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On EPA Scientific Integrity, Wall Street Journal is Short of Facts

An opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal misrepresents the facts about an annual meeting on scientific integrity at the EPA and the role of the EPA scientific integrity officer. Here are some details about what that meeting is and the role of federal agency scientific integrity officers. 

Scientific integrity at federal agencies

Let’s start with the basics. Scientific integrity policies were created at federal agencies in response to cases of political interference in science and the need for policies and practices that protect the role of science and scientists in the government. Now, 28 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies in place and many have scientific integrity officers that oversee the policy.

For example, the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy affirms these commonsense and noncontroversial expectations of all agency employees:

  • Ensure that the Agency’s scientific work is of the highest quality, free from political interference or personal motivations.
  • Represent his/her own work fairly and accurately.
  • Appropriately characterize, convey, and acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest and ensure impartiality.
  • Be cognizant of and understand the specific programmatic statutes that guide their work.
  • Welcome differing views and opinions on scientific and technical matters as a legitimate and necessary part of the scientific process.

At EPA, the scientific integrity officer oversees a committee comprised of federal agency scientists. This committee is empowered to investigate allegations of political interference; these allegations can come from anyone. For example, if a coal company thought that Obama administration officials were misrepresenting science in developing power plant rules, they could file a complaint and it would be investigated. If an environmental group thinks that scientific analysis was suppressed to justify an industry-friendly decision, they could file a complaint and it would be investigated.

Importantly and intentionally, the scientific integrity officer is a civil servant not a political appointee so that they can properly investigate inappropriate political influence over the use of science at the agency.

Importantly, the role of the scientific integrity policy (and officer) isn’t about policy at all. The scientific integrity officer does not have authority over the Clean Power Plan, or air pollution standards, or whether or not to protect the public from a toxic pesticide. Rather, the scientific integrity policy is in place to ensure that the science that goes into policy decisions is not suppressed, distorted, or manipulated, and that scientists who work for EPA are able to do their work free from political interference. With these policies in place and fully implemented, it is more likely that scientific information can effectively inform policy decisions. Again, that is just common sense.

And to be clear, ensuring scientific integrity is important no matter what political party is in charge. All modern presidents have politicized science in some way. Here, for example, is a sampling of scientific integrity criticisms I and my colleagues had of the Obama administration. The problems span agencies and issue areas—from drug approvals to endangered species to media access to government scientists.

The EPA Annual Stakeholder Meeting on Scientific Integrity

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken scientific integrity seriously and devoted resources to approaching it in a transparent and thoughtful way. Part of that approach has been to have an annual stakeholder meeting led by the agency scientific integrity officer after the annual report is published.

The meeting, which I’ve attended in the past, is designed to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to air any concerns and ask questions about scientific integrity. Here, stakeholders include industry, civil society groups, scientific societies, or anyone else with an interest and stake in scientific integrity.

The meetings started in 2013 as listening session for agency scientific integrity staff to hear from voices both internal and external to the agency. In 2014 and 2015, the agency had separate meetings for civil society groups and industry.

In 2016, at the request of the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical manufacturing industry, the meetings were combined. Everyone was in the same room. Nobody complained. There was no controversy. There were no objections from industry.

The EPA has relied on the ACC to invite other industry stakeholders to the meeting and planned to do the same this year. We asked the scientific integrity officer for a list of invitees to last year’s meeting; it includes more than 50 industry affiliates, including representatives from Monsanto, Dow, CropLife America, ExxonMobil, and the American Beverage Association, just to name a few.

It is not a closed meeting and the meeting’s agenda is no secret. So to help demonstrate how non-controversial this meeting really is, my colleague Michael Halpern will be live-tweeting this year’s meeting. In the past, the meetings have centered around the findings of EPA’s annual scientific integrity report—a publicly available document that details scientific integrity cases and progress made at the agency each year. This year the agenda is as follows:

The 2017 Stakeholder Meeting

  • The Meeting Agenda:
    • Overview of the year’s Scientific Integrity challenges and accomplishments presented by the Scientific Integrity Official
    • Open Q & A

The EPA Scientific Integrity Officer, Francesca Grifo, has for several years been overseeing scientific integrity at the EPA. Dr Grifo, a scientist with a PhD in botany from Cornell University, previously led the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can read more about her position and high qualifications for this job here.

Overreactions and underappreciations

The EPA should be lauded for choosing to provide an open and accessible way for those of us outside the agency who care about decision makers having high-quality science and technical data inform decisions to learn more and ask questions. A meeting of stakeholders in business and nonprofits  to inform agency work should be a welcomed cornerstone of effective government.

For some reason, since a new administration has come into power, some want to suggest that the meeting is controversial. Notably, nobody from industry has complained about the meeting or the policy. Instead, complaints are coming from one House representative and a Wall Street Journal editorial writer.

