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New Tax on Graduate Students Would Harm the US

A graduate student demonstrates how her tax burden would increase by nearly $10,000 if the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law. Photo: Amanda Rose

On November 16, the House of Representatives and the Senate Finance committee voted to advance tax reform legislation. These bills, both of which are named the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act,” propose to disproportionately and negatively impact the middle class, threaten to leave millions of Americans without health coverage, would add as much as $1.5 trillion to the deficit, and could burden graduate students with a giant tax hike.

Many graduate students have taken to social media to demonstrate how their tax burden would change if the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law. This picture and calculation were made publicly available via the Facebook page of Amanda Rose, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, NY.

The version passed by the House of Representatives includes a new tax provision that would require students to pay tax on the value of the tuition that is waived for graduate student research and teaching assistants. Given the low pay of such positions, this would make it nearly impossible to pay cost of living expenses while attending graduate school. As a former graduate student myself, and having been a teaching and research assistant, I understand how critical every dollar of a stipend is to purchase groceries, pay rent, and maybe even take care of your own health (if you can afford it).

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act is an attack on higher education in more ways than one. It also proposes to repeal the student loan interest reduction, graduate student tuition waivers, the Hope Scholarship Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and other educational assistance programs. But it isn’t just graduate students who will feel the consequences; such moves stand to affect us all.

Science is linked to economic prosperity

Investment in science is investment in our nation. Many international comparisons still place the US as a leader in applying research and innovation to improve the country’s economic performance. A prior review by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that since World War II, United States leadership in science and engineering has driven its dominant strategic position, economic advantages, and quality of life. Indeed, researchers have long understood that there is a link between economic prosperity and investment in science and technology.

The leadership of the United States in science explains, in part, why the country is ranked as one of the most economically competitive nations in the world. Across a number of metrics, the United States is still the undisputed leader in basic and applied research.

Researchers in the United States lead the world in the volume of research articles published, as well as the number of times these articles are cited by others. The United States is not just producing a lot of raw science, it also is applying this research and innovation, as other metrics show.

The United States has a substantial and sustainable research program, as evidenced by the number of Ph.D. students trained; it invests heavily in research, as shown by the country’s gross domestic expenditure on research and development; and it is a leader at turning science into technology, as evidenced by the high number of patents issued.

Graduate students are critical to US science and innovation

If the production of science has helped the United States economy remain competitive, graduate students are largely to thank. They are pivotal to the production of novel science and innovation in the US, and they are also the professors, inventors, and innovators of the future that our economy depends on.

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act would make it difficult, if not impossible, for many of the brightest minds in America to enter into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, ultimately decreasing America’s international competitiveness in science and technology.

A provision in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed by the House of Representatives would tax graduate students on their tuition costs. This would reform the Internal Revenue Service tax code, section 115(d), which allows universities to waive the cost and taxation of tuition for graduate students who conduct research or teach undergraduate classes at approved universities.

An estimated 145,000 graduate students benefit from this reduction with 60 percent of these students in STEM fields. Thank goodness such provisions exist for tuition waivers and scholarships as even some of our senators likely wouldn’t be where they are today without this benefit in our tax code.

If graduate students were taxed on waived tuition, many who serve as research or teaching assistants would find it more difficult to cover basic living expenses with the stipend they receive. For example, a graduate student at Columbia University might receive $38,000 for a stipend and a tuition waiver for $51,000. Currently, they pay $3,726 in taxes, but that could go up to $13,413 under the House’s proposed legislation reducing their monthly take home pay for food, rent, and health from $2885 to $2078.

Some students have reported that they would see their stipends cut from $27,000 to $19,000, or from $13,000 to $8,000 for the year if the House’s tax reform bill became law. While some students may be able to depend on their families to defray the costs of these taxes, many graduate students who come from poor and middle class backgrounds could not. As the majority of Americans who come from poorer backgrounds are also minorities, this would deter diversity in higher education, where we already know it is sorely needed.

Some universities could cover tuition and the tax on that tuition for some students, but they wouldn’t be able to do it for all. Taxation of tuition waivers also would likely make the US less attractive to international students, many of whom are graduate students in STEM. Ultimately, this regressive tax legislation means fewer graduate students at universities and, therefore, decreased research in the United States.

An anti-science message is in the air

If you are surprised that graduate students are being targeted, you are not alone. Many organizations who support the higher education community have signed on to letters and published statements expressing concerns for graduate students, including the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It is unclear if a final version of a tax reform bill will include provisions that burden graduate students with enormous tax hikes. While the Senate’s version of a tax reform bill would retain many of the tax benefits for undergraduate and graduate students (including a non-taxable tuition waiver), it still includes many provisions opposed by organizations supporting higher education.

Regardless of what tax reform bill is pushed through, there is still the question of why the House targeted graduate students in the first place? Is it because they are an easy target having little representation on the hill? Is it because this would be one way to dismantle the pipeline of those pesky academics?

These are Americans who work hard to teach and produce transformative research that greatly benefits the United States economy–and they already do this for very little pay. Furthermore, the amount of money that the government would gain from these taxes has been said to be “miniscule” compared to trillions of dollars in national debt. It is absurd that graduate students are being targeted.

Speak up for all scientists now and in the future!

I’m a former graduate student and I would not have been able to afford graduate school if I had to pay tax on my graduate student tuition and certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without this benefit in our tax code. That’s why I’m speaking up for all the early career scientists now and in the future–everybody deserves the same opportunities that I had, and the United States deserves the continued prosperity that science affords it.

Call your senators today at 1-833-216-1727 and urge them to vote ‘no’ to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

The full Senate will vote on this bill after Thanksgiving. Learn more about the current tax reform legislation and how you can push back.

Giving Thanks to Climate Researchers of the Federal Agencies

Most of my science career I worked for the Department of Energy as a climate modeler and numerical expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since my retirement in 2010 I have written a text on computational climate modeling and taught graduate level engineering classes on climate science at the University of Tennessee. I had the privilege of working with many talented and dedicated scientists and hate to see their work go unappreciated because climate has become such a politicized issue. In particular, the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Special Science report is the culmination of many years, even decades of scientific focus that the Congress and the nation should study with an open mind and use to reset the climate discussion in the United States.

In the early 1990’s I was one of the principals organizing an “Inter-agency agreement’’ between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our researchers were called the CHAMMPions (a long acronym worth remembering as Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics, Model Physics, Inter-agency Organization for Numerical Simulation). Most of us were new to climate research with my own background in applied mathematics. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment of 1990 had not found any U.S. based modeling groups producing a high-quality climate model. They borrowed the Canadian and Hadley Center models to complete the first US NCA in 2000. A little bit of national pride and the opportunity to one up the rest of the international community by using U.S. developed high performance computers was a timely motivation for our group. The models we developed and continued to improve through the 1990’s ad 2000’s contributed to many national and international studies, in particular the CMIP (Climate Model Inter-comparison Project) study series sponsored by the DOE. We faithfully followed through on giving policy makers better tools for making informed decisions. Focusing on the science and not the politics supported our DOE sponsors through a variety of administrations.

As a DOE funded climate researcher for 20 years, I had a privileged view of the motivations behind DOE climate research. It all started with the first Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger. He read a report from the Russian scientist, Mikhail Budyko, suggesting the link between earth’s climate and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a physical theory of climatology. Knowing that the department could not ignore this connection, he asked his department heads what they were going to do about it. This was the start of DOE’s exemplary Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program in 1977.

The model that the inter-agency agreement developed is now one of the worlds most respected models. It is open source meaning that anyone can see what is in it and even new groups are welcome to contribute new physics or chemistry or ecology to the earth system modeling effort. The Climate Science Special Report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I is the first to provide regionally specific results. The global temperature is not the only climate parameter that can now be discussed with confidence. For example, one of the findings pertains to extreme events from heavy rainfall to heatwaves that can impact human safety, infrastructure and agriculture.

This kind of detail would not have been possible without the new capabilities that the U.S. modeling effort provided. Indeed, the report draws from the results of many modeling groups by measuring the skill of different models compared to the observational record.

The scientists I have worked with through the years in these inter-agency projects have performed a service to the nation with their dedicated focus on staying true to the science and providing usable information for policy makers. I for one am grateful for their effort and support continuing to invest in our federal scientists to help move forward on research for solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the research capabilities and resources of the National Lab system and my colleagues who always put science first.

 

Dr. John. B. Drake was a researcher and group leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 30 years and lead the climate modeling efforts at ORNL from 1990 to 2010.  Since his retirement from ORNL, he has taught graduate courses on climate modeling in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee and conducted research into the impacts of climate change. 

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

4 Ways to Discuss Congressional Budget Riders at the Dinner Table this Thanksgiving

Holiday gatherings with the family can be awkward, especially if you aren’t prepared for the inevitable table talk. Feeling like you don’t have enough fodder to sustain a conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table this month?

Fret not! Every year around this time, my colleagues write about the budget process as the clock ticks for Congress to pass a clean budget – that is, a budget free from “poison pill” policy provisions and seemingly innocuous regulatory process riders that would hamper agencies from utilizing the best available science in rulemaking. These anti-science riders are extraneous special interest policies tacked onto a must-pass spending bill, a sort of parasitic mutualism, if you will.

This year, I have a gift for our readers ahead of the holidays: a brief list of harmful anti-science riders that would weaken science-based safeguards, potentially putting the health and safety of families at risk, repurposed as a guide to navigating uncomfortable silence and forced interactions with your family at Thanksgiving.

1. Start with an icebreaker

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen your least favorite Uncle Stewart, or your cousin Meg has brought a new date, you might consider starting with an icebreaker to relieve tension. Try this one:  A rider to “legislate” that the burning of trees for energy is positive for climate change has been proposed. This language encourages burning trees to generate electricity and ignores scientific evidence on impacts of carbon emissions. Who needs an icebreaker if the sea ice continues melting at record levels?

2. Share a story from your past

Take a stroll down memory lane and regale your guests with tales from the days of yore. Here’s a crowd favorite: In 1996, following the release of a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found keeping guns in the home increases the risk of homicides in the home, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied former Congressman Jay Dickey to target the CDC’s funding. Congressman Dickey introduced the provision that he would later come to regret, sneaking it into a must-pass spending bill. Now, over 20 years later, the CDC is still unable to research gun violence as a public health issue, though current events (including the recent tragedies in Las Vegas,  Sutherland, Texas, and Rancho Tehama, California) and statistics show the need is there.

3. Talk about the weather

A tried and true small-talk starter, who can resist commiserating about the sweltering heat we endured this year, even as the temperatures have finally dropped? Now is the time to casually mention the proposal that would delay implementation of science-based standards, like the EPA’s most recent update to ground-level ozone, which is solely based on public health. If this passes, companies would be allowed to pollute at levels currently deemed unsafe, which would contribute to an increase in days with unhealthy ozone levels and increase risk of respiratory illnesses – risks that are exacerbated by an increase in heat waves caused by climate change (see: icebreaker).

4. Give thanks

There are many things to be thankful for, but often the most important ones go unnoticed. This year, remember to lift your glass in thanks – to clean water. Give a toast to the Clean Water Rule, which extends protections of waters under the Clean Water Act to include the streams and wetlands that feed drinking water sources for over 117 million people nationwide. Don’t forget to mention the rider that would permit the administration to ignore scientific and public input as Scott Pruitt’s EPA attempts to withdraw the Clean Water Rule. The rule was borne out of extensive public engagement and rigorous scientific analysis that the EPA administrator has chosen to set aside.

And as your mother stands poised to carve the golden turkey, remember to give thanks to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 for offering protections to the fowl’s cousin, the greater sage grouse. A rider would allow policymakers to overrule biologists and wildlife managers when it comes to protecting threatened and endangered wildlife, such as the gray wolf and the oft-fought-over sage grouse.

