before they cause widespread harm.

Did you go outside today? Were you able to breathe easily?

You can thank a scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency! Scientists at the EPA study air pollution, its sources, and its impacts on human health and the environment. They look at the vast amount of scientific literature to determine what air pollutant standards are protective of the public, especially vulnerable populations, like the young, the old, and those with respiratory diseases.

Remember that time the air pollution was so bad that you hacked up a lung and couldn’t see your neighbors house? Me neither. That’s because the US has science-based air quality standards that have been phenomenally effective.

This country has enjoyed decreasing air pollution levels, and thereby death and sickness, for the last half century. Do you think that energy companies have decreased their stack emissions and car companies have decreased tailpipe emissions out of the goodness of their heart? Of course not. It is the EPA’s strong air pollution standards that have led us to develop technologies like the catalytic converter and power plant scrubbers that save us money and energy and also cut pollution emissions. It is all thanks to the EPA and its scientists.

Did you spend your day not thinking about the potential for a global pandemic and how you might avoid catching it?

You can thank an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention! Scientists at the CDC closely monitor the spread of infectious disease around the world. They know that we need to stay a step ahead of any virus or bacteria that stands to take down or at least weaken the human population. They study diseases in the lab so we will know how to react, they track mutations to existing infectious diseases, and they maintain facilities and infrastructure that work to produce vaccines from emerging threats.

Do you think it’s annoying that you have to get a flu shot every year?  Do you know what would be more annoying? Any global pandemic. And it wouldn’t even have to be at the scale of the monkey in the movie Outbreak or the fever in Contagion to cause widespread panic and inconvenience. Remember how much we freaked out about SARS, Bird Flu, and Swine Flu. Nature can do much worse. Thankfully, CDC scientists are ready and watching to react to the next global threat.

When we talk about cutting back on “regulations,” these are the kind of public protections we’d lose. President Trump’s 2-for-1 regulations proposal would force government scientific experts to choose between which public health and safety threat to prevent and which to allow to cause harm.

When we talk about hiring freezes, these are the federal scientists affected. We need to remind ourselves of the tireless and often thankless jobs that countless federal scientists do every day to benefit the American public.

I want to be clear: Thank you, government scientists!

PS This is not an exhaustive list. Do you know other federal scientists who are working to keep us safe and healthy every day?  Let me know in the comments!

President Trump and the New China Challenge

Some said it would come by sea. Others worried it would come from outer space. But the most serious Chinese challenge to US leadership is happening on what used to be America’s home court: the court of global public opinion.

Three days before US President Donald Trump told the world in his inaugural address “that from this day forward it is only going to be America first,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that China was committed to developing “an open global economy, where the opportunities and benefits of openness are shared, where mutual interests are realized and everyone wins.”

After the inauguration, President Trump also made it clear that global concerns about climate change are no longer a concern of the US government. Xi, on the other hand, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “a responsibility to our children, grandchildren and future generations we must shoulder.” Optimistically, Xi noted that addressing climate change is “in accord with the trend of global development.”

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told the Washington Post, “I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural.” It’s a suggestion he may come to regret. The world’s reaction to President Trump’s inaugural was decidedly negative. Xi’s defense of an environmentally sustainable and integrated global economy was well-received in China and internationally.

Xi makes the case for economic globalization

China’s president spoke for nearly an hour and in great detail about economic globalization and its pitfalls. He described globalization as “the inexorable result of objective needs and scientific progress.” He argued it “accelerated the circulation of commodities and capital, the progress of science and culture and the interaction of people from every nation.”

But Xi also admitted that international economic integration is “a double-edged sword” that globalizes economic difficulties along with economic benefits. Xi acknowledged there were “anti-globalization voices” that raised important questions “we should ponder and take seriously.”

The three major problems Xi identified suggest he believes the United States bears the lion’s share of the burden for globalization’s shortcomings, although he never mentions the United States explicitly.

The first is the slowdown in economic growth and international trade that followed the US financial crisis.

The second is what Xi called a “lag in global economic governance.” Developing nations now account for a larger share of the global economy and are the largest drivers of global economic growth. Yet a few large developed nations still dominate international economic institutions, which, according to Xi, makes it “difficult to adapt to new changes in the global economy.”