Any reader who wants to be more informed about the EPA’s scientific integrity work should read the policy and the annual reports from 2013, 2014, and 2015. I look forward to the meeting and to reporting back on the results.

On Bioenergy, Budgets, and Why Legislating Scientific Facts Is Never a Good Idea

We need members of Congress to resist the Trump administration’s call for deep cuts to federal science and science-based environmental and public health protections in its proposed FY18 budget. We also need to keep them from adding anti-science special provisions, or ‘policy riders,’ in the budget bill they ultimately pass.

There is reason for both hope and concern.

Earlier this month, Congress passed an omnibus FY17 spending bill that rejected the administration’s proposed draconian cuts and protected funding for key programs across federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The final budget was a real—albeit short-term—win for science and evidence-based policy making.

An unrelated policy rider, premised on incorrect science

But Congress also included in the bill a completely unrelated bioenergy policy rider, premised on incorrect science, with potentially damaging impacts on both US forests and on carbon emissions for years to come.

This hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, so let’s unpack it a bit.

Buried on page 902 in the appropriations bill, the bioenergy policy rider instructs the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.”

The biomass industry has been lobbying Congress to incorporate such language in legislation for years. Today, the US industry is fairly small, with wood energy-fueled power plants struggling to compete with lower-cost power from natural gas, wind, and solar.

But once comprehensive federal policies designed to reduce carbon pollution are enacted, the assumption of wood energy as “carbon neutral” would help make these power plants more cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

A false assertion of carbon neutrality

The problem is, burning forest biomass to make electricity is not inherently carbon-neutral. In fact, under some conditions burning woody biomass releases as much or more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as does burning coal.

Last year, when the Senate was considering similar language in a piece of energy legislation, I joined more than 60 other forest and climate experts on a letter reminding Senators that “[r]emoving the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century, and not all trees reach maturity because of drought, fire, insects or land use conversion. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat.”

Establishing forest bioenergy polices based on the false assertion of carbon neutrality, we wrote, “puts forest carbon in the atmosphere contributing to climate change instead of keeping it in living, productive forests that provide multiple benefits of water and wetland protection, flood control, soils protection, wildlife habitat, improved air quality and recreational benefits for hunters and all who enjoy being in the great out-of-doors.”

Bioenergy policies must be based on an accurate assessment of potential net carbon emissions from forest biomass. Mandating that there are no net carbon emissions from burning forest biomass to produce energy does not make it so in fact.

A cautionary tale for the next budget fight

President Trump and the Republican-led Congress may have temporarily slowed federal policies to limit carbon emissions. But such limits will come. And while the FY17 omnibus spending bill only funds the federal government for five months, there is a serious risk is that this rider could pose harmful impacts on forests and climate policy that could persist until undone by future legislation.

As my colleague Rob Cowin writes, this is also “a cautionary tale for the FY18 budget fight. Special interest amendments…..have the ability to make a reasonable budget an unsavory bill. The biomass rider got in because it had bipartisan support. Constituents will…need to hold their members of congress accountable if they don’t want government funding bills to become delivery devices for bad, long-lived policy.”

 

Trump’s Proposed Budget: A Wrecking Ball to Science

Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

President Trump has just shown us his budget. Here is what he values: large tax cuts—mostly for the wealthy—and a buildup of the military and homeland security.

Here is what he does not value: the Medicaid program that allows our poorest citizens to get basic health care; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), a highly cost-effective program with a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike; and student loans and grants, that allow for some upward mobility.

He also does not value science. His budget not only eviscerates funding for basic research (e.g., an $86 billion cut to the National Institute of Health), but also funding for the science that government scientists conduct, or government agencies fund, to inform and improve public policy. Just look at this pattern:

Eviscerating Science at the EPA

The proposed budget cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by more than 30 percent overall, returning the agency to staffing levels not seen since the Ford administration. The budget takes particular aim at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and its many national laboratories. ORD is the science research arm of the EPA, responsible for advising EPA policymakers on safe levels of air and water pollutants, the fate and transport of hazardous waste once it is released into the environment, safe disposal of chemicals, and many other critical matters.

This program also responds to emergencies. ORD was called in recently, for example, to help Toledo, Ohio cope with massive algae blooms in Lake Erie. Trump proposes to cut ORD by over 50 percent. This will simply eviscerate the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect public health and the environment.

Slashing renewable energy research at DOE

Some of the deepest cuts in Trump’s proposed budget at the Department of Energy (DOE) take aim at clean energy research and development. For example, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be slashed by 69 percent, including cutting more than half the budget of the renewable energy technology offices that have played a critical role in the precipitous drop in costs of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

The budget also eliminates one of DOE’s crown jewels: the ARPA-E program, which fills a crucial void by providing start-up funding for transformative,= but high-risk technologies. This is particularly important as private venture capital has “all but stopped funding ‘deep technology’ companies,” according to recent Brookings Institution study.