While this list of “poison pill” riders is by no means exhaustive, there are some great dinner-table conversation starters that are sure to keep the family engaged in a riveting discussion they’ll be talking about for years to come. The anti-science riders above have all been introduced this year and negotiations over which ones to include in a final spending deal are happening right now (and remember, none of them should be included, because we want a clean budget free from “poison pill” riders).

If you didn’t manage to invite your representatives to dinner this Thanksgiving, be sure to take the time to tell them to pass a clean budget with no anti-science “poison pill” riders this holiday.

Trump Nominee Kathleen Hartnett White Ignores Climate Change In Her Own Backyard

Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick to chair the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), testified at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday and, like many Trump nominees to date, showed herself to be an unqualified, polluter-friendly ideologue who rejects mainstream climate science.

“Your positions are so far out of the mainstream, they are not just outliers, they are outrageous,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey exclaimed at one point in clear exasperation. “You have a fringe voice that denies science, economics, and reality.”

What Markey failed to note, however, is that White has personally experienced climate change-related extreme weather events in her home state of Texas, and scientists say they are only going to get worse.

Unqualified from the start

White, who Trump previously considered for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, is a cattle rancher and dog breeder who chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — the Lone Star State’s version of the EPA — from 2001 to 2007 and was a member of the Environmental Flows Study Commission, the Texas Water Development Board, and the Texas Wildlife Association board.

Her qualifications for those positions? None.

White earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Humanities and Religion at Stanford, attended Princeton’s comparative religion doctoral program, and completed a year of law school at Texas Tech. It’s not quite the background one would expect for someone serving on environmentally related boards, let alone running the TCEQ. But in Texas, as in Florida and Wisconsin, ideology trumps science credentials, and White holds a politically correct pro-fossil fuels viewpoint.

That bias serves her well in her current job with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by what Texans for Public Justice characterized as a “Who’s Who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies.” Among TPPF’s benefactors are Chevron, Devon Energy, and ExxonMobil; Koch Industries and its family foundations; and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. White, who joined TPPF in January 2008, runs the nonprofit’s energy and environment program and co-heads its Fueling Freedom Project, whose mission is to “push back against the EPA’s onerous regulatory agenda that threatens America’s economy, prosperity, and well-being.”

Climate paranoia strikes deep

Recent media coverage of White’s nomination for the CEQ post has shined a light on her lack of scientific understanding — and her paranoia about the rationale for addressing climate change. She falsely claims that climate science is “highly uncertain,” characterizes it as the “dark side of a kind of paganism, the secular elite’s religion,” and argues that the “climate crusade,” if unchecked, would essentially destroy democracy.

That’s right. White believes the United Nations and climate scientists are bent on establishing a “one-world state ruled by planetary managers.” Further, she routinely trumpets the benefits of carbon emissions, insisting that carbon dioxide “has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health.” Carbon is a good thing, she says, because “the increased atmospheric concentration of man-made CO2 has enhanced plant growth and thus the world’s food supply.” Never mind that farmers and ranchers in her own state have been whipsawed in recent years by devastating heat waves, drought, and floods, all linked to climate change.

At her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, White cited reducing ground-level ozone in Houston and Galveston when she chaired the TCEQ as her greatest accomplishment. But according to a recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News, she pushed for weaker ozone standards while she was at the helm of the agency.

“Her record is abominable,” the October 17 editorial stated. “White consistently sided with business interests at the expense of public health as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She lobbied for lax ozone standards and, at a time when all but the most ardent fossil fuel apologists understood that coal isn’t the nation’s future, White signed a permit for a lignite-fired power plant, ignoring evidence that emissions from the lignite plant could thwart North Texas’ efforts to meet air quality standards.”

Predictably, White also disparages renewable energy. “In spite of the billions of dollars in subsidies, retail prices for renewables are still far higher than prices for fossil fuels,” she wrote in her 2014 tractFossil Fuels: The Moral Case. “At any cost, renewable energy from wind, solar, and biomass remains diffuse, unreliable, and parasitic….”

In fact, fossil fuels have received significantly more in federal tax breaks and subsidies for a much longer time than renewables; new wind power is now cheaper than coal, nuclear, and natural gas; and the Department of Energy projects that renewable technologies available today have the potential to meet 80 percent of US electricity demand by 2050.

Ignoring the evidence

Most of Trump’s nominees for other key science-based positions — notably EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — agree with White’s twisted take on climate science and renewables. What sets her apart, besides her penchant for calling advocates for combating climate change “pagans,” “Marxists” and “communists,” is her up-close-and-personal experience with climate change-related extreme weather events.

White and her husband, Beau Brite White, live in Bastrop County, an outlying Austin bedroom community, and own a vast cattle ranch of 118,567 acres — more than 185 square miles — in Presidio County, which sits on the state’s southwest border with Mexico.

Bastrop and Presidio counties are both struggling with drought due to low precipitation and high temperatures and, like the rest of Texas, suffered from an especially extreme drought in 2011. Part of a prolonged period of drought stretching from 2010 to 2015, the one in 2011 was the hottest and driest on record, and climate change likely played a significant role. A 2012 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that the high temperatures that contribute to droughts such the one that struck Texas in 2011 are 20 times more probable now than they were 40 to 50 years ago due to human-caused climate change.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment report, released on November 3, agreed. “The absence of moisture during the 2011 Texas/Oklahoma drought and heat wave was found to be an event whose likelihood was enhanced by the La Niña state of the ocean,” the report, authored by scientists at 13 federal agencies, concluded, “but the human interference in the climate system still doubled the chances of reaching such high temperatures [emphasis added].”

The 2011 heat wave was particularly intense in Presidio County. According to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a meteorology professor at Texas A&M University, the county “achieved the triple-triple: at least 100 days reaching at least 100 degrees.”

Bastrop County, meanwhile, has become a tinderbox. Wildfires are happening there with greater frequency and intensity for a variety of reasons, including rising temperatures and worsening drought as well as population growth and development. In 2011, the county experienced the worst wildfire in Texas history, which destroyed more than 1,600 homes and caused $325 million in damage. Two years ago, in October 2015, the Hidden Pines Fire torched 7 square miles in the county and burned down 64 buildings.

White’s neighbors know better

White may refuse to acknowledge what is happening in her own back yard, but most of her neighbors realize that human-caused climate change is indeed a problem, according to polling data released last March by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. The survey, conducted in 2016 in every county nationwide, found that a majority of residents in Bastrop and Presidio counties — 67 percent and 78 percent respectively — understand that global warming is happening, while more than half of the respondents in both counties (52 percent in Bastrop and 62 percent in Presidio) know it is mainly caused by human activity.

Majorities in both counties also want something done about it. More than 70 percent want carbon dioxide regulated as a pollutant and at least 65 percent in both counties want states to require utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewables.

Given their responses, White’s neighbors in Bastrop and Presidio counties make it clear that if they were polled on whether she should become the next chair of a little-known but powerful White House office that oversees federal environmental and energy policies, a majority would likely say no — and with good reason: Unlike White, for them, seeing is believing.

Scientists, Please Don’t Listen to Scott Pruitt

Everything about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive to change the agency’s science advisory boards was damaging to the way that science informs policy at our nation’s premier public health agency. Mr. Pruitt based his action on a set of false premises. The logic of the action is fundamentally flawed and turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head. The specific appointments made are of people with deep conflicts of interest who have long espoused views concerning threats to public health divergent with the weight of scientific evidence on many issues.  In fact, in a slip of the tongue at the start of the press conference Mr Pruitt said, “We are here to change the facts [FACs]…I mean the FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act committees).” He had it right the first time.

But in some sense the most disturbing statement Mr. Pruitt made was that scientists had to make a choice—either to pursue research grants or to engage in public service by serving on an advisory committee. This is a false choice of the first order. I hope scientists everywhere categorically reject the idea of a choice between doing research and serving as advisors to public agencies. In fact, I believe that it is scientists who have been and perhaps still are active researchers—on the cutting edge of knowledge—who should be providing scientific advice to government. Obtaining a government research grant never buys one’s loyalty to any particular policy position. That may be a convenient political talking point for Mr. Pruitt and his supporters like Cong. Smith (R-TX) or Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) who joined him for the announcement of his new directive, but it is still nonsense.

I believe that serving on a government advisory committee is public service and something that every scientist who has the opportunity and inclination should seriously consider. Many universities have public service as part of their core mission right alongside teaching and research. Serving on an advisory committee is one way that broader service to the public grows out of the day to day work of science. And it is exactly because one does outstanding research that your voice is so important as an independent source of scientific information in the process of making public policy.

So please don’t choose between public service and grant-funded research. I for one hope that more scientists will try to do both. Just because Scott Pruitt is hostile to scientists in public life doesn’t mean you should stay out—beyond serving in advisory committees, here are other ways you can put science to work for people. Don’t make the false choice Scott Pruitt called for.

 

Would Chemical Safety Measures Under Dourson Protect Military Families? Probably Not.

Dr. Michael Dourson, a toxicologist with a history of providing consultation to the chemical industry, could become the head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dourson has consistently defended the use of several chemicals found to pose major adverse health effects, manipulating his research in favor of industry interests. This could spell trouble for public health and safety, particularly in low-income communities and communities where residents are predominately people of color—which often includes military bases.

Over this past summer, ProPublica released a series of articles on the excessive toxic pollution problems at military bases. This immediately caught my attention: I work on chemical safety issues at UCS and spent my formative years living on army bases around the country. Although I had passing knowledge of the dangerous chemical agents at storage sites on a base in Aberdeen, Maryland (including nerve and blistering agents like mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and lewisite), I never once considered the impact exposure to toxics might pose to military personnel and their families, let alone the potential for exposure from burning of munitions, toxic releases, and proximity to Superfund sites. I naively assumed we were safe from harm, and didn’t give a second thought to the acrid odors wafting in the air. Who would knowingly put the people who fight for our country at risk in their own homes?

Can we trust Dourson to keep military families safe?

Judging from his track record of downplaying the health risks posed by several EPA-regulated compounds, including 1,4-dioxane, 1-bromoproane, trichloroethylene (TCE), and chlorpyrifos (which are currently under review), I don’t believe Dourson has the best interests of military families in mind. I worry that exposure to toxics on military bases may only worsen under his industry-partial leadership. I am not alone in my sentiments: retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and current U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) has been critical of Dourson, calling his work on toxic chemicals “reckless”. She is acutely aware of the contamination and associated health effects at military bases like Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where drinking water is highly contaminated by Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Interestingly, Dourson researched PFOA—a chemical linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer—and came to the convenient conclusion that a weaker safety standard than what EPA recommends would be just fine.

That is why this potential appointment is personal. If past administrations have done a substandard job of handling chemical concerns, putting an industry shill in charge of limiting and preventing exposure to toxic chemicals may result in even less protection for the public.

“[The sentiment is that] what we don’t know can’t hurt us. We don’t know [what is going on], we’re on a mission! But when you get out, you’re on your own. How do you know what’s going on in your system after 20 years [of service]?” – my dad, former Army drill sergeant, Airborne ranger, and Air Assault instructor on the lack of information given military personnel and families. He hates taking photos.

Conflict of interest is an understatement

It’s obvious Pruitt and his team intend to dismantle regulatory protections in favor of industry based on their actions to date, as well as the nominations and appointments of chemical industry advocates, including Dr. Nancy Beck (former representative of the American Chemistry Council) and Michael Dourson.