Xi argued inequality is the third and most serious flaw in a global economy where “the wealth of the richest 1% of the global population exceeds the combined wealth of the other 99%.” Xi emphasized this final point, saying:

“More than 700 million people live in the midst of extreme poverty. For many families, having a warm and safe place to live, sufficient food and steady work is still a kind of extravagant hope. This is the greatest challenge facing the world today, and an important reason for the social turmoil in some nations.”

Citing Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, Xi said that “Our real enemies are not neighboring countries, but hunger, poverty, ignorance, superstition and prejudice.”

And Xi drew a sharp contrast between China’s hopeful approach to these problems and the defeatism of unnamed others:

“Human history tells us the presence of problems is not to be feared. What is to be feared is the unwillingness to face problems directly, to search for and find a train of thought that resolves problems. In the face of the opportunities and challenges of economic globalization the correct choice is to fully utilize every opportunity, to cooperate in confronting every challenge and to shepherd the direction of economic globalization.”

President Trump responds

President Obama was fond of telling the Chinese that history was on the side of the United States. President Trump used his inaugural address to present a grim rebuttal:

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

President Trump depicts US global leadership as a debilitating burden. The gains of global trade, heralded by his Chinese counterpart, were, according to the new US president, “ripped from the homes” of middle class Americans and “redistributed across the entire world.” The President cannot seem to imagine the possibility that global trade created new wealth in the United States and the rest of the world at the same time.

President Trump argued that decades of US-led global integration led to an “American carnage” he would end with “a new vision” of America’s role in the world that will effect “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration and on foreign affairs.” It is a zero-sum vision supported by new US policies that “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” Trump’s “America first” policies are intended to make sure that the United States is “winning again.” Although Trump hopes to preserve and cultivate allies, he described the core of his protectionist vision as “a total allegiance to the United States of America.”

Which message has greater appeal?

If the United States turns its back on the world, the world could respond in kind. The consequences of the new US administration’s ideological atavism—Bannon called it “Jacksonian”—are impossible to predict. But President Trump’s bet against the continuation of economic globalization pits 5% of the world’s population against the other 95%. Left to fend for itself, without the US direction they’ve experienced for decades, the rest of the world may decide it is better off without it.

That does not mean the world must or will follow China. And Xi, despite US characterizations of his speech as an act of political opportunism, told the international audience in Switzerland, after extolling the successes of China’s economic development, “Many paths go through Rome. None should take their own development path as the only one, much less force one’s own development path on others.”

Xi does not appear to be contesting US global leadership. He is contesting the idea that the world needs a leader.

Global apprehensions about China, combined with global respect for the United States, has obscured much of what Xi has been saying about the state of the world and its future since he assumed office in 2012. While many may remain skeptical about Xi’s commitment to the ideas he discussed at Davos, his speech—especially when compared with President Trump’s inaugural address—should, at the very least, ensure China’s views on global governance get a more careful hearing in the court of world opinion.

Xi could help China’s case by being as broadminded at home as he was in Switzerland. International anxieties about China are rooted in concerns about the way the Chinese government handles domestic disagreements. A more benevolent and trusting approach to its own citizens—a greater willingness to allow them to express their opinions and participate in public life—would go a long way towards convincing the rest of the world the Chinese government is now strong and confident enough to comprise when considering disputes with its neighbors and the rest of the world.

Resist this: The Trump Administration’s Control+Alt+Delete Strategy on Climate Change

The first days of the Trump Administration have caught many of us by surprise with the volume of contestable statements, controversial orders, and provocative media appearances. Amidst this, the Administrations attacks on science are now fully underway.

At least, though, we’re clearer now what their climate change strategy is going to be, and can more effectively organize to fight it.

Tactic 1: CONTROL

If one’s goal is to undermine climate science and create an environment where the public is too uncertain to demand federal action (action that today a majority of Americans say they want), then the first thing you need to do is silence the relevant scientists under your purview.

This control is coming down swiftly in the new Administration’s first few days. First, an emboldened Congress revived a rule on January 3rd allowing them to reduce federal employee’s salary to $1. Shortly after taking control on January 20th, the Administration began ordering federal agencies to cease communication with the public. First reported were restrictions at the Department of Interior and its National Parks Service. On Monday, January 23rd, the EPA received similar orders. On Tuesday, USDA scientists joined their ranks. though outlets report that order was rescinded later in the day. By Wednesday, news broke that EPA work may be subject to review by political appointees. Bewildered scientists and citizens are watching and waiting for what comes next.