Not surprisingly, ARPA-E has bipartisan support, and corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates and Jeffrey Immelt have called for doubling its funding to $1 billion per year as a key way to develop low cost solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.

Zeroing out ARPA-E and cutting other clean energy research and development programs will stall vital progress in developing new technologies to lower global warming emissions and will further erode our economic leadership in clean energy.

Weakening emergency preparedness at NOAA

The budget proposes to eliminate funding for several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, Coastal Zone Management Grants, the Office of Education, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. These programs are critical in helping us adapt to a changing environment.

Their elimination will cripple scientific research as well as emergency preparedness, disaster risk reduction, and national security. Programs like Sea Grant, for example, enable universities to conduct research that helps states prepare for coastal flooding.

Canceling vital earth monitoring at NASA

The budget proposes to terminate five Earth Science Mission programs that have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder.

These five NASA Missions are vital tools for improving our ability to predict everything from agricultural commodity yields to water management and infrastructure management. They have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes. They have resulted in safeguards that protect our waters and prevent people from eating toxic shellfish, improved aviation safety, and provided essential information about unhealthy air quality.

They have also tested equipment essential for successful satellite launches and provided information about climate measures that inform decision-making with broad economic impacts, including vegetation changes and have provided precise measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starving agricultural research and conservation at USDA

The US Department of Agriculture would take a 21 percent hit overall. With deep cuts to key research and conservation programs, the budget would undermine the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future. The budget slashes tens of millions of dollars from cutting-edge agricultural research programs, effectively denying farmers the science they need to be productive and profitable and to adapt to the harsh realities of a changing climate.

Significant changes to programs that encourage conservation on farmlands would similarly put farmers at a disadvantage and leave the nation’s waters and other critical natural resources more at risk from farm pollution.

Scientists must step up!

Fortunately, Congress, not the President, will ultimately decide what to fund and at what levels. If recent history is any guide, Congress will not attach much weight to President Trump’s misguided budget proposal.

But we must not take anything for granted. This summer, activists from all across the country will likely attend town hall meetings with their congressional representatives. I expect we will hear powerful, heart-rending testimony against the Trump budget’s cynical and vicious attempt to shred the social safety net. But the proposed cuts to science also demand a rallying cry in response, from scientists and from all who value our ability to make public decisions based on the best available evidence.

Now is the time to make our voices heard.

To learn more about how you can effectively stand up for science and influence congress on the budget, check out our recently posted toolkit.

Hearing from the Scientists Who Rely on Sea Grant

I can pinpoint my passion for marine conservation to a childhood full of opportunities to experience the wonders of nature and grounded in a deep appreciation for the ocean and fishing culture. This is why I have chosen to devote my life to ensuring these natural resources are around to inspire future generations.

However, the budget proposal released by the White House this week has made it clear that supporting scientists like me is not a priority. Governmental agencies that employ my respected colleagues, fellowships that helped me get through graduate school, and research programs that I rely on to do my job are lined up for the cutting block.

Among the worst of the proposed budget cuts is the complete elimination of Sea Grant. Sea Grant excels as a conduit between the scientists and the stakeholders in coastal areas who have real problems to solve. Integral to Sea Grant’s mission to promote integrated and applicable research is its commitment to the next generation of scientists. Sea Grant is a major source of fellowships for coastal science graduate students. While I personally was not funded through Sea Grant (I had EPA funding, which is also eliminated under the proposed budget), I have many colleagues and friends who benefitted from Sea Grant support as they began their careers. I interviewed a few for this post about the value of Sea Grant to their careers, to the environment, and to science in general.

Training the next generation of scientists

Tidal pools in Newport, OR.

For many young scientists, opportunities through Sea Grant are a path to a career in science that can really make a difference. Theresa Davenport, a marine scientist and a recent graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, was part of Sea Grant’s incredibly successful Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship program.

“The Knauss Fellowship’s hallmark is to take subject matter experts and provide them with experience and training to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders working at the intersection of academia, private citizens, industry and government,” said Theresa.

Knauss fellows are placed in federal legislative and executive offices in Washington D.C. In many cases, these interns are the only sources of science expertise in their offices, and the value of these young scientists to the American public is incalculable. For example, Theresa helped develop a restoration monitoring and adaptive management plan for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill recovery. In fact, she mentioned that her team on this important and crucial project was made up of mostly Sea Grant fellows or folks that had previously been involved in the Knauss fellowship program. She said this is not out of the ordinary.

“It would be interesting to compile the number of Sea Grant fellows involved in the two largest US environmental disaster responses in the last 10 years.” She is referring to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Sandy, and she expects Sea Grant fellows played a large role in both cases.

Science informing policy

The benefits of funding early career scientists continue long after the fellowship ends. Introducing scientists directly to problems that can benefit from their unique gifts and knowledge ensures that they will be problem solvers. For Dr. Allison Colden, another graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a Sea Grant fellowship was an important step to a career in conservation.