Dourson’s past work includes giving the green light on several chemicals that have been shown to have serious adverse health effects. He has even weighed in on TCE, a toxic chemical that is prominent on military bases, to ask to weaken the safety standards. See a list of locations where chemicals he has “blessed” have been found at alarming levels here. Of the states, towns, counties, and cities listed, I have lived in four at various stages of my life. Nearly two decades later, and I’m just now uncovering this. I’ll let that sink in.

We must defend the defenders

Veterans Day is approaching, which means food, retail, and recreation discounts for military veterans and active-duty personnel.  This is a nice (if not cursory) gesture to show our gratitude, but it’s still superficial at best considering the challenges our veterans and military families  face. Our country’s leaders profess to have the utmost respect for our military, even tearing the nation into a frenzy over a peaceful protest by claiming that kneeling for the national anthem disrespects those who have fought for our freedom. Is this the brownfield we want to die on? Our military need more than lip service and deserve better than Dourson.

Charise Johnson

While We Aren’t Paying Attention, the Trump Administration is Making Products Less Safe

Have you ever checked to see if a product has been recalled because of a safety concern? As a parent of a young child, I am deeply familiar with this task. Babies are expensive and buying used products cuts costs, but it’s crucial to check if products have been recalled because baby products can often be recalled for safety concerns. When you have a little one, you want to protect them as best you can. But now, the Trump administration is putting my family and yours at risk.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission: Keeping our families safe

To our nation’s benefit, there’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The little-known federal agency plays a crucial role in making sure that the products we bring into our homes and trust with our families’ lives are safe. I depend on this every day when I put my child down for a nap, put him in a car seat, or give him a toy. Because of the CPSC, I trust that the crib won’t injure him, the car seat is built properly, and that his toys don’t have parts he can choke on.

You might only hear about these kinds of recalls when they’re high-profile like those scooters that everyone got for Christmas one year that had a tendency to catch fire or the exploding Android phone debacle. But the reason you don’t hear more about these issues is because the CPSC is doing its job. Scientists at the CPSC monitor product injuries and deaths, issue recalls and work with companies to help prevent unsafe products from ever reaching the market.

Dana Baiocco: A dangerous pick for CPSC commissioner

Now, the Trump Administration is threatening the CPSC’s ability to keep us safe. President Trump’s nominee for CPSC commissioner Dana Baiocco—who will be voted out of committee tomorrow on the hill—has spent her career defending companies whose products have harmed people (Check out this reporting from Sharon Lerner at the Intercept). When people fought for justice because their loved ones had mesothelioma from asbestos exposure because of the negligent company, Baiocco was making sure widows wouldn’t get their money. When Yamaha knowingly kept on the market unsafe ATVs that caused injuries and deaths of several people, including children, Baiocco worked to make sure the families didn’t get compensation. When Volkswagen was caught cheating on their emissions testing, Baiocco was there to defend them. And when the tobacco conglomerate R.J. Reynolds needed help defending harms caused by smoking, Baiocco was there too, defending the tobacco giant from cancer victims.

Clearly, Baiocco is the wrong choice for the CPSC. Nothing about this past gives me confidence that she’ll use science to make decisions in the public interest if she is appointed a CPSC commissioner.

Would Baiocco keep us safe from harmful flame retardants?

This year the CPSC is slated to work on organohalogen flame retardants. As my colleague Genna Reed reported last month, the CPSC made the science-based decision to phase out the harmful class of flame retardants from products, despite chemical industry opposition. This was a huge victory for science and for public health. I celebrated this move. No longer would I have to spend hours reading labels, pouring over scientific studies and buying costly foreign baby products to avoid exposing my child to these unsafe flame retardants.

Now the CPSC will be implementing that rule. Baiocco’s nomination will have a huge impact on how that implementation happens. Commissioners have a lot of power when it comes to implementation, timing, and overall agency priorities. Will harmful flame retardants be phased out under a proper timeline and sufficiently eliminated from products? If Baiocco becomes commissioner, this flame-retardant rule could be delayed or weakened in its implementation, and that won’t be a victory for anyone other than the companies that produce them.

The dangers of a politicized CPSC: The case of the lead lunch boxes

We don’t have to look too far to see the devastating consequences of a CPSC where science is compromised. In 2005, under the George W. Bush administration, the agency tested children’s lunchboxes and found unsafe levels of lead. In the case of one test on a Spiderman lunchbox, the agency found 16 times the federal standard for lead. Rather than immediately announce this finding and recall a potentially unsafe product, the CPSC changed their lead testing technique and employed an averaging scheme that scientists said underestimated the level of lead in the lunch boxes. With the backing of the vinyl industry, the CPSC continued to defend this testing method while allowing the product to stay on the market, potentially exposing children to lead poisoning.

The Senate Commerce Committee should vote no on Dana Baiocco for CPSC commissioner

As a mom, I worry a lot about the safety of my son. There is nothing more important to me than making sure he can grow up in a safe environment. I know I can’t keep him safe from every danger in the world, but I can make sure he’s surrounded by safe cribs, strollers, car seats, and toys. In order to do that though, I depend on a CPSC that uses science and works in the public interest.

And so I ask the members of the Senate Commerce Committee, do you trust that Baiocco will keep your family safe? Do you have confidence that she will make sure that my child and yours are protected from unsafe baby products? If a recall would be inconvenient to a company’s bottom line, would she still prioritize public safety over corporate profits? How will Americans know if products are safe to use in our homes? This isn’t just a policy preference. This could cost American lives, and Baiocco is not on our side. As a parent and a scientist, I urge you to vote no tomorrow for the safety of all Americans.

 

EPA Chief Pruitt’s Recent Halloween Trick Will Scare the Health Out of You

On Halloween, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt gave Americans the equivalent of an apple filled with razor blades.

Instead of picking the best experts for his agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to protect public health, Pruitt appointed candidates who oppose the very laws the EPA is supposed to enforce.

To make matters worse, Pruitt did not renew terms for a number of respected members and even dismissed several independent scientists before their terms were up. All told, Pruitt shrunk the SAB from 47 to 42 participants and more than doubled the number of its polluter-friendly members.

Undermining the SAB’s integrity might make sense to a former Oklahoma attorney general who openly promotes the interests of the fossil fuel industry. But doing so jeopardizes the independent science the agency needs to protect American health and safety.

Pruitt’s ill-advised appointments

The Science Advisory Board was established by Congress nearly 40 years ago as an impartial reality check. As my colleague Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), recently explained, the board “doesn’t make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out.”

The SAB’s role as “arbiter of scientific fact” has proven to be invaluable. Over the last five years, for instance, the board provided the EPA recommendations for integrating science more effectively into its decisionmaking process; advised the agency on the best model to use when evaluating the health threats posed by perchlorate, a likely carcinogen; and determined that the EPA’s preliminary finding that the hydraulic fracturing drilling process has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water resources was not supported by the best available science. The final version of the fracking study, released in December 2016, correctly concluded that the technique has indeed contaminated some drinking water supplies across the country.

As reconstituted by Pruitt, however, the SAB is more likely to come down in favor of industrial polluters than public health.

Take the new board chairman, Michael Honeycutt, who directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division. Over the last decade, Honeycutt rolled back the state’s protections for 45 toxic chemicals, including arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. He also attacked EPA rules for ground-level ozone (smog), which aggravates lung diseases, and particulate matter (PM) (soot), which has been linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems and premature death. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence linking fine soot particles to premature death, Honeycutt testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM makes you live longer.”

Many of Pruitt’s other appointees to three-year terms on the SAB share a similar disregard for established science.

  • Robert Phalen, who founded an air pollution laboratory at the University of California at Irvine, maintains that children need to breathe dirty air for their bodies to learn how to ward off irritants. “Modern air,” he said during a July 2012 interview, “is a little too clean for optimum health.” His October 2004 study, “The Particulate Air Pollution Controversy,” minimized the threat posed by fine soot particles. “Although reproducible and statistically significant, the relative risks associated with modern PM are very small and confounded by many factors.”
  • Kimberly White is senior director of chemical products at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the country’s largest chemical manufacturing trade association. Representing the interests of 155 corporate members, including BP, Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil, the ACC has delayed, weakened and blocked science-based health, environmental and workplace protections at the state, national and even international levels.
  • Samuel Cohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, produces industry-friendly papers and testimony for chemical companies and trade groups, including the American Chemistry Council. He has downplayed the risks of monosodium methanearsonate (MSMA) for the arsenic-based weed killer’s manufacturers and testified on behalf of Dupont during a kidney cancer trial involving perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the main ingredient in Teflon.
  • Economist John D. Graham, who ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for five years during the George W. Bush administration, has a long history of emphasizing industry’s costs to reduce pollution, while discounting scientific evidence of exposure risks and ignoring the benefits of a cleaner environment.
  • Anne Smith, a senior vice president at NERA Consulting, is another economist with a pronounced corporate bias. Over the past few years, NERA has written reports for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry trade groups arguing that the EPA underestimates the cost of its rules, including ones designed to lower mercury emissions and reduce ground-level ozone. In February 2015, Smith testified before Congress against the Clean Power Plan to curb coal-fired power plant carbon emissions.
  • Donald Van der Vaart, former secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, was the agency’s point man against federal air quality rules, including a cap on nitrogen oxide emissions, a major component of ground-level ozone. Last November, he sent a letter to President-elect Trump denouncing “federal overreach” and asking him to all but eliminate the EPA. “By returning responsibility for implementing these laws to the states,” Van der Vaart wrote, “your administration can avoid the agenda-driven federal regulatory process that has stifled our country’s competitiveness.”

Pruitt also enlisted Richard Smith and S. Stanley Young to serve on the board. The two statisticians co-authored an August 2017 study claiming there is “little evidence” of a connection between fine particulate pollution and premature death, ignoring established scientific understanding of air pollution and health risks. Three other appointees, meanwhile, directly represent the energy industry: Merlin Lindstrom is vice president of technology at Phillips 66, Robert Merritt was a geology manager at Total, and Larry Monroe was the chief environmental officer at Southern Company.

Independent scientists shut out

Perhaps most shocking, Pruitt upended four decades of precedent by banning scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the SAB or any other agency advisory panel. Why? In Pruitt’s estimation, they have a conflict of interest. He followed through by kicking at least a half-dozen EPA-funded scientists off the SAB before their terms were over.

Pruitt’s attack on EPA grantees particularly rankled Center for Science and Democracy Director Andrew Rosenberg, a former regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The suggestion that federal research grants would conflict with advisory board work is frankly dishonest,” Rosenberg said. “Pruitt is turning the idea of ‘conflict of interest’ on its head by claiming that federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board while industry funding shouldn’t. The truth is: EPA grants don’t come with strings. They’re meant to help promote the best independent science.

“Independent science is absolutely critical to making good policies that keep our air and water clean and our communities safe,” he added. “But this administration — particularly Administrator Pruitt — seems to have taken every opportunity to cut science out. Pruitt’s Halloween announcement is a blatant effort to stack the board and put narrow industry interests ahead of public health and safety. We will pursue all legal options available to us to prevent any scientist ban from remaining in place.”

USDA Secretary Sidelines Science, Sells Out Farmers, Workers, and Eaters

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Lest you think the Trump administration’s headlong rush toward rejecting science in favor of industry deregulation is mostly a problem in Scott Pruitt’s EPA, recent less-reported developments at the US Department of Agriculture demonstrate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has taken a variety of steps to sideline science and betray farmers, food chain workers, and eaters. Let’s review…

Secretary Sonny’s approach to science and policy takes shape (and it doesn’t look good)

Don’t be fooled by his folksy moniker and down-home anecdotes. Secretary Sonny is a big agribiz guy through and through, with a long history of ethics run-ins and rewarding his friends and business associates. And though he likes to talk about science-based decision-making and serving farmers and taxpayers as customers, so far it doesn’t appear that he’s walking the walk.