These orders can affect scientists working on a range of vital scientific inquiries and areas of public interest. But based on other of the Administration’s policy priorities, like fossil fuel development and regulatory rollbacks, control of scientists working on climate change appears to be the target.

Why?

With scientists muzzled and the flow of tax-payer-funded data, information, and science halted, it becomes difficult for the public to access solid, accessible, publicly-translated information on climate change. It also weakens our ability to check and verify an alternative narrative on climate that the new Administration might put forward.

In essence, control the science and you can begin to control the public narrative or conventional wisdom around climate change. Just when that appreciation of the climate threat is finally gelling, will they seek to dissolve it?

Tactic 2: Offer an ALTernative Reality  and ALTer science-based policy

On a recent drizzly Friday, the clouds suddenly parted and “it became really sunny” for President Trump’s inaugural speech. The rain “stopped immediately” and “a million, a million and a half people” stood on the mall to take in his speech, making this “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period”. This didn’t actually happen; anyone watching can attest, and both crowd scientists and meteorologists would support them. But when the nominal leader of the free world tells you green is blue, you can be forgiven for missing a beat. It is still not.

Why the Administration is still investing in pointless lies now that Donald Trump is installed as President, others can speculate. But doing so is only preposterous of them if we take note each time and call it out. If we stay silent or get falsehood fatigue then it’s perfectly strategic and their Alt-reality eventually wins.

This tactic is being showcased, though more subtly, in the confirmation hearings for the President’s cabinet nominees. Rex Tillerson (nominated for Secretary of State), Scott Pruitt (for EPA administrator), Rick Perry (for Secretary of Energy), and Ryan Zinke (for Department of Interior), among others, have all acknowledged the reality of climate change but insisted in one way or another that we don’t really know why it’s happening or the degree to which humans are responsible. In the face of such uncertainty, the logic goes, inaction is the only reasonable approach. This is a brilliant new way of winding down the clock on climate action and watching the window of opportunity close—and it’s dangerous as hell.

The facts are the facts. There are no alternatives. In the media, those are called falsehoods; on the street, lies.

Under the threat of gag orders, some federal employees have gone rogue on social media, setting up mirror (but unfettered) profiles to keep speaking truth to power.

Tactic 3: DELETE

Next up, if you’re trying to roll back the clock on climate progress, you make things disappear. On day 1 of the new administration, the White House climate pages disappeared. No surprise, really; a new administration gets to start fresh with some new content. But people (like those of us here at UCS) have been watching other sites with trepidation. More recently, much of the State Department’s climate change policy content vanished. And on Thursday, the Department’s entire senior management team resigned.

What is next to go? And who else will decide they have to bail?

Today, Americans own a wealth of vital climate information, made accessible on federal websites. Data.gov/climate provides users, including local communities, with rich datasets for use in analyzing climate risks and adaptation options. The resilience toolkit organizes and connects users to the large array of resilience planning tools in an accessible, manageable platform. The EPA’s climate change web content alone covers climate change science and indicators, emissions reduction tools, climate justice, and climate adaptation training for local governments.

Because of resources like this, we’ve become a country with the means to assess and plan for climate change and to reduce global warming emissions at the local, state, and national level.

Conflicting reports have been circulating about the impending removal of additional federal climate web pages. Interviewed around the time of this posting, Myron Ebell, until recently Trump’s EPA transition lead, spoke of the Administration’s goals for deep cuts to EPA staff numbers.

A key effect of taking sites down and, more broadly hobbling the science capacity at these agencies is a populace with diminished access to climate change expertise and information—and perhaps motivation to act. The benefits of this accrue only to those interested in a fossil-fuel, business-as-usual future. The costs on the other hand—a diminished ability to address climate change—are paid by all of us.

As my colleague, Alden Meyer, said recently, “Any legitimate analysis shows that the costs of climate impacts to communities and businesses are huge and mounting, while the benefits of the clean energy revolution that offers a major part of the solution to the climate crisis are clear. The agenda being pursued by the Trump Administration is designed to benefit the fossil fuel industry and other polluters, at a tremendous cost to the rest of the economy and to the health and well-being of all Americans.”

The EPA is one of several federal agencies that, together, house the bulk of our federal climate change resources and information.

The Resistance:

Many Americans clearly don’t want to take it. This administration is finding itself facing resistance (and scrutiny) like no other.