“As a former Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, I gained valuable experience in interpreting cutting-edge science into public policy, a skill that I now use daily at a leading environmental non-profit,” she said.

She sees Sea Grant playing an important role in solving many of the problems facing the world today.

“Sea Grant is vital to ensuring the continued prosperity and resilience of our nation’s coastal communities by connecting managers and stakeholders with innovative science to create viable solutions for the future,” said Allison. “Cuts to Sea Grant sever a critical link in the science-policy chain, undermining the social, economic, and ecological resilience of coastal communities in a time when it is needed most.”

Scientists are increasingly facing the burden to make the connection between research and impacts, and Sea Grant has been making that connection for nearly 50 years. We should be expanding, not gutting programs that bring together academia, private citizens, industry and government, and programs that inspire young scientists to build solutions to the challenges we face. This is the best way for society to achieve a healthier, safer, more sustainable future for all people.

 

Dr. Cassandra Glaspie is a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department. Originally from Waterford, Michigan, Cassandra received her B.S. in Zoology from Michigan State University and her PhD in Marine Science from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Cassandra is passionate about the environment and the ocean, and her research involves marine food webs and predator-prey interactions, especially as they relate to changes in the environment. In Oregon, she studies climate-related changes in ocean habitat quality for ecologically and economically important fish such as Chinook salmon and albacore tuna. A resident of Corvallis, Cassandra is an advocate for local climate action and works with the Corvallis chapter of the Sierra Club to educate the community on issues related to climate change and sustainability initiatives.

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.

Lamar Smith and Selective Transparency: Why I’ll Be Livetweeting the EPA Scientific Integrity Stakeholder Meeting

For the past few years, the Environmental Protection Agency has held a meeting with outside groups to discuss its annual scientific integrity report. All kinds of organizations have attended in the past, from the American Chemistry Council (which represents chemical companies) to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which represents scientists) to the American Lung Association (which represents people who breathe). They’re all invited again to this year’s meeting on June 14.

The EPA-produced report describes the actions the agency has taken under the EPA scientific integrity policy over the previous year. The meeting is an opportunity for organizations to ask questions about the report, to give feedback to the agency, and to identify new or emerging challenges. It’s not a perfect process, and the agency gets criticism from all sides (including UCS). But it’s an impressive attempt to reach out to the agency’s stakeholders. To my knowledge, no other agency or department does this.

Transparency is important to holding government accountable. It just shouldn’t be selective.

Yesterday, House Science Committee Chairman Smith sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt expressing concern about this meeting. As rat smellers go, he doesn’t exactly have the best nose, but he smells a rat. Chairman Smith seems to be trying to drum up controversy about the meeting, as he explicitly objects to some of the invitees (including me), and is calling for the agency to make it open to the public.

I wholeheartedly agree. So on June 14th at 3:00pm, I’ll begin livetweeting the EPA scientific integrity meeting. You can follow along at @halpsci. It’s usually a fairly humdrum affair, so I can’t promise everything will be interesting (although these days, let’s face it, everything at the EPA has some fireworks). But I can promise it will be transparent, and I will make at least a couple of attempts to be funny.

Better yet, I’d encourage the agency to put it on Periscope, or livestream it on Facebook, so the Chairman and his staff and anyone with an Internet connection can hear every question posed about an agency under siege by an administrator who is hostile to the science that it creates and communicates. That is, if the EPA still has the budget to pay for enough Internet bandwidth by the time the meeting happens.

Real talk about transparency

Chairman Smith claims to care about transparency. So let’s talk about that. Here is the type of transparency we deserve:

I’d like to know whether anyone from the Obama administration or the oil and gas industry influenced language in the EPA’s press release and executive summary about the impact of fracking on drinking water. Unfortunately, our FOIAs to help answer that question came back heavily redacted.

I’d like to know who from the chemical industry met or communicated with the EPA in advance of Administrator Pruitt’s decision to reject scientific advice and keep a dangerous pesticide on the market that has been shown to hurt endangered species and harm human brain development. Perhaps any such meetings or phone calls, too, should have been open to the public. They should at least have transcripts and recordings. While we’re at it, maybe these meetings should include representatives from groups like the American Public Health Association. Maybe they should even include some independent scientists with expertise in the impact of the chemicals on developing brains!

I’ll be livetweeting the EPA’s scientific integrity stakeholder meeting on June 14 at 3pm. Follow me @halpsci.

I’d like many more EPA meetings to be made open to the public. Every time they meet with lobbyists from an industry trade group or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I want it broadcast, live. I want to see Snapchat stories about industry input. I’d like to know, for example, exactly what was discussed at two consecutive days of meetings in North Carolina between EPA officials and representatives from the American Petroleum Institute on April 19 and 20. It could be completely innocuous, but I want to know.

So where the deuce are the chairman’s letters for any of that? Selective transparency does not suggest good faith.