Since he took up the reins at the USDA last April, we’ve seen Secretary Sonny take steps to reorganize the department in ways that don’t bode well for rural development, conservation, nutrition, and other essential programs. His steadfast support of the troubling (and now-withdrawn) nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis should be another big red flag.

For a big-picture look at the Trump administration’s USDA, read Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s in-depth (and disturbing) new Vanity Fair article on the topic. Meanwhile, I’ll pull out three recent moves that give us a clear indication of who stands to gain (and who is likely to lose) under Secretary Perdue’s watch.

Poultry workers: Unsafe at any speed?

First, Perdue’s Food Safety and Inspection Service quietly opened a comment period on a petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to speed up the process of processing chickens. Plants operated by the NCC’s member companies—which include giants Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms (no relation to the Secretary)—slaughter, cut up, and debone billions of chickens every year. The industry and at least one of its allies in Congress, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s zeal for deregulation, are lobbying Perdue’s USDA to let them process chickens even faster than the current speed of 140 birds per minute.

Civil Eats has a devastating account of the dangerous conditions already faced by workers in those plants. And under President Obama, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that allowing plants to operate at higher speeds could result in more injuries among workers deboning chickens. NBC News reports:

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

USDA maintained the speed at 140. But now Secretary Sonny seems poised to reverse that decision.

Citing research on the danger to workers and consumers, our allies at the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Council submitted a public comment urging the USDA to “follow the law and the agency’s own findings” and reject the NCC’s petition. The comment period closes December 13.

Farewell, Farmer Fair Practices

And the Secretary also had another gift for Big Meat and Poultry last month. As Politico reported, he rolled back a pair of rules known collectively as the Farmer Fair Practices Rules:

Perdue withdrew an interim final rule that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. And USDA also will take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

The rollback of these two rules administered by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) means that contract farmers lose their newly-gained protection from exploitation by the corporate giants who control nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers across the country, called the move “deeply disappointing,” noting in a statement:

With this decision, USDA has given the green light to the few multinational meatpackers that dominate the market to discriminate against family farmers. As the administration has signaled its intent to side with the meat and poultry giants, NFU will pursue congressional action that addresses competition issues and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Do right and feed…well, maybe not everyone

In addition to turning his back on small farmers and underpaid food workers, Secretary Sonny also appears to be taking aim at low-income consumers. Since being confirmed as agriculture secretary in April 2017, Perdue has often repeated his “new motto” for the USDA:

I like to say that @USDA‘s new motto is “Do right and feed everyone.” Feel like today at our first #USDAFamilyDay we did just that. pic.twitter.com/CFl6X1rJck

— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) June 24, 2017

“Do right and feed everyone” is a fine motto, but now it seems the Secretary didn’t really mean everyone. He recently went on record suggesting that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would fall if individuals who are able to work are restricted from using it.

Perdue’s suggestion that the working poor should be barred from receiving nutrition benefits via SNAP is confounding. Data show that most SNAP recipients who can work do so—though usually for low or inconsistent pay that isn’t enough to feed their families. As Perdue’s home-state newspaper points out:

[I]n a state hostile to unions and with a minimum wage of only $5.15 an hour, also barring those who receive paychecks from receiving food stamps would have tremendous impact. An estimated 546,000 working Georgians live in households that receive the help, according to one study.

Even so, members of Congress have increasingly called for strengthening work requirements for SNAP participants. So, which is it—should SNAP beneficiaries work or not?

Mr. Secretary, we’re keeping our eye on you

Secretary Perdue has now been in office just over six months. Of his department’s 13 other leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation, only three are in place, and seven positions don’t even have a nominee yet. And the Secretary’s proposed departmental reorganization is still taking shape. But with early signs already troubling, we’ll be tracking further developments to paint a fuller picture of his intentions for science-based policy making for the nation’s food and farm system.

Stay tuned…

Kathleen Hartnett White Nomination Spells Trouble for the Magna Carta of Environmental Law: NEPA

NEPA is a landmark law that is crucial for identifying and considering environmental impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment. Photo: Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance

President Trump’s nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the nation’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) comes as no big surprise. She will be just the latest addition to a Trump team determined to slow, stem, stymie, and roll back environmental and public health protections with reckless disregard for the well-being of all Americans. 

Despite the up to $180 billion in devastation caused by a climate change fueled-hurricane in Houston, Hartnett White, the former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, does not believe that climate change is a danger to society. Ever a friend to the oil and gas industry, she sees efforts to address climate change as simply an attack on the fossil fuel industry.

I could go on (and on and on) to express my dismay and alarm about this impending appointment, and others have—see here, here, and here—but that’s not where I’m headed with this post.  Instead, I want to tell you why you should care about two acronyms most American’s have never heard of: CEQ and NEPA.

CEQ does what exactly?

The national Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is a small but important office within the Executive Office of the President. Established by a 1969 law (more on NEPA in a second), the council essentially functions as the president’s chief advisor on environmental quality within the White House.

CEQ was created to gather information on environmental quality; develop and recommend to the president national policies to foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality; set regulations that guide agency compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA; and be a source of information for the public.

In other words, CEQ is meant to play a critical role in protecting and promoting the quality of our environment, and the head of CEQ will be a primary source of advice and information for President Trump on the issue of environmental quality. 

NEPA: The Magna Carta of environmental law  

First, a bit of history. While environmental protection is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Richard Nixon, his administration ushered in some sweeping changes and had singular environmental achievements. NEPA is a case in point.

President Nixon signed the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. This landmark law charges the federal government and its agencies with a responsibility to promote environmental protection, preservation, and restoration, and notes the responsibility each generation has to act as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.

NEPA has inspired the adoption of similar requirements in 16 US states, and over 130 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it. NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of Environmental Law, a reflection of just how important and valuable it is considered around the world.

NEPA is important for three main reasons

1) Identifying and considering impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment

NEPA established the requirement, with certain exemptions, that all federal agencies undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) when they propose legislation and any other major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment.

Such actions include but are not limited to specific projects (such as road construction), plans or proposals to manage and develop federal land (such as national parks), and federal permitting or funding of private sector projects (such as granting an easement for a power lines or a permit for use of a waterway).

This is critical in order to ensure that federal agencies identify and consider environmental impacts on the people, communities, places, and environmental resources (i.e., air, water, land) that will be affected by their proposed actions.

2) Explaining the environmental impacts of different alternatives 

In formulating an environmental impact statement, agencies must explain the purpose and need for action, and importantly the different reasonable alternatives for addressing the need so that decision makers are fully aware of the environmental consequences of their choices. The document must explain the environmental impacts of these alternatives, and possible measures to reduce adverse impacts.

The EIS always includes as part of its analysis a “no action” alternative, that is, what would happen if the action was not taken at all. (For more, check out the Wiki page on EIS; it’s good. For a more detailed look at NEPA, check out chapter 5 in this book.)

Per Executive Order #12898, agencies are also required to consider issues of environmental justice in the NEPA process–including environmental effects on human health, and economic and social effects, specifically within communities of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately impacted by environmental risks and harms.

3) Allowing the public to have a say in decisions (a.k.a. democracy)

NEPA also advances two essential features of our democracy—transparency and public participation. Federal projects and actions can have profound effects on our surrounding environments and thus on our daily lives—from the air we breathe and the food and water we consume to the roads we travel and the places we love.

We, the people who may be impacted by a project for years to come, should have the right to know what the agencies are planning; what alternatives they are considering; and have an opportunity to comment, question, and suggest different alternatives. Indeed, in 2007 the CEQ itself published A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard.  (I suggest you you read it now; it could easily disappear.)

So, for example, the public—not just business interests—would get to weigh in when the federal Department of Transportation proposes to build or extend the interstate highway system that might cut through communities or nearby farmlands. Or when the US Forest Services plans logging activity on federal lands, which could potentially impact tourism and local water quality. Or when the Army Corps of Engineers develops plans for flood control or river transportation on the nation’s waterways. Or when an oil and gas company needs a permit for a new drilling operation. Or for a pipeline. NEPA provides a critical opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed actions and alternatives.

Flexibility and recourse

While the process provides opportunity for public engagement and is meant to ensure that decision-makers consider different alternatives and their environmental impacts, agencies have flexibility to make the final decision they deem most appropriate.

Specifically, agencies are not bound to select the least burdensome alternative. However, agency decisions are appealable and open to judicial review. And the EIS, along with the record of public comment, provides information that can be used to fight an agency decision in court. Without getting into the legal weeds, the courts generally tend to review decisions if 1) the proper process was followed, 2) there was appropriate public participation, and 3) the alternatives considered and decisions made were not “arbitrary and capricious.”

In other words, the agency must have a logical basis for its decisions following public input. As a standard, that’s not bad!

Hartnett White: Here’s the rub

The White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees the implementation of NEPA. It issues and interprets NEPA rules and regulations and reviews and approves NEPA procedures in agencies. So it matters who is running the show. Is it someone who will put public health and environmental protection first, or someone who will sideline science in favor of industry? Is it someone who truly believes in the public process and the opportunity for different perspectives and interests to be at the table, or only the most deep-pocketed players?  Is it someone who will staff the office with people who understand and support the statutory missions of the agencies or people from regulated industries who have been vocal critics of NEPA, regulatory protections, and the agencies they will oversee?

Do we want the chief environmental quality advisor in the White House to be someone who views carbon dioxide as a harmless and beneficial gas rather than a proven climate pollutant? Who sees “global warming” as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites.”  Who has tight and profitable connections with the fossil fuel industry? If yes, then Kathleen Hartnett White is the person for the job.  President Trump certainly thinks so.

With federal promises to address our aging infrastructure in the offing, you may find yourself with a newfound interest in this somewhat arcane, often lengthy, and sometimes contentious process. As well as exceedingly grateful for a functioning NEPA and a CEQ that puts public interest first.

My worry is that powerful private interests will persuade their friends in the administration to “streamline” (read: WEAKEN) NEPA protections and processes. And a willing CEQ with Hartnett White at the helm will be instrumental in the process.

If you’re worried too, call on your senator (you can reach him or her via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) to oppose the confirmation of Kathleen Hartnett White!

On Climate Change, a Major Public Health Conference Stands in Stark Contrast to the Trump Administration

Our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—begins its 2017 conference on November 4. Photo: Courtesy of APHA

The Trump administration may be hell-bent on sidelining any effort to address global climate change—or even have an intelligent conversation about it—but the public health community is having none of it. 

Public health experts know full well that climate change is an existential threat to people’s health, safety, and security. So much so that our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—declared 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health.

“We’re committed to making sure the nation knows about the effects of climate change on health. If anyone doesn’t think this is a severe problem, they are fooling themselves.”  APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, in The Washington Post

The organization is also ready to host its annual meeting. Attended by thousands of public health professionals from around the country, the theme of this year’s meeting is Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health.

I’m struck by the enormous disconnect between what is happening in our nation’s capital and what’s happening in the community of public health experts. There is quite a gulf on so many issues—from gun violence, reproductive health, exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and worker safety to minimum wage and health disparities.

But let’s cut to the chase and talk about climate change.

Sidelining climate change: A round-up of recent Trump administration actions

We all know where President Trump stands on climate change; we knew it well before he took office. His suggestion that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese is maybe his most memorable tweet on the issue, but he’s followed up this nonsense with real action—perhaps best personified in the successful nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. And then fulfilling his promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Followed by fossil-friendly Pruitt announcing his intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan.

And they are just getting started, using every tool in the toolbox.

Here is a quick round-up of the administration’s efforts to seriously sideline climate change – just over the past couple of weeks.