Just a couple of examples :

Climate change impacts everyone—black, white, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican. It's time for action. #resist https://t.co/O86UeUaOkC

— Rogue NASA (@RogueNASA) January 26, 2017

Stand Up for Science

Each of us can help resist the attacks on science, scientists, and those immutable but easily suppressed facts. These attacks are likely to grow. In addition to this helpful list, some suggestions:

Show up:

Pick up the phone:

  • Call your legislator and urge them to help safeguard federal scientific research, datasets, tools, reports and websites. Read my colleague’s blog for more background. As he says “It’s important that your elected officials hear your voice directly about what’s at stake in your state or local community, especially since in a few days confirmation votes for cabinet positions will be coming up. Follow our guide below to get contact information for your Senators, and tips for a successful call with their staff members: http://www.ucsusa.org/action/phone-calls.html”
  • Ask your Senators, specifically, to question Pruitt on the EPA scientist gag and science review orders. Political appointees shouldn’t decide what science gets published and whether federal scientists can speak to tax-payer funded science. Does Pruitt commit to supporting the flow of EPA science, including climate science, and the public speech of scientists?
  • Tweet or otherwise share your support for government agencies (specifically, today, EPA, NPS, USDA, and NIH) and the freedom of federal scientists to be transparent about their work with their colleagues and the public.
  • Know a federal scientist? These may be difficult times for many. Reach out in some way and let them know you’ve got their back.

Stay up-to-date and engaged. This is a fast moving environment. There will be LOTS TO DO and the priorities will shift. UCS and other organizations can help keep you informed and supplied with actions. If you’re an expert, you can sign up for the UCS Science Network. If you’re a concerned citizen, you can join our Action Network.

Wherever you go for updates and to-dos, thank you for staying informed and engaged. We all need each others’ sustained energy, ideas, and action in the coming months.

Our Democracy has always depended on science; it does as much now as ever. And with science under assault, we need to stand up. To paraphrase a popular chant from recent marches: this is what patriotism looks like.

Scott Pruitt and Anti-Science Activity at the EPA

The first week of the Trump administration is underway and, suffice to say, it has been a bad week for science. Scientists at several federal agencies have been told they can no longer speak to the media or use social media; staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was notified that scientific work will be reviewed by political appointees, that climate web content was being removed, and that all contracts and grants by the agency were on hold.

It seems relevant to ask President Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator if he supports these actions. To that end, I sent the following letter to the Senate this afternoon.

Dear Senators,

As you review EPA Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt’s written answers to numerous questions for the record and consider whether or not to support his confirmation, you should be aware that over the past several days, the Trump administration has attempted to undermine science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Specifically, the news media reported the administration ordered:

  • Removal of Web content on climate change
  • Vetting of scientific work by political staff before public release
  • A freeze on many grants and contracts

These actions are very concerning, and if Mr. Pruitt supports them, that should disqualify him as administrator. Each of these actions directly undermines the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

Orwellian demands to shut down informational websites and prevent the release of scientific findings don’t change the reality of climate change: seas will keep rising, more communities will be flooded more often, storms will be stronger, and wildfires will be more likely and more damaging when coupled with higher temperatures and more frequent droughts.

While it appears that exposure by the news media has prompted the administration to at least temporarily rescind its order to remove Web content on climate change, there is no guarantee that new orders will not emerge unless we have pledges from Mr. Pruitt to safeguard public access to scientific information about climate change and other issues. Indeed, several climate change–related Web pages and reports have been removed from the State Department website.

Public servants should be free to state simple scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation, or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions the public is allowed to see.

Freezing grants and contracts would almost certainly increase health risks for children and other vulnerable people in our country. American taxpayers would not receive the science-based information we all invest in to protect public health and our environment. This freeze means, for example, that the community grant program for safe drinking water may be delayed, increasing health risks in those communities that need help the most. It also means that the EPA’s AirData website, which provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, is no longer collecting and posting data, jeopardizing the health of children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illness. Parents, families, communities, and research institutions that rely on this information to make health-related decisions (everything from letting children play outside on a bad air day to developing municipal plans to improve air quality) would be in the dark. And it means student interns and young researchers may lose opportunities in the STEM education fields that are so critically important. These are just a few of the consequences of this reckless decision.

Without research and monitoring, it becomes harder for states and communities to hold polluters accountable, and unfairly penalizes the majority of businesses that play by the rules and care about the health of their communities.