Of course Chairman Smith’s letter to Pruitt is absurd, even by the ever-downward-spiraling standards of the House Science Committee. It is a clear attempt to cast doubt on the work of the agency’s scientific integrity office and thereby weaken its credibility and investigative authority. This attempt should be roundly rejected.

I know Dr. Francesca Grifo, the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Official, quite well. And I know that she travels all around the country talking about scientific integrity with anyone who will listen. She has given scores of presentations about the agency’s scientific integrity policy. She meets with environmental groups. She meets with industry organizations. She will fully investigate scientific integrity complaints from anyone who files them.

So I’m looking forward to June 14th, and can’t wait to share all of the details. It could possibly be the most interesting meeting yet.

Department of Interior Censors USGS Press Release on Climate Change, Flooding, and Sea Level Rise

Late yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the United States Geological Survey deleted a sentence acknowledging the link between climate change and sea level rise from an official agency press release. The USGS describes itself as the sole science agency for the Department of Interior. UCS will today formally ask the department to investigate the deletion as a violation of departmental policy.

It’s not the first time that an administration has removed scientific information it doesn’t like from agency communications. What’s different now is that scientists are not taking it quietly. “It’s a crime against the American people,” study co-author Neil Frazer told the Post.

The press release announced a new scientific paper in Nature co-authored by two USGS scientists which finds that coastal flooding frequency could double in the tropics by mid-century because of global warming. The paper’s abstract leads with the link between climate change and sea level rise. “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding” reads its first sentence.  The science was already clear: global warming is the primary cause of current sea level rise.

The press release, however, intentionally omitted this fact–a demand for deletion that reportedly came from the Department of Interior, in which USGS is housed. “I disagree with the decision from the upper administration to delete it, not with the scientists who deleted it at the administration’s request,” said study co-author Chip Fletcher.

Censorship violates multiple policies

The changes may violate multiple government policies (emphasis added):

  1. The USGS Scientific Integrity Policy states that the agency “will not tolerate loss of integrity in the performance, use, or communication of scientific activities and their results” (my emphasis added).
  2. The DOI Communications Policy requires the office of communications to ensure the accuracy of press releases and other public communications by providing the materials “for review prior to release by scientists, scholars, engineers and other subject matter experts.” Public affairs officials may not “alter the substance of scientific, scholarly and technical information.”
  3. The DOI Scientific Integrity Policy prohibits agency decision makers from “engag[ing] in dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship, or other misconduct that alters the content, veracity, or meaning or that may affect the planning, conduct, reporting, or use of scientific activities.”

 These policies were developed and strengthened by the Department of Interior after repeated scandals where science was censored or rewritten by political appointees. USGS is not a regulatory agency, however, and has traditionally enjoyed much more independence than other agencies within Interior.

Holding the Trump administration accountable

It has become clear that when they can, scientists will speak up when they see political interference in science. But it’s a lot easier for a university researcher like Dr. Fletcher or Dr. Frazer to do so.

Government scientists can file complaints under their agency scientific integrity policies when they witness political interference in the conduct or communication of science. Those who don’t feel comfortable doing so can securely share information with UCS, and we will work with reporters, Congress, inspectors general, and others to investigate and expose any wrongdoing. Together, we can raise the political price for the manipulation or suppression of science.

Congress vs. Trump: Are the President’s Anti-Science Budget Priorities Headed for Another Defeat?

The president’s “America First” budget blueprint, a.k.a. the “skinny budget,” made a lot of noise when it was introduced two months ago and brought focus to the administration’s upcoming FY2018 budget priorities. The administration followed up shortly after by requesting reductions in the 2017 budget for the remaining five months of this fiscal year.

But then it came time for Congress to act, and they said, “Thank you for the very amusing budget Mr. President, but we are going to do our own thing …and incidentally, thank you for uniting Republicans and Democrats in opposition to your draconian cuts.”

After all, it’s members of Congress that have to figure out how to keep the federal government operating. So with a government shutdown looming, Congress effectively ignored the administration’s requests, and on May 4 passed a bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year through September 30, 2017. The bill was a repudiation of the president’s budget priorities, as it increased funding to many agencies, offices, and programs that the administration specifically targeted for cuts or elimination.

The president is expected to release his full fiscal year 2018 budget this week (fleshing out the details of his “skinny budget”), and there aren’t expected to be any surprises. It will likely track the skinny budget pretty closely, which means it’s going nowhere in Congress.

To get a clearer sense of the prospects for the president’s FY2018 budget, let’s look at some of the budget choices Congress made for the FY2017 Omnibus Spending Bill that are at odds with what President Trump proposed for 2018:

Department of Energy (DOE)

President Trump’s FY18 budget request proposes to eliminate ARPA-E, DOE’s innovative clean energy technology R&D program; and the Loan Programs Office, which provides credit support to help deploy innovative clean energy technologies. Additionally, it targeted critical programs in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), like the Weatherization Assistance Program (which funds energy efficiency improvements for low-income households) and the State Energy Program (which provides funding and technical assistance to states for increasing energy efficiency or renewable energy). The president’s FY17 request specifically targeted EERE for a 25% cut ($516 million).