Keeping climate change front and center: A look at the APHA public health conference

Public health scientists and practitioners have been raising the alarm about climate change and its impacts on human health for years (see for example, here, here, here, here, and here). And just this week, the Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, released a report on climate change and health, noting that its  impacts are “far worse than previously understood.”

This year’s APHA annual meeting stands in stark contrast to the control, alt, delete strategy we see coming out of Washington. I’ve done a quick scan of the upcoming APHA program and its keynote addresses, panel presentations, scientific sessions, posters, group gatherings, and continuing education offerings that are in store for the thousands of public health professionals and advocates who will be attending next week’s meeting.

Here’s just a snapshot of the breadth and depth of the discussions that will be happening.

  • Opening Plenary Session: Climate Changes Health
  • President’s Session: Climate Change and Health: The 21st Century Challenge
  • Global Faith and Health Perspectives on Climate Change: An Interfaith Celebration
  • Climate Change and its Impact on African Americans (Poster)
  • Climate Change and Vulnerable Populations
  • Nature and Human Health: Vectors and Climate Change
  • Climate Change and the Medical Care System
  • Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness
  • Climate Change Denial: Who Will Suffer Most and First?
  • Climate Change and the Possible Effects on Arbovirus Transmission in the Americas
  • Reproductive Health and Carbon Footprints
  • Climate Change and Health in Epidemiological Research
  • Climate Change, Energy, and Heat: Implications for Human Health
  • Climate-friendly Farming: A Public Health Imperative
  • Climate Change and Children’s Health
  • Ethics, Environmental Justice, and Climate Change
  • Climate and Geospatial Determinants of Health
  • Best Practices of Policy Initiatives at the Local and Community Level to Address Climate Change

On Sunday, I’m heading to Atlanta to attend the annual meeting. It’s something I look forward to every year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from across the country; hear about new findings, issues, and initiatives from public health researchers and practitioners; share and test ideas; peruse new books, products, and educational resources in the popular exhibit hall (while picking up a couple of free tchotchkies and an occasional apple or piece of candy); and then come home with renewed energy and new friends.

APHA is a vibrant, active, and diverse community and, for me, the meeting helps recharge my battery. It’s like an annual booster shot. And this year’s booster is all about climate change.

Trust and listen to the public health community, not the Trump administration

There is real leadership here—and it’s not coming out of Washington.

The public health community, with far less capacity and significantly fewer resources than our federal government, is WAAAY ahead when it comes to understanding, exploring, planning, managing, advising, educating, and otherwise addressing climate change.

We can count on this community (my community) to put public health, public safeguards, and public protections first—including those focused on climate change. These experts come from every state in the nation and can bring voices and expertise to bear at every level of government.

We will come out of Atlanta next week more prepared and committed than ever to speak up, speak out, and hold our leaders accountable for failing to address this existential threat.

APHA members and public health supporters participate in the March for Science on April 22. Photo: David Fouse/APHA

Scott Pruitt’s EPA Grant Ban Doesn’t Apply to States or Tribes. Here’s Why That’s Interesting.

This afternoon, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that nobody who receives an EPA grant should be allowed to provide scientific advice to the agency. Yep—those scientists, the ones that the EPA thinks do the most promising research related to public health and the environment? Their advice isn’t welcome anymore. We’ve written a lot about how this represents a major step in the political takeover of science advice at EPA.

Except! The ban doesn’t apply to states or tribes who receive government funding. Why would that be? Pruitt believes that anyone who gets millions of dollars from the government must have an agenda to impose regulations on the American people. Why wouldn’t this apply to states and tribes? Let’s go deep in the heart of Texas.

According to its own data, the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) received $58,273,661.63 from the EPA in 2016. Michael Honeycutt is the lead toxicologist at TCEQ, a state agency that often acts as more of an advocate for the refineries that do business in the state than the environment it is charged with protecting. The American Chemistry Council and the Texas Oil and Gas Association love Dr. Honeycutt so much that they labored unsuccessfully to get him appointed to the board in 2016.

In a press conference earlier this afternoon, Scott Pruitt suggested that the millions that university scientists had received in grant funding should make them ineligible to provide science advice to the agency. And then, in virtually the next breath, he turned around and appointed Dr. Honeycutt to chair the board. Not just a participant. THE CHAIR.

So, then, millions of dollars of government funding is A-OK.

Just as long as you’re giving the administrator the information he wants.

No wonder the American Association for the Advancement of Science was livid, noting that, “policymaking cannot thrive when policymakers use politics as a pretext to attack scientific objectivity.”

Scott Pruitt Deals Yet Another Blow to Independent Science Advice at the EPA

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia)

Before September, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was composed of 47 scientists volunteering their time as public servants to help advise the agency on issues ranging from the safety of selected chemicals to the types of models used by the agency to sufficiently study emissions.

The process of becoming an SAB member has always come with full ethics disclosures and careful consideration of potential conflicts of interest, from all sources of funding, whether it’s an EPA grant or industry funding. Scientists with agency funding have served on the board ever since the SAB was first formed, and because EPA grants are awarded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process, the objectivity of scientists with EPA grant funding was not likely to be questioned. SAB members with conflicts pertaining to specific subjects have mitigated those by disclosing them and recusing themselves from conversations that might represent a conflict.

After nearly 40 years of operation, it appears that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to change the rules of the SAB and possibly other advisory committees at the agency by ordering that no individuals receiving EPA grant funding can serve on the board. Why would the administrator of an agency whose mission is to protect public health and the environment actively work to ensure that some of our greatest minds wouldn’t be allowed to advise him on pressing scientific questions? No need to ask Pruitt, just ask his friends from the regulated community who have been working to turn conflict of interest on its head at the agency in the name of “balance.”

Trade group gets warm and fuzzy about “balance”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, under which federal advisory committees operate, requires that committees are “fairly balanced,” and it’s up to the agency to determine what that means for each committee. For the EPA SAB, the 2017 charter and membership balance plan explicitly say that balance involves a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.” For the SAB and CASAC, balance should not be a balance of opinions or interests in the EPA’s policy outcomes. The American Chemistry Council and other industry representatives disagree.

In March, the American Chemistry Council endorsed the EPA SAB Reform Act, writing, “The Science Advisory Board Reform Act would improve the peer review process—a critical component of the scientific process used by EPA in their regulatory decisions about potential risks to human health or the environment. The Act would make peer reviewers accountable for responding to public comment, strengthen policies to address conflicts of interest, ensure engagement of a wide range of perspectives of qualified scientific experts in EPA’s scientific peer review panels and increase transparency in peer review reports.” The press contact on this release? Liz Bowman. Yes, the same Liz Bowman who is now a spokeswoman at the EPA. A cherry on top of the revolving door sundae.

After the bill passed the House in March, the ACC wrote again, “We urge the Senate to take up the bill and are committed to working with Congress to advance legislation that will enhance accountability and ensure appropriate balance in EPA’s peer review process.”

In May, the American Chemistry Council responded to Pruitt’s dismissal of BOSC members by saying, “A number of people and groups have been concerned in the past the membership of EPA’s scientific advisory boards lacked diversity: diversity of interests, diversity of scientific disciplines, and diversity of backgrounds, resulting in a narrow or biased perspective concerning issues EPA was researching,” Openshaw said. “Everyone benefits when regulations are based on the best available science.”

After the nominees were announced in September, the Heartland Institute told E&E news that: “We applaud any effort by Administrator Pruitt to bring qualified non-alarmist scientists onto the EPA’s advisory boards. There is a vigorous debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, and it’s vital that EPA acknowledge that fact and have a more balanced approach to the agency’s rule-making.”

Administrator Pruitt parroted these same arguments in his announcement on the impending SAB decision made at a recent Heritage Foundation event.

What’s in store for the SAB?

The new SAB will consist of five fewer members than it did before, operating with 42 instead of 47 members. According to its new charter, it will also meet fewer times, 6-8 instead of 8-10 each year. While there may be representation from more states in the name of diversity, the number of women scientists on the committee has been slashed by half from nearly 21 to just 10. The decision not to renew the terms of six individuals who had already been fully vetted and were qualified to serve again also breaks with precedent. Additionally, rather than appoint a current SAB member as chair as has been done in the past, it appears that Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will be leading this new board’s deliberations. Honeycutt was one of the individuals I urged Pruitt not to choose last month. Clearly, that plea fell on deaf ears.

The number of industry representatives on the SAB has more than doubled, which doesn’t include the individuals from consulting firms or state governments who have long histories of working very closely with the private sector.

New member Donald van der Vaart wrote an op-ed in 2015 criticizing the North Carolina Attorney General for his support of the Clean Power Plan, which van der Vaart called an “act of overreach” and “federal intrusion.” He supported Myron Ebell as a suitable leader to run the EPA transition team. He later wrote a letter to President-elect Trump, alleging that the EPA has “run out of control,” is “agenda-driven” and an “autocrat.”

Also on the list are S. Stanley Young and Richard Smith, two of the co-authors on this paper, whose thinking on air pollution science is far outside the mainstream, ignoring long-held and understood concepts about air pollution and health risks.

The American Chemistry Council achieved its request for so-called “balance” to include more industry perspectives on the board, and gained an inside look at the SAB, as long-time staffer Kimberly White will also be a member.

These individuals are likely to dramatically skew science advice to the EPA in a way that will support Pruitt’s decisions to loosen pollution regulations and emissions standards. A hit on the quality of science advice at the EPA is a direct threat to our health and safety.

Fixing advisory committees to reach predetermined conclusions

Last week we introduced the plays of the Disinformation Playbook, often used by companies and trade associations to manipulate or suppress science in order to achieve a specific policy outcome. The way in which Scott Pruitt is stacking the Science Advisory Board to manipulate the science advice process is an example of “The Fix.” Unfortunately, we’ve already seen several examples of this play used by the likes of Dow Chemical Co. and the American Chemistry Council to cast doubt on the science to delay or obstruct public health and safety provisions just within the EPA in the past year.

In light of this blatant attack on independent science at the EPA, we’re calling on Congress to conduct oversight at the agency and to investigate Scott Pruitt’s actions with the SAB, CASAC, and BOSC as potential interference in the scientific process.

New Bill Puts Environmental Justice Right Where It Belongs: Front and Center

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

One of the most satisfying aspects of working for the Union of Concerned Scientists is that I get to help amplify and support the demands of environmental justice and other climate-vulnerable communities in their quest to obtain equitable protection under law from environmental hazards.

As a person of color, I am proud to see UCS partnering with environmental justice communities like t.e.j.a.s., Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice. We’re helping research, document, amplify, offer policy advice on, and in some cases litigate, the ways in which environmental injustices disproportionately expose low-income communities of color to dangerous toxic chemicals, climate change, water and air pollution, to name a few.

That’s why I am excited to announce UCS’ endorsement of the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, S. 1996/ H.R. 4114, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Raúl Ruiz (D-CA). It is important to recognize that this legislation was developed by Senator Booker and Congressman Ruiz working directly with grassroots environmental justice advocates.

The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 not only codifies Executive Order 12898 and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC); it places environmental justice at the forefront of our governmental considerations for permitting, development, and data gathering. The act mandates that maps and tools to assess environmental inequities be made publicly available at all times and requires the consideration of cumulative impacts in federal and state permitting decisions, making sure no community will be overburdened by, for example, petrochemical refineries or other toxic pollution sources. The bill also codifies environmental justice in the National Environmental Policy Act and increases data collection efforts of environmental hazards in vulnerable communities.

If the EJ Act of 2017 is implemented, communities will be given more opportunity for input on what facilities and pollution are allowed in their neighborhoods. Each agency would be required to receive comments by community members on design and implementation of research strategies. There is also a new method of redress for communities, and individual citizens will be able to file a private right to action for discriminatory practices under the Civil Rights Act.