The Senate needs a clear answer about whether Attorney General Pruitt was aware of these actions and approved of them—and whether he’ll actually enforce the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. To ensure that Mr. Pruitt is intent on upholding and advancing the mission of the EPA to protect Americans’ health, he must commit to preserving and honestly presenting scientific information and defending the right of government scientists to do their work unimpeded. If he is unwilling to do so, that is all the more reason to vote no on his nomination.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Kimmell

President, Union of Concerned Scientists

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Science Must Trump Politics at the USDA, Especially During Turbulent Times

It has been a rough week for scientists at federal agencies. As the administration has changed over and new leadership is beginning to find its footing, there has been a flurry of emails and directives coming down to agency staff. There are critical democracy concerns with some of the calls seen at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services to halt communication with the media, suspension of social media accounts at the Department of Interior, and hiring and grant and contract freezes at EPA. But what is especially concerning for us here at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is the impact that these actions would have on scientists’ freedom to conduct their research and discuss their findings with the public.

On Tuesday morning, BuzzFeed reported that the chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), had sent out an email to department staff ordering ARS scientists not to communicate to the public: “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

Here at UCS, we were immediately taken aback because of the directive’s contrast with the spirit of the department’s own strong scientific integrity policy, mandated under the Obama administration and revised this past December. The policy includes provisions to protect staff scientists from political interference, empower them to share their research with the public, and ensure their freedom to review documents based on their research before public release, as well as their ability to participate fully in the scientific community, even outside of agency capacity. There are now 24 executive-branch departments and agencies that have developed scientific integrity policies, including the USDA, which is one of the few departments that have a dedicated full-time staffer to ensure the policy’s implementation.

While UCS has in the past had certain concerns about the strength of the USDA’s policy, as well as its enforcement, the latest policy is significantly improved in the protections it provides for USDA scientists. A directive effectively suppressing the research of agency scientists would be completely opposed to the intent of the policy to “encourage, but not require, USDA scientists to participate in communications with the media regarding their scientific findings (data and results)” and to “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information.”

The Center for Science and Democracy’s director, Andrew Rosenberg, said, “Both the EPA and the USDA have developed scientific integrity policies that, among other things, protect scientists’ right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.” And as UCS President Ken Kimmell stated, “It’s simple: public servants should be free to state scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions are acceptable for public consumption.”

After similar backlash from multiple news sources and the scientific community, ARS administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young sent an email hours after the aforementioned email that “hereby rescinded” the previous order and told researchers that it should never have been issued. Our own communications with USDA officials on Tuesday indicated that scientist communications will not be prohibited as the email suggested, but will instead go through an extra layer of review from top officials according to a USDA interim procedure.

To be clear, it is perhaps unsurprising that a new administration would be interested in managing communications on policy-related matters at federal agencies, but strictly scientific communications shouldn’t be subject to political vetting. The extent of this review and the fact that it will likely slow down communication of science is of concern, especially since political appointees should not have a say in whether the findings of taxpayer funded research are seen by the public. The USDA’s own scientific policy reads that “scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subject to inappropriate influence.”

Why the USDA’s research matters for us all

With all of the reporting on the process issues, it’s easy to forget about the real-life consequences of suppressing government science. The USDA and its thousands of scientists and other experts are central to the advancement of knowledge about the nation’s farming and food system. In particular, the long-term research conducted by USDA-ARS scientists and staff feeds into a network of public universities and agricultural extension agents working in every state to translate science for practical application and provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. On behalf of farmers, ARS scientists conduct research on issues such as animal diseases, soil erosion, and crop productivity.

ARS also plays a role in protecting the public’s health, with research projects to assess Americans’ food consumption, provide the scientific basis for federal dietary guidance, and keep the food supply safe. It is critical to the health of the nation that this work remains unrestricted and accessible.

While it appears that one individual at ARS made a sweeping statement that wasn’t consistent with the agency’s operating guidelines, Tuesday’s events revealed the USDA’s general lack of organization amidst a changing administration. But perhaps this is not a huge surprise, considering that President Trump’s nomination of his agriculture secretary, Governor Sonny Perdue, was the final cabinet position left unfilled, and that he will not likely have a confirmation hearing before until mid-to-late February. All signs point to the fact that the USDA is not the highest priority agency for the Trump administration, which is disheartening considering the importance and wide scope of the USDA’s authority, ranging from the lunch menu at a school in New York City to the crop insurance coverage received by farmers in Montana. And surprising, given that farmers and rural voters overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in November.