Instead of eliminating ARPA-E, congress gave it a 5% increase in funding in FY17 (from $291 million to $306 million) and also provided an extension of current funding for the Loan Programs Office. The Weatherization Assistance Program was given a 6% increase while the State Energy Program received sustained funding at the 2016 level. EERE ultimately received a very slight increase instead of a devastating cut.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The president’s FY18 budget request proposed to cut over $250 million “in grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education,” which essentially constituted 23% of the combined budget for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and the National Ocean Service (NOS).

The administration was more specific in their FY17 budget request, calling for cuts to coastal zone management grants, regional coastal resilience grants, and climate research grants. The administration also proposed reducing satellite capacity at the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), which provides the data needed to produce National Weather Service forecasts.

Instead of cuts, in the FY17 Omnibus bill that Congress provided a slight increase in funding for Coastal Science and Assessment, as well as for Ocean and Coastal Management Services, at NOS. OAR received a 6.6% increase in funding (from $482 million to $514.1 million), with the climate research budget untouched.  And Congress increased funding for Environmental Satellite Observing Systems at NESDIS by 25% (from $130.1 million to $163.4 million).

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The president’s FY18 budget request proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by 31% and eliminating 3,200 staff and over 50 programs, including those supporting international and domestic climate change research and partnership programs. His budget also reduces funds allocated to Superfund, Brownfields, compliance monitoring, and enforcement, which further endangers economically vulnerable communities and communities of color. While the administration would have the states take on more of the EPA’s responsibility, the president’s budget eliminates geographic programs and reduces funding for state categorical grants by a whopping 45 percent.

The EPA was spared any drastic cuts and staff layoffs in FY17. Its clean air and climate programs were funded at the previous year’s levels, as was the Compliance Monitoring Program (which helps ensure our environmental laws are followed), enforcement, and Superfund. State and Tribal Assistance Grants and Geographic Programs, which support Brownfields Projects, local air management, water protection, and lead and hazardous waste programs, actually received a slight increase in funding.

FEMA, NASA and more…

Congress rebuffed the president’s request to eliminate FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which helps bring down the cost of disasters and protects communities by supporting preparedness efforts. Also escaping cuts was NASA’s Earth Science Program, which develops, launches, and maintains a network of satellites that collect data on Earth’s surface and atmosphere—a critical tool for improving predictive capacity for everything from agricultural commodities and water management to infrastructure.

There are examples like these all throughout the FY17 Omnibus spending bill that Congress passed two weeks ago. Some say the president was rebuffed because congress was in no mood to shut down the government over spending, but it’s also true that there were many congressional Republicans who opposed large parts of the president’s budget.

Appropriators are not interested in gutting the institutions they fund, and House Speaker Ryan is not interested in shutting down the government, which would call into question his party’s ability to govern. You can bet many Republicans breathed a private sigh of relief when leadership reached a deal on what effectively was another “continuing resolution” (CR).

It wasn’t all good

One significant flaw in the budget deal is the insertion of an anti-science policy rider that instructs the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to work with the EPA to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.”

Unfortunately, burning forest biomass to make electricity is not inherently carbon-neutral because “removing the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat.“

Congress should not be legislating science, and this is a cautionary tale for the FY18 budget fight. Special interest amendments, or “riders,”,have the ability to make a reasonable budget an unsavory bill. The biomass rider got in because it had bipartisan support, but going forward, both parties will need to reach a clear understanding on what constitutes a “clean budget” if they want to eventually reach an agreement. Constituents will also need to hold their members of congress accountable if they don’t want government funding bills to become delivery devices for bad, long-lived policy.

The 2018 budget fight: government shutdown, continuing resolution, or “the nuclear option”?

So what does this mean for the 2018 budget? Where are we headed?

If Congress can’t pass another bill to fund the government for the 2018 fiscal year before October 1, the government will effectively shut down (and we all know what that looks like).

While the president has said “our country needs a good shutdown,” most Americans would strongly disagree …as would most members of Congress. But the president is angling to give himself some breathing room because he knows it is impossible for his budget priorities to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for a filibuster.

A bill that continues funding the government at last year’s spending levels is a loss for the president, and there aren’t enough Democrats that would support a budget deal with the kinds of cuts to discretionary spending that he is proposing.

But the president is negotiating, and this tactic is straight out of “The Art of the Deal.” He’s betting that if he proposes extremely deep cuts, Congress will move slightly more in his direction on spending levels …and that government shutdowns don’t last forever.

The most likely outcome is a continuing resolution or “CR,” which would keep the federal government functioning at current spending levels for a limited period of time. Some Republican appropriators have already given up on the prospect of moving their subcommittee’s spending bills through the chambers and are instructing their staff to start developing a list of add-ons to the current spending package.