In a time when the administration is rolling back environmental justice and environmental protection, UCS is glad to support the efforts of Senator Booker and Representative Ruiz to make sure that the environmental and public health of our nation is equitably distributed.

Pruitt Rejects Advice from Independent Scientists Based on False Premises

This week Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to issued a new directive, following up on his speech at the Heritage Foundation, that bans scientists with EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory committee (see coverage here ). I want to share my perspective as a scientist who has served on numerous boards and panels advising government.

Mr. Pruitt’s rationale for making this decision rests on a set of false premises about science, grants and even the role of advisory boards. Given his record as administrator so far, this move is not surprising, but it is still damaging. In effect it means that the head of the agency is explicitly turning his back on independent science to guide his decisions.

“Balance” is needed in science advice: false

Mr. Pruitt seems to believe that a science advisory board needs a balance of opinions, as if it is a political body. In my experience as a science advisor, that’s not the job. The role of a science board is not to negotiate among different interest groups.

Boards exist to evaluate scientific evidence. The only balance needed is among different types of scientific expertise. Scientists can come from any sector, but there is no balance needed between their home institutions. This is even explicit in the EPA SAB’s 2017 Membership Balance Plan and Charter, which defines balance as members providing a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.”

There are many other steps in the process of deciding on a public policy option that enable interest groups such as industry, state and local governments, tribal governments, public interest organizations or affected residents to present their views. But the scientific evidence is not the place to incorporate those views and attempt to “balance” them. The weight of any piece of scientific evidence, and therefore advice, is a technical matter, not a political one.

Scientists who receive grants from the agency are conflicted: false

The fundamental premise of Pruitt’s action is that independent scientists (e.g. from universities or other research institutions) that receive grants from the agency ALL have an inherent conflict of interest that means their scientific views cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those who work for regulated industries with a direct financial stake in specific public policies shouldn’t be viewed as conflicted necessarily. This makes no sense. It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head and misconstrues how grants work.

Research grants result from the agency putting out a general call for proposals on a topic that is important to the (usually long-term) work of the agency. Scientists submit proposals for research within the topic. They do not promise specific results. Rather, the researchers propose how new evidence will be obtained using appropriate scientific methods.

A grant proposal is evaluated by other scientists, usually from inside and outside the agency, for the appropriateness of the research questions, methods and likely usefulness of the knowledge developed for increasing understanding of how the world works. Proposals are ranked based on these criteria and then the program within the agency that issued the call for proposals makes a decision on which grants to fund based on the rankings and the resources available. It would be unusual and inappropriate for agency political staff to intervene in decisions on which proposals to fund.

When Mr. Pruitt says some researchers have received “millions of dollars” he is falsely giving the impression that the agency is shelling out big bucks for a scientist’s loyalty. It doesn’t work that way.

Grant funds are primarily used to support graduate students and research fellows or staff, as well as laboratory or field work. While some salary support may be covered for an faculty member, it isn’t some huge income driver for most.

The agency is not “buying” an opinion. It is supporting new research. The results may support, undermine or have no impact on agency decisions. So how can that possibly be a conflict of interest? It isn’t. Perhaps in Mr. Pruitt’s world, as he is an attorney, one only pays for a known opinion and you never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. But that isn’t how science works.

Why only grants to academic scientists?

Mr. Pruitt’s directive is nothing if not half-baked, like a cookie you really shouldn’t eat. He only refers to grants to university scientists it seems. But what about grants to states or tribes? Does that mean all of their scientists should be precluded from serving as advisors? Those grants are much larger than research grants. And what about contracts for services? Should all those scientists be precluded? Or what about industry scientists that are co-investigators on grants? Are they out too? Just where is it that he thinks his science advice should come from?

I suppose it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Administrator Pruitt really would prefer not to have any science advice. After all, he has already indicated that the budget for science advisory boards should be cut way back so that few meetings can be held. Now he wants to eliminate from consideration most of the scientists in the country who have expertise on the issues confronting the agency. I suppose that not weighing the scientific evidence would make decisions like the one he made to not ban a dangerous pesticide easier to justify. And it would fit in well with the industry playbook effort to cast doubt on science to avoid public health and safety protections.

But in the spirit of Halloween, I must ask, what is so scary about independent science? Really Mr. Pruitt, it won’t hurt you to save some lives by relying on science.

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

The EPA Science Advisory Board Is Being Compromised. Here’s Why That Matters.

The capture of the EPA by the industries it is supposed to regulate is expected to take another step forward as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is poised to compromise the integrity of the EPA Science Advisory Board.

Multiple sources inside and outside of EPA are reporting that Administrator Pruitt will purge independent scientists from EPA scientific advisory committees, appoint industry-tied representatives with views well outside the scientific mainstream in their place, shrink the size and scope of the Science Advisory Board, and issue a directive that prevents scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the board in the future. Doing so would effectively implement legislation that would politicize EPA science advice that Congress has repeatedly declined to pass.

Such a move bans some independent scientists from providing scientific advice while giving those with conflicts a free pass. Collectively, these actions create an abhorrent double standard: scientists who rely on public funding are left out, while industry scientists face no restrictions on service. Fossil fuel and chemical companies already enjoy undue influence over EPA policy under Pruitt. Now, they’re taking control over science advice to the agency.

“This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to try to exclude sound scientific expertise from these advisory committees, and is consistent with efforts to pack these committees with non-science-based interests,” Mark Wiesner, a Duke University civil and environmental engineer who sits on the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, told Chemistry World.

When independent science advice at EPA is compromised, decisions that sufficiently protect public health become less likely.

By a back-of-the-envelope analysis, roughly half of current board members receive EPA funding. EPA grants are funded on the basis of merit and promise. Recipients tend to be the most knowledgeable experts on the issues that the EPA is supposed to address: protecting our air and water from environmental and public health threats.

Nothing good happens when independent experts are replaced by people who have financial incentives to skew the scientific analysis in the direction of the companies they represent. This decision would mean that scientists will be forced to choose between seeking out an EPA grant or eventually lending their expertise to volunteer as a public servant and advise EPA on technical questions.

While this post focuses on the EPA Science Advisory Board, the same rules will likely apply to the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and other critical EPA science advisory committees.

What the Science Advisory Board does

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) was created by Congress to provide impartial science advice. It doesn’t make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out.

Before this year, the Science Advisory Board toiled away in relative obscurity. It dutifully answered scientific questions on emerging and established topics. Scores of scientists have served on the board, for free, as part of their commitment to public service. A few selected highlights:

In 2012, the board wrote this report after conducting interviews with EPA staff to develop advice on how the EPA can strengthen scientific assessments for decision making. The report had been requested by Administrator Stephen Johnson, who served in the George W. Bush administration.

In 2013, the SAB gave the EPA advice on which model to use as it evaluates the health effects of perchlorate, a chemical that can cause cancer and reproductive health and hormonal problems. This advice was used by the agency to help create a standard for perchlorate in water that is currently being considered by the agency.

The Science Advisory Board can also be important to rooting out political interference in science. In 2016, the board found that the EPA’s claims that fracking led to “no widespread impacts” on drinking water supplies was not supported by the best available science. Evidence at the time suggested that the agency had softened its scientists’ conclusions when presenting them in report materials. This, under the Obama administration, which some believed was hostile to fossil fuel extraction. The science advisers were essential to setting the record straight.

Don’t be fooled by appeals to “balance”

In the lead up to the announcement, we have heard predictable arguments from Administrator Pruitt. Let’s take them in turn:

The Science Advisory Board should have more “balance.” This argument fundamentally misrepresents the role of a science advisory committee. Members don’t sit around having discussions about politics or policy. Their work is to evaluate the state of the science, not to negotiate stakeholders’ viewpoints.

Science isn’t about providing equal time for different viewpoints. It is about methods and evidence. Science advisers are not representatives of a constituency or a sector; they are there because they possess specific expertise.

What really should matter is a diversity of expertise, as the board is asked to consider all kinds of scientific questions. “Pruitt would not know a conflict of interest if it slapped him in the face,” said Lawrence Lash, who advises the EPA on chemicals. “Having grant money from the EPA has absolutely nothing to do with advising the EPA on the underlying science.”

The board has been a “rubber stamp” for agency decisions. The Science Advisory Board does not have authority over agency decisions. They do have the ability to determine whether draft policies are supported by the best available evidence. Further, if agency decisions are not scientifically defensible, they can be challenged in court.

The views of scientists who receive “millions” of dollars from the EPA are suspect. There are so many inaccurate implications in just this one assertion. First, most funding pays for equipment, support staff, students, and scientific materials, not to pad a scientist’s wallet. In general, industry scientists get paid significantly more than those who receive public funding.

The move to exclude independent scientists from providing advice to the EPA is part of a greater pattern of corporate capture of the agency.

Second, there is no incentive for an EPA grant-funded scientist to have a particular view on science advisory board decisions. In fact, it isn’t clear what this would even mean.

EPA grants are given to scientists to further scientific understanding of a particular research topic. Science advisory boards give advice on the use of science in EPA decisions. These are often entirely different realms. If a scientist received a grant to study multi-pollutant interactions and their health impacts, does that mean they would be incentivized to say that EPA was or wasn’t following the science on the drinking water impacts of fracking?

Grants and SAB decisions are often on divergent topics and scopes. Even if a scientist wanted to come up with science advice that pleased EPA, it isn’t clear what that would be. Current or future funding is in no way correlated with a scientist’s work with the advisory board.

Third, scientists who receive EPA grants tend to be those with the most expertise on topics. Excluding such scientists means that the agency won’t be getting the best science advice.

(Historically) what happens when an advisory committee is stacked with conflicted experts?

Politicized advisory committees end up giving bad advice, agency decisions suffer, and legal challenges to rules and regulations are more likely to prevail. According to a former Science Advisory Board member:

“Over the past 35 years I have served on numerous federal scientific advisory panels, including EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and many committees and boards of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. In my view, the history of past purges shows that stacking the deck with like-minded advocates is self-defeating. That’s true whether those advocates come from industry or nongovernmental organizations–and especially if they represent only one political party.

“Recommendations from these “friendly” panels will not win broad support from the scientific community, and I predict the committees will quickly lose their credibility, legitimacy and influence. Consequently, policies and regulations based on the panels’ recommendations will be less likely to withstand public or political scrutiny and be more open to legal challenges than if they were based on more balanced input.”

The new restrictions mean that the most qualified scientists will be left out of the process. In their place will be those who will be more likely to remain silent or attempt to provide cover for decisions that are not grounded in evidence. While over the long term this process may be self-correcting, in the short term we will all suffer from a less effective Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s all consistent with a hostile takeover of science-based policymaking: those with true conflicts of interest are exerting control over not only staff positions but also the independent entities who are there to provide science advice. Without public protections that are fully informed by independent science, more people will die and get sick, and our quality of life will suffer. We should do all we can—including challenging the new directive in court—to prevent Administrator Pruitt from excluding independent scientific advice from the work of the EPA.

The Spookiest Halloween Costume of 2017: The Fossil Fuel Company Executive

Halloween is here, and we have a lot to be spooked about when it comes to the future role of science in this country. In addition to the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on science, companies are now enjoying greater access to decisionmakers than they’ve ever had. And no industry has capitalized on inappropriate access to decisionmakers more than the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, with very little accountability, the industry has deceived the public and policymakers, and enjoyed friendly policies from decisionmakers with clear conflicts of interest.