USDA must fully implement and uphold its shiny new SI policy

While the USDA adjusts under new leadership, it is incredibly important that it continue to abide by its own scientific integrity policy, which was just updated at the end of 2016. It has been substantially strengthened since my colleague Gretchen Goldman last wrote about the concerns we had with USDA’s 2013 scientific integrity policy. One of the major issues was that the USDA had not explicitly given its scientists the ability to express their personal views, whether or not they clarified they were not speaking on behalf of the USDA. We were pleased to see in their most recent policy, released late last year, the inclusion of a personal views exception, which states:

When communicating with the media or the public in their personal capacities, USDA scientists may express their personal views and opinions; however, they should not claim to officially represent the Department or its policies, or use the Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos.  Personal or private activities may not violate Federal ethics rules.

Overall, the new policy clarifies procedures in greater detail and offers more flexibility for scientists for whom the policy applies, and you can see the policy got a top grade in our new report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking. We hope the USDA continues to fully enforce its new policy and to look for ways to improve upon it, especially considering any findings from an ongoing audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General on scientific integrity within the agency. In the meantime, we will continue to be vigilant and to hold the USDA accountable for its intent to foster a culture of scientific integrity within the agency, under all circumstances, no matter how chaotic. Because silencing science is never okay.

 

The Native Peoples of Standing Rock Haven’t Given Up, Nor Should We

Last September, I wrote about the important role that science and scientists could play in supporting the battle of the Lakota Nations in North Dakota to protect their sacred land and water rights. The Dakota Access Pipeline project at that time appeared to be moving forward without a full analysis of the impacts on Native people, their cultural heritage, and the environment. I believed, then and now, that scientists should support the call for that full analysis because decisions on a matter that is so important should be made in light of the science, along with many other factors. The Obama Administration, in response to the coming together of tribes from all across the country, decided that indeed a deeper analysis of options was needed.

On January 18, the Army Corps of Engineers announced their intent to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement. That is the deeper analysis including consideration of alternatives as I discussed at length in my September blog. And right now, until February 20, the Corps are asking for comments on that notice of intent.  In other words, they are asking for input from the public in scoping out the environmental impact statement. To quote from the Corps:

“The proposed crossing of Corps property requires the granting of a right-of-way (easement) under the Mineral Leasing Act (MLA), 30 U.S.C. 185. To date, the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant the easement pursuant to the MLA. The Army intends to prepare an EIS to consider any potential impacts to the human environment that the grant of an easement may cause.”

“Specifically, input is desired on the following three scoping concerns:

(1) Alternative locations for the pipeline crossing the Missouri River;

(2) Potential risks and impacts of an oil spill, and potential impacts to Lake Oahe, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water intakes, and the Tribe’s water, treaty fishing, and hunting rights; and

(3) Information on the extent and location of the Tribe’s treaty rights in Lake Oahe.”

There are important science questions in at least the first two of these topics. So scientists with specific expertise might want to comment. And those scientists who are not necessarily specialists in this area or these topics still might want to comment on the importance of preparing a full analysis of the impacts of the proposed pipeline. Comments in response to the notice are in no way restricted to only these three concerns.

Underscoring all of this is the fact that the tribes who have been fighting long and hard to protect their lands and water are also asking for our support.

This call for support is all the more urgent given the Presidential Action this week by President Trump to expedite permitting for the pipeline. That doesn’t mean that an analysis of environmental impacts is off the table. And it is unclear in fact what will happen under the new order. At the least there is likely to be a court battle.

So it is more important than ever for scientists to speak up. I know, there are many, many issues that are confronting us all every day in this new political reality.  But now is not the time to be overwhelmed. Now is the time to be re-energized. Our democracy—and at Standing Rock the health and safety of native people—depend upon it.

Click here to email your comments to the Corps of Engineers before February 20, 2017.

Or go directly to the request for comments page on the Federal Register.

 

President Trump’s Attacks on Immigrants Impoverish Science and Weaken America

The severe and racist changes to immigration imposed on the United States by President Trump should be denounced and resisted by all who care about science and democracy.

Science thrives on diversity. Immigration is the foundation of America’s unparalleled scientific leadership. It also enriches our lives across the board, from culture and the arts to entrepreneurship to reducing the federal deficit.

All six of the American science Nobel Prize winners in 2016 are immigrants. The free flow of individuals and information is fundamental to both economic growth and our ability to respond to urgent public health and environmental challenges.