It takes Democratic votes to pass a spending bill out of the Senate and they will not support budget cuts. Shutting down the government is bad for both the president and the majority party in congress so most Republicans don’t want to go in that direction. Continuing funding at existing spending levels would prevent the president from advancing his domestic agenda and would be a big loss, but it’s also the most likely outcome …that is, unless the Senate changes the rules.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could potentially employ “the nuclear option” and get rid of the 60-vote requirement (the Senate filibuster), taking away the need for Democratic votes to pass a budget. McConnell has already done this once this year to get the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination through the Senate. It’s possible that when faced with a choice between a CR the president won’t sign, a bill the Democrats won’t pass, and a government shutdown, McConnell could set aside his institutionalist tendencies and do away with the filibuster on federal spending.

Going nuclear is an unlikely outcome, but it’s definitely a possibility. Do most Americans see the Senate as the greatest deliberative body in the world? Do they even know what the filibuster is? I suspect not, and that means that the only political downside to changing the rules for the budget would be reciprocity by the Democrats at a future time when they have control of Congress. Is that enough to keep Senator McConnell from doing it?

What you can do to protect critical programs and spending

Watchdog the appropriations process this year and weigh in throughout the summer with your members of Congress on the spending priorities you care about. Tell them not to vote for a budget that cuts those priorities, and if there are no appropriators in your congressional delegation, tell them to weigh in with the appropriations subcommittees and advocate for your priorities.

If we get a CR, that’s a good thing because federal spending would be set at current levels; no cuts. But CR’s don’t last forever; eventually Congress will pass another budget. Advocating with appropriators increases the likelihood of higher funding levels in those subcommittee appropriations bills for the things you care about. If you don’t work the appropriations process, if you don’t engage with your members of Congress, you get what you get (it may be cuts), and all you can do is pray for a never-ending CR.

We may be looking at a scenario where a federal budget is voted on by a simple majority, in which case the funding levels coming out of the appropriations subcommittees really matter. If you care about federal spending priorities, depending on the Senate filibuster as protection may not turn out to be a prudent strategy. Consider that there are also Republicans that care about some of these spending priorities, like research and innovation.

If constituents are actively engaged in communicating spending priorities with their members of Congress, even without the 60-vote hurdle, meaningful cuts to programs and agencies that support things like scientific research, clean energy innovation, public health, and community preparedness for climate change, won’t come to fruition.

So call your members of congress! Show up to those town halls! And drop by your local congressional office!

No Rest for the Sea-weary: Science in the Service of Continually Improving Ocean Management

Marine reserves, or no-fishing zones, are increasing throughout the world. Their goals are variable and numerous, often a mix of conserving our ocean’s biodiversity and supporting the ability to fish for seafood outside reserves for generations to come. California is one location that has seen the recent implementation of marine reserves, where the California Marine Life Protection Act led to the establishment of one of the world’s largest networks of marine reserves.

A number of scientific efforts have informed the design of marine reserves throughout the world and in California. Mathematical models were central to these research efforts as they let scientists and managers do simulated “experiments” of how different reserve locations, sizes, and distances from each other affect how well reserves might achieve their goals.

While a PhD student in the early 2000s, I began my scientific career as one of many contributing to these efforts. In the process, a key lesson I learned was the value of pursuing partnerships with government agencies such as NOAA Fisheries to ensure that the science I was doing was relevant to managers’ questions, an approach that has become central to my research ever since.

Map of the California Marine Protected Areas; courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife

A transition from design to testing

Now, with many marine reserves in place, both managers and scientists are turning to the question of whether they are working. On average (but not always), marine reserves harbor larger fish and larger population sizes for fished species, as well as greater total biomass and diversity, compared both to before reserves were in place and to areas outside reserves. However, answering a more nuanced question—for a given reserve system, is it working as expected?—can help managers engage in “adaptive management”: using the comparison of expectations to data to identify any shortfalls and adjust management or scientific understanding where needed to better achieve the original goals.

Mathematical models are crucial to calculating expectations and therefore to answering this question. The original models used to answer marine reserve design questions focused on responses that might occur after multiple decades. Now models must focus on predicting what types of changes might be detectable over the 5-15 year time frame of reserve evaluation. Helping to develop such modeling tools as part of a larger collaboration, with colleagues Alan Hastings and Louis Botsford at UC Davis and Will White at the University of North Carolina, is the focus of my latest research on marine reserves in an ongoing project that started shortly after I arrived as a professor at UC Davis.

To date we have developed new models to investigate how short-term expectations in marine reserves depend on fish characteristics and fishing history. Now we have a new partnership with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, the responsible management agency for California’s marine reserves, to collaboratively apply these tools to our statewide reserve system. This application will help rigorously test how effective California’s marine reserves are, and therefore help with continually improving management to support both the nutrition and recreation that Californians derive from the sea. In addition, it will let California serve as a leading example of model-based adaptive management that could be applied to marine reserves throughout the world.