To recap, this isn’t only a Trump-era phenomenon. Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their products contribute to global warming, while they’ve led and funded disinformation campaigns to squash sensible climate policies. Nowadays, though, the tactics are often more elaborate than simple climate denial. These days, some fossil fuel companies are acknowledging climate change—and even their role in it—on the surface, while carrying on business as usual behind closed doors.

For instance, while ExxonMobil publicly urged the US to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, it also continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),which called Paris a “bad deal”, and other anti-climate lobbying groups. And the company has yet to release a plan to align its business with the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming under 2C, despite demands from its own shareholders and the public. It’s the same old tactics we’ve always seen, only this time with a mask over it.

The Disinformation Playbook is the Fossil Fuel Industry Playbook

To help unpack the many ways that companies undermine the use of science in decisionmaking on climate policy and beyond, this week the Union of Concerned Scientists released the Disinformation Playbook. The playbook showcases five plays that industry runs, and the fossil fuel industry in particular has been complicit in all of them:

  • The Fake – Conduct counterfeit science and try to pass it off as legitimate research
  • The Blitz – Harass scientists who share results inconvenient to industry
  • The Diversion – Manufacture uncertainty about science where little exists
  • The Screen – Buy credibility by building alliances with academic institutions or scientific societies
  • The Fix – Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy
A Deceptive Halloween: The Fossil Fuel Industry Executive

To help you scare all your friends this Halloween, we put together everything you’ll need for the spookiest costume of the season: fossil fuel industry executive!

1. Briefcase full of money

This prop is to pay trade groups, front groups, and political candidates to do your bidding against climate science and policy. Such arrangements are very convenient for you as you can dissociate your company’s brand from all the anti-climate lobbying you are doing.

To show just how effective this strategy can be, let’s look at company versus trade group positions on climate action.  While some major fossil fuel companies publicly support policy actions to curb carbon emissions, they also fund trade groups to fight climate mitigation efforts at every turn. ALEC proclaimed, “The Paris Climate Agreement is a bad deal for America.” The National Association of Manufacturers criticized the Clean Power Plan, citing its “failure to incorporate potential benefits associated with increased temperatures,” and the group joined the federal lawsuit opposing the plan. The American Petroleum Institute has continued to emphasize climate uncertainties, part of its long history of communicating climate science disinformation to deliberately cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science.

Shareholders too have noticed this lack of transparency between fossil fuel companies and their ties to other groups. In 2017 Exxon and Chevron shareholders voted in large numbers to demand that these companies disclose their direct and indirect lobbying activities and expenses. Currently companies can operate almost in the dark when it comes to their lobbying and support for third-party groups — spooky!

2. Smug disregard for the wellbeing of the planet and its people

Fossil fuel companies have made it clear, especially in recent times, just how little they care about protecting people from the threats of climate change. In fact, they often don’t even appear to be protecting themselves from climate impacts or preparing for future changes in climate.

For starters, oil companies often fail to disclose details about the climate-related risks they face. The recent impacts of Hurricane Harvey show us what is at risk when it comes to oil and gas infrastructure and extreme storms and flooding. Several facilities around Houston sustained serious damage that adversely affected surrounding communities and first responders. At an Exxon refinery in Beaumont, Harvey damaged a sulfur thermal oxidizer, releasing 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide—far exceeding the company’s permit allowance. The company’s response? “No impact to the community has been reported.”

Also of concern: none of the major fossil fuel compan ies have a real plan to operate under a two degrees C scenario, the goal set by the Paris Agreement (which they publicly supported); they are clearly not planning for real greenhouse gas reductions or the safety of life on our planet. Worse, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Total SA even funded a report attacking the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure recommendations, which offered ways companies could better prepare and disclose on climate.

3. Scheduler to keep track of your meetings with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt:

If you’ve followed the activities of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt at all, you’ll know that fossil fuel interests have ample opportunity to meet with a new EPA head sympathetic to their needs. Pruitt’s schedule shows that his daily planner is jam-packed with industry group meetings. With his new sound-proof box, the administrator is also free to have confidential phone calls with all his industry friends.  Currently, the EPA is also being stacked with other staff with direct ties to the fossil fuel industry.  EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman (who recently told off the New York Times rather than provide information to the media like a public servant is charged to do) came from American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association that also brought scientist Nancy Beck to the EPA to rewrite chemical safety rules to be more industry friendly.  Michael Dourson is another industry puppet who’s been nominated for a top spot at EPA and has worked extensively sowing doubt for the petrochemical industries. This slate of characters is now in charge of an agency they spent years trying to dismantle.  I’m afraid now they are free to act like unsupervised children in front of a “please take one” bowl of candy. They are slowly taking the agency down from the inside, and ensuring that fossil fuel companies aren’t hit with any pesky climate-friendly regulations.

But let’s not stay spooked

While much of this is our unfortunate reality, there is much we can and must do to fight back against the deception and inappropriate influence that the fossil fuel industry has over our decisionmakers. We must remember that public servants and elected officials work for us, the public, not the fossil fuel industry. We must demand accountability, transparency, and policies that protect people not profits. But in the meantime, have a happy Halloween, however you choose to be spooked.

 

Spectrum of Harm: Ripple Effects of Trump’s Macabre Environmental Policies

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

The front pages of last Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times starkly exposed how concerned citizens, fearful immigrants, and career scientists alike are smothered by the Trump administration’s macabre environmental policies.

Worming through the EPA

The Times zeroed in on Nancy Beck’s voracious worming through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of dangerous chemicals and poisons. She is figuratively trying to eat enough holes in the rules to make chemicals harder to track and control and therefore shielding polluters from prosecution.

Beck is the former regulatory science policy director of the American Chemistry Council and was appointed by President Trump in May as deputy assistant secretary in the EPA’s department of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection. Before the American Chemistry Council, she served in the George W. Bush White House, where she badgered the EPA in such a picayune manner for proof of chemical harms that she was criticized by the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences.

During President Obama’s tenure, Beck performed the same function for the nation’s leading chemical lobbyist, questioning regulation on arsenic and other chemicals used in perfumes and dry cleaning. But Trump’s election turned the world upside down. Beck was brought back by his White House under special provisions that exempted her from ethics rules that would have prevented her from being involved in decisions involving former employers.

She has since wasted no time declaring herself a puppet of industry instead of a searchlight for safety.

Weakened rules on a kidney cancer-causing chemical and other harmful toxins

The Times highlighted Beck’s heavy hand in weakening rules on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a kidney cancer-causing agent that many large companies, including BASF, 3M, and DuPont, volunteered to phase out during the Obama administration. PFOA is present in such common items as nonstick kitchenware and stain-resistant carpeting.

But even with a total phase out, that chemical remains in millions of cabinets and on millions of floors around the nation. Beck’s rewriting of rules made it seem that the EPA would no longer make risk assessments on “legacy” use of products containing PFOA or their storage or disposal. That so alarmed staffers at the EPA’s Office of Water that they wrote a memo, obtained by the Times,  warning that PFOA’s potential to continue to pollute drinking water and ground water remains so strong that it “is an excellent example of why it is important to evaluate all conditions of use of the chemical.”

PFOA is only one of several chemicals that the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, with Beck as a relatively little-known henchwoman, are limiting scrutiny on to protect industry. Before Beck arrived, the Trump EPA had already refused—over the objection of staff scientists—to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide believed to stunt child development. The agency, as the Times reports, is also re-considering proposed bans of methylene chloride in paint strippers and trichloroethylene, which respectively are used in paint strippers and dry cleaning and are linked to illness and death.

A relentless assault

This relentless assault is remaking the EPA into the Everyday Pollution Agency and has reached such a pitch under President Trump that Beck’s immediate boss, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, left the agency last month after 38 years with the agency. Hamnett supported the ban on chlorpyrifos and had a long track record of elevating public health impacts into her consideration of chemical harms, particularly on lead paint in homes. As she told the Times, science can rarely be 100 percent sure about anything but if a chemical is “likely to be a severe effect and result in a significant number of people exposed . . . I am going to err on the side of safety.”

With a White House that now errs on the side of industry, Hamnett told the Times that she resigned because, “I had become irrelevant.”

“You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze”

A Trump administration dedicated to making science and scientists irrelevant surely has worse in store for everyone else. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services released a report revealing how low-income residents and people of color regardless of income are more likely to live near toxic chemical facilities in the Houston area.

The Post’s story on Corpus Christi shows that the worst is happening already. For decades, the predominately African American and Latino community of Hillcrest has abutted a massive oil refinery complex that includes a gasoline production facility for Citgo and a Koch brothers plant making jet fuel for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

One resident, 56-year-old Rosie Ann Porter, retired from a job supplying helicopter parts, told the Post that her daughter grew up with serious asthma. Other neighbors complained of other chronic lung diseases. Porter said,  “You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze coming through the house. When they’re up and the refinery’s spilling out those fumes, it’s nothing nice.”

In a solid example of environmental justice reporting that displayed the agency of residents, the Post made it clear that the residents refused to succumb to the fumes without many fights. But victories were fleeting. A federal jury found Citgo guilty in 2007 of spewing benzine, a known carcinogen, into the community. The company was fined $2 million, but the verdict and fine were completely overturned on appeals, based on improper instructions to the jury. A report last year by the Department of Health and Human Services found higher rates of asthma and cancer in males than the Texas average.

Living in the shadows of soot

More recently, Hillcrest rose up against a massive proposed $500 million bridge spanning high above the Corpus Christi shipping channel. The bridge would allow supertankers to ply beneath it, but construction of the span and a highway addition would completely box in and isolate Hillcrest from any other neighborhood.

Citing civil rights laws and banking on support from an Obama administration sympathetic to the history of highway projects ripping apart communities of color, Porter and other Hillcrest residents filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration. The complaint resulted in an unusual compromise in 2015. Texas officials were so eager to increase commerce that they agreed to buyout residents at two or three times their average home value of around $50,000.

That victory came with some major asterisks. One is that the buyouts still may never fully compensate residents for home values that were depressed for decades because of the encroaching refineries. Another is that undocumented residents, whom the Obama administration assumed were eligible for buyouts under nondiscrimination laws, were cut out of the deal by Texas once the Trump administration took over with its anti-Latino immigrant animus. No one knows how many undocumented families are affected because a public complaint might result in deportation.

Thus one set of people, after decades of industrial abuse, are about to set off for other parts of Texas with a payout that may or may not help them buy new homes. Another set of people will continue to live fearfully in the shadows of soot. And in Washington, an administration continues to draw a shroud over all of environmental protections, working to the day that science and safety are, to borrow from Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, irrelevant.

#Sandy5: Will the Nation Act on Climate Change Reality?

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

The 29th of October marks the 5-year anniversary of when Hurricane Sandy first made landfall on the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. It comes at a time when Americans are reeling from the unprecedented hurricane season that devastated communities in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Lives were lost, homes destroyed, schools and hospitals among other essential services were interrupted, and energy, transportation and water systems and other infrastructure were fractured. Associated health challenges can be life threatening and have lingering mental health impacts. The ability of homeowners to handle the economic damages is in question given the level of destruction to homes and low take-up rate of flood insurance.  Many homeowners impacted by these hurricanes are falling behind on their mortgages.

Hurricane Harvey may have exposed to flooding more than 160 of EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory sites, 7 Superfund sites, and 30 facilities registered with EPA’s Risk Management Program.

The 2017 hurricane season recovery challenges will sound familiar to those communities who are remembering the devastation Hurricane Sandy wrought.  At that time, multiple weather systems collided and hit one of the most populated places in the mid-Atlantic region.  While the Obama Administration declared Federal disasters in 12 states and the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York felt the brunt of destruction. Communities lost 159 lives, had 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed and thousands of businesses were forced to close.

The climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy

Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Brigantine, NJ, it formed over the Caribbean where it developed into a Category 1 hurricane on October 23, 2012 followed by landfall the subsequent days near Kingston, Jamaica and then the southeastern part of Cuba and Haiti as a Category 2 hurricane. Experts spoke to the climate connection, here, here, and here, and since then we have gained even more ground on the climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy.

Scientists estimate that without climate change driven sea level rise, the footprint of Sandy would have been at least 10% less than observed in New York City, equivalent to $2 billion dollars of damages and an additional 11.4% people affected and 11.6% more housing units flooded.

Just this week, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published new science (reported on here) that finds flooding in New York City due to tropical cyclones will be more frequent and the flood heights will be higher because of rising sea levels. Using a worst-case scenario for sea level rise which combines the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change high-emissions scenario along with newer research on accelerated melting of Antarctic ice sheets, they find that sea level rise in New York City could reach from 3 to 8 feet by 2100 and “500-year” flood events could happen every five years.

UCS’s own analysis When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities looks at the entire coastline of the lower 48 states and identifies communities that will experience flooding so extensive and disruptive that it will require either expensive investments to fortify against rising seas or residents and businesses to prepare to abandon areas they call home.  We found that the extent of flooding associated with the storm surge event from Hurricane Sandy in 2100 under a high emissions scenario, would happen every other week. We also found that hundreds of communities could avoid this type of chronic inundation if we keep future warming below 2°C.  In New York curtailing future warming and sea level rise could spare two New York communities from chronic inundation by 2060 and three to 13 communities by the end of the century—including four boroughs of New York City.

Community recovery

Five years later what does recovery look like?  NJ Resources Project released The Long Road Home, a report that compiles stories by Sandy survivors, facts on the recovery process based on surveying 500 survivors, and local, state and federal recommendations.  It’s a sober reminder of the long road ahead the communities impacted by Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria face when it comes to recovery.

In a step in the right direction, this week NJ Governor Christie announced an additional $75 million for their Blue Acres buyout program for flooded homes to help move people to less risky areas. Buyouts are widely recognized as an essential flood risk resilience tool, but research postSandy has found that improvements can and need to  be made to ensure people truly are better off after the buyout. Additional research indicates we still have a lot to learn on how to do buyouts well, and hopefully the proposal the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reportedly considering will take these recommendations into account.

Community mobilization

Communities hit by Sandy know these realities all too well and they’re mobilizing and calling for action. A few examples include:

  • In NYC communities are mobilizing around #Sandy5 and will march in NYC on October 28 to demand action by their elected officials.
  • In New Jersey:
    • NJ Future convened the Shore of the Future symposium to underscore the need for a regional approach to coastal resilience as well as state actions the new governor can take in the face of climate change
    • Floodplain managers are convening for their 13th annual conference around changes under the Trump Administration to federal agencies and policies as well as the change that will come with the upcoming election of their new governor.

These efforts are a call to action at all levels government, but particularly the federal government. So what’s this Administration doing?

As warnings on climate change risks soar, the Trump administration’s actions place the nation in peril

The Sandy anniversary comes at a time when we not only could not imagine the 2017 hurricane season,  but we also could not have imagined the vast degree of President Trump’s roll backs on climate change policy including pulling the U.S out of the Paris Accord and repealing the Clean Power Plan.

In the first six months of this administration, UCS tracked the vast efforts to sideline science including stacking heads of federal agencies with climate deniers and appointing conflicted individuals to scientific leadership positions. One can argue that the Department of Defense is the last department where federal employees can speak to climate change.

Last month the watchdog for the federal government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their “high risk” report calling on the need for government-wide action is needed to reduce fiscal exposure to climate change by better managing climate change risks.  This week, GAO released a report on the economic costs of climate change and finds that without climate change in check, costs could be as high as $35 billion per year by mid-century while Zillow’s recent analysis finds that nearly 2 million U.S. homes could be underwater in 80 years if oceans rise 6 feet or higher by 2100.    GAO “high risk” 2017 report includes broad strategic recommendations as well as specific actions to:

  • Protect federal property and resources by federal agencies’ consistently implementing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (as well as other measures);
  • Under the federal flood and crop insurance programs, build climate resilience into the requirements for federal crop and flood insurance programs;
    • President Trump: released a piecemeal reform proposal to reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • Provide technical assistance to federal, state, local, and private-sector decision makers
    • President Trump: signed an executive order  revoking executive orders that helped prepare the nation for climate change; encourage private investment in reducing pollution; and ensure our national security plans consider climate change impacts.
  • Under disaster aid, adequately budget and forecast procedures to account for the costs of disasters.
Here’s what an effective national disaster response looks like

In recognition of the size and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy, in just over a month, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Led by Sec. of HUD, Secretary Donovan, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force brought together 23 federal agencies and local and state leaders from NY, NJ, CT MD, RI, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation. At the foundation of the task force report was the use of better science and technology to inform decisions in rebuilding efforts and recovery efforts. The task force recommendations included:

  • Promote resilient rebuilding based on current and future risk and through innovative ideas
  • Ensure a regionally coordinated, resilient approach to infrastructure investment
  • Providing affordable housing and protecting homeowners
  • Supporting small businesses and revitalizing local economies
  • Addressing insurance challenges, understanding and accessibility
  • Building local governments’ capacity to plan for long-term rebuilding and preparation for future disasters

Why is this approach a model response for federally declared disasters?  It’s a model that recognized a national response must bring the “whole of government” and communities together, including those who have been historically marginalized. At the core was the understanding that we must plan for the future based on the latest climate science and future conditions. The Task Force also fostered creative, comprehensive, innovative strategies to increase community resilience bringing in all sectors and types of infrastructure. The Task Force also understood that keeping small businesses’ lights on and building the capacity of local governments to plan for long-term rebuilding were both vital to sustaining local economies.

Congressional actions needed

This week the Senate approved $36.5 billion in disaster assistance which comes after a $15 billion disaster assistance package after Harvey and includes $18.7 billion to build up the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion to the National Flood Insurance Program as well as $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance and wildfire funding.

In contrast, after Sandy, in December of 2012, the administration submitted a $60.4 billion request for supplemental funding for disaster assistance and recovery.  In 2013 Congress approved Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 or the “Sandy relief bill” at $50.5 billion (as well as an additional $9.7 billion in new borrowing authority to NFIP).

As total cost estimates of damages are still coming in, we know the Congressional disaster relief packages to date are just a drop in the bucket. Towns, cities, and states cannot be left on their own to face the costs of increasing their communities’ resilience in the face of climate change.  After the battering one-two-three punch of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria and on the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Congress must come together on bipartisan actions in the near-term to:

  • Defend science by protecting federal agency budgets;
  • Pass legislation to reinstate the flood risk management standard to ensure federally funded infrastructure is “flood-ready”;
  • Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program to ensure risk based flood insurance rates as well as affordability of flood insurance, science informed flood maps that reflect risk and future conditions including climate change driven sea level rise, consumer protections, and robust pre-disaster mitigation measures that invest in innovative strategies to reduce risk through buy-out programs and nature-based solutions; and
  • Authorize the Department of Defense to invest in understanding and mitigating the risks climate change pose to our national security and our military installations and surrounding communities.

Will Congress take bipartisan action to pass these policies?

The jury is out but the sad reality is that it still won’t be sufficient to address the water that will come. In fact, as we make the case here, we must have a comprehensive strategy to:

  • phase out policies that encourage risky coastal activities;
  • bolster existing policies and funding;
  • and put forth bolder, comprehensive solutions to help communities retreat from risky areas.

 

 

 

New Jersey Resource Project

Science and Democracy Engages the Science of Democracy: The Kendall Voting Rights Fellowship

Photo: Peter Dutton/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

This fall, I am excited to help launch a new chapter in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ commitment to putting science to work toward building a healthier planet and a safer world. My research training is in the field of electoral systems and their impact on representation and public policy. I am most recently a co-author on the book Gerrymandering in America: The Supreme Court, the House of Representatives and The Future of Popular Sovereignty. As the new Kendall Voting Rights Fellow, I will be studying the impact of elections on many of the broader policy goals that UCS is pursuing.

In this context, a healthier and safer world means an open, resilient electoral system that can fairly and accurately convert aggregated preferences into policy choices. There are a number of opportunities where UCS can make an important contribution to improving voting rights and electoral institutions.

Fighting voter fraud and voter suppression

Perhaps no area in the field of voting rights has received more attention than President Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally to deny him a popular vote majority. The entire event serves as a painful reminder of how scientists can lose control over how their research is used. While we can say with absolute certainty that the president’s claim is false, there is no scientific consensus on how to best estimate levels of voter fraud.

We know that voter fraud occurs, but techniques for accurately estimating fraudulent votes cast, which lie somewhere between allegations and convictions, are difficult (but see discussions here and here). UCS will be working to provide the public and policy makers with the most accurate science available, and we will work with partner organizations to build safeguards that assure the integrity of voting for all who are eligible, especially those who are at risk of being disenfranchised through overly restrictive eligibility and voting requirements.

Similarly, there is a great deal of anecdotal information about the negative impact of voter suppression tactics. Previous scientific studies have shown that laws like voter identification have a negative impact on minority groups, but more recent work has been critiqued on methodological grounds. UCS will work to identify the participatory consequences of administrative laws ranging from early registration deadlines to online and automatic registration, early voting, and ballot access laws.

Improving policy outcomes through electoral integrity

When voting rights are compromised, it is typically because policy makers are attempting to insulate themselves from electoral pressure on critical policy issues. As we have seen in areas as diverse as climate policy, transportation, food systems and even global security, when policy makers are shielded from electoral accountability, they are more susceptible to the influence of powerful, narrow interests.

Scientists are in a unique position to bring policy expertise to questions regarding the consequences of restrictive election laws. In addition to assessing the extent to which our current electoral methods, including administrative law, electoral districting, and the Electoral College, create opportunities and threats to electoral integrity and security, we will work to identify how these methods impact legislative policymaking and social outcomes.

UCS already plays a crucial role in educating the public and combating environmental racism and public health risks. However, there is a gap in research exploring the link between electoral gamesmanship and the environmental and health injustices that afflict the most vulnerable communities. UCS can draw on expertise across numerous fields to help fill this gap.

In addition, analyses and research products on electoral integrity that UCS can provide will allow us to strengthen existing partnerships with communities dedicated to the advancement of environmental justice, political equality and human rights. From local communities to the U.S. Capitol, we will work with organizations to improve electoral integrity though the adoption of open and secure election laws.

Developing a reform agenda

An area that should be of particular interest to the UCS community and members of the Science Network is election information security and technology, a field where computer scientists have as much to say as political scientists. There is widespread agreement that not only are many of the nation’s voting machines outdated and vulnerable to hacking, but that cyber-attacks on election software and records will play an ever-increasing roll as a threat to electoral integrity.

Moreover, there is increasing evidence that the very structure of systems such as the Electoral College create security threats by focusing the attention of hackers and disinformation campaigns on a small number of states that can swing a presidential election. UCS will partner with advocacy organizations to analyze threats and innovations in election security, and advocate for evidence-based policies to address these threats.

And as this month’s landmark gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court also made clear, scientists are playing a major role in providing recommendations about how to determine racial and partisan discrimination in districting plans, and studying the consequences of proposed legislative remedies. In addition to identifying causes and remedies for electoral discrimination, UCS experts can help fill the gap of understanding how such discrimination affects environmental, health and related policies, which tend to negatively impact specific populations.

Rigorous analysis of the impact of electoral integrity on policy, and the ways that electoral discrimination impacts our quality of life, will provide critical support needed for reform. The challenges are clear, but so is the mission: to understand and engineer the democratic institutions that we need to build a healthier planet and a safer world.

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