Further, research demonstrates that diverse groups are more innovative and creative than uniform groups. Being around people who are different from us stretches our minds and makes us work harder. I work with an increasingly diverse group of colleagues at UCS. Their perspectives make me a more effective advocate and a better person.

Data also show that refugees are less likely to be terrorists than natural-born citizens. Quoting my own post from 2015:

The United States became a great country because it embraced people from all over the world. We are a land of immigrants. Many of our nation’s greatest scientists were foreign-born. Before they came to our country, they were students, doctors, and pharmacists. With them came children and supportive spouses. They built their lives here, contributed their talents, settled into communities, and grew our nation…

It’s tragic and embarrassing to see so many American leaders heading in the opposite direction, with many governors, members of Congress, and presidential candidates scoring political points by declaring that Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states, or that Christians should be accepted but Muslims turned away. We don’t have to sacrifice security for doing our global duty.

The consequences are also personal. Dr. Kurt Gottfried, one of my heroes, is a founding member of UCS and former chair of our Board. He is not only an accomplished Cornell physicist, but is also largely responsible for the work that UCS did to strengthen our democracy by calling out political interference in science during the Bush administration. His work helped lay the groundwork for the ongoing, widespread efforts to defend the role of science in our democracy.

He is also an immigrant, one who fled Europe for Canada as the Nazi occupation grew.

Denying entry to people like Kurt is not who we are. We are better than this.

President Trump is targeting “sanctuary cities.” Being a sanctuary city is a choice local communities have the right to make, and scores of American communities have chosen to do so. Yet as is too often the case, the conservative principle of allowing local governments to determine their own destinies appears not to apply when their choices are deemed objectionable.

Yet just as many municipalities are moving forward on climate change regardless of what happens with the federal government, dozens of cities have already signaled their intent to resist the president’s actions on immigration. “We will defend everybody—every man, woman and child—who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state,” said California Governor Jerry Brown in his state of the state address (aquí en Español). 

Many scientists, too, are planning their own resistance to attacks on science and scientists. They are are organizing marches, preparing to run for office, and joining watchdog teams to monitor and respond to activity. If you’re a scientist and you haven’t signed our letter outlining expectations for the Trump administration, including the promotion of diversity, do so here.

Defending Science Is Not Only for Scientists—It’s for All Who Care About Clean Air, Water, and Soil

The Union of Concerned Scientists is committed to watchdogging the Trump administration’s attacks on science and the safeguards that keep our water, soil, and air clean.  Since the inauguration of President Trump, we have seen how the administration has fired all cannons on deck to gut protections from the ravaging effects of climate change as well as from air, soil, and water contaminants. For example, a few minutes after the inauguration, all mentions of climate change from the White House’s website were taken down (but were archived here). This week, the Environmental Protection Agency has been effectively gagged and immobilized under orders to suspend all social media contacts, and freeze grants and not talk about it.

It’s critical that all members of society oppose this. I have many friends and family members who don’t consider themselves “political” and thus do not raise their voice to oppose these assaults. I understand why—many don’t want to open themselves to attacks or be labeled as “radicals”; others may think that this is the job of the political class or of people who do this for a living (like me!). Others may not think it is as bad as it looks. But let me be clear: it is as bad as it looks. Don’t take my word for it, though. The majority of scientists who work on climate agree that climate change is caused by humans and that it requires immediate action to avoid catastrophic consequences. More importantly, there’s nothing radical about wanting clean air and water to breathe and drink, is there? There’s nothing radical about our children’s right to live in a world without major weather disruptions due to climate change.

I know many people have concerns about the frontal assault of the administration on health and environments and the institutions that protect us. It’s important that your elected officials hear your voice directly about what’s at stake in your state or local community, especially since in a few days confirmation votes for cabinet positions will be coming up. Follow our guide below to get contact information for your Senators, and tips for a successful call with their staff members:

http://www.ucsusa.org/action/phone-calls.html

In general, this can help you be more effective when talking to congressional staff:

  • Make your message clear and concise—just a few sentences
  • Let them know that you’re a constituent—and share any affiliations with local institutions
  • Make a very concrete ask ( e.g. “vote no”)
  • Very briefly, let them know why you care and what the implications are for his/her state and constituency
  • Thank them for their time

Do you have any other tips or resources for people making calls to Congress? Share them in the comments section below.

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