The role of federal funding

The cabezon is just one type of fish protected from fishing in California’s marine reserves. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Our project on models applied to adaptive managed started with funding in 2010–2014 from NOAA SeaGrant, a funding source uniquely suited to support research that can help improve ocean and fisheries management. With this support, we could be forward-looking about developing the modeling tools that the State of California now needs.  NOAA SeaGrant would be eliminated under the current administration’s budget proposal.

My other experience with NOAA SeaGrant is through a graduate student fellowship program that has funded PhD students in my (and my colleagues’) lab group to do a variety of marine reserve and fisheries research projects. This fellowship funds joint mentorship by NOAA Fisheries and academic scientists towards student research projects relevant to managing our nation’s fisheries. Along with allowing these students to bring cutting-edge mathematical approaches that they learn at UC Davis to collaborations with their NOAA Fisheries mentors, this funding gives students the invaluable experience I had as a PhD student in learning how to develop partnerships with government agencies that spur research relevant to management needs. Both developing such partnerships and training students in these approaches are crucial elements to making sure that new scientific advancements are put to use. This small amount of money goes a long way towards creating future leaders who will continue to help improve the management of our ocean resources.

 

Marissa Baskett is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis.  Her research and teaching focus on conservation biology and the use of mathematical models in ecology.  She received a B.S. in Biological Sciences at Stanford University and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, and she is an Ecological Society of America Early Career Fellow.  

The views expressed in this post solely represent the opinions of Marissa Baskett and do not necessarily represent the views of UC Davis or any of her funders or partners.

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.

One of Many Risks of the Regulatory Accountability Act: Flawed Risk Assessment Guidelines

Tomorrow, the Senate will begin marking up Senator Rob Portman’s version of the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), which my colleague Yogin wrote a primer about last week. This bill is an attempt to impose excessive burdens on every federal agency to freeze the regulatory process or otherwise tie up important science-based rules in years of judicial review.

One of the most egregious pieces of this bill as an affront to the expertise at federal agencies is the provision ordering the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Office of Regulatory and Information Affairs (OIRA) to establish guidelines for “risk assessments that are relevant to rulemaking,” including criteria for how best to select studies and models, evaluate and weigh evidence, and conduct peer reviews. This requirement on its own is reason enough to reject this bill, let alone the long list of other glaring issues that together would fundamentally alter the rulemaking process.

The RAA is a backdoor attempt at giving OIRA another chance to try and prescribe standardized guidelines for risk assessment that would apply to all agencies, even though each agency conducts different types of risk assessments based on statutory requirements.

OIRA should not dole out science advice

The way in which agencies conduct their risk assessments should be left to the agencies and scientific advisory committees, whether it is to determine the risks of a pesticide to human health, the risks of a plant pest to native plant species, the risks of a chemical to factory workers, or the risks of an endangered species determination to an ecosystem. Agencies conduct risk assessments that are specific to the matter at hand; therefore an OIRA guidance prescribing a one-size-fits-all risk assessment methodology will not be helpful for agencies and could even tie up scientifically rigorous risk assessments in court if the guidelines are judicially reviewable.

OIRA already tried writing guidance a decade ago, and it was a total flop. In January 2006, OMB released its proposed Risk Assessment Bulletin which would have covered any scientific or technical document assessing human health or environmental risks. It’s worth noting that OIRA’s main responsibilities are to ensure that agency rules are not overlapping in any way before they are issued and to evaluate agency-conducted cost-benefit analyses of proposed rules. Therefore OIRA’s staff is typically made up of economists and lawyers, not individuals with scientific expertise appropriate for determining how agency scientists should conduct risk assessments.

OMB received comments from agencies and the public and asked the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC) to conduct an independent review of the document. That NRC study gave the OMB a failing grade, calling the guidance a “fundamentally flawed” document which, if implemented, would have a high potential for negative impacts on the practice of risk assessment in the federal government. Among the reasons for their conclusions was that the bulletin oversimplified the degree of uncertainty that agencies must factor into all of their evaluations of risk. As a result, the document that OIRA issued a year later, under Portman’s OMB, was heavily watered down. In September 2007, OIRA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a Memorandum on Updated Principles for Risk Analysis to “reinforce generally-accepted principles for risk analysis upon which a wide consensus now exists.”

Luckily, in this case, the OMB called upon the National Academies for an objective review of the policy, which resulted in final guidelines that were far less extreme. As the RAA is written, it does not require that same check on OIRA’s work, which means that we could end up with highly flawed guidelines with little recourse. And the Trump administration’s nominee for OIRA director is Neomi Rao, a law professor whose work at the George Mason University Law School’s Center for the Study of the Administrative State emphasizes the importance of the role of the executive branch, while describing agency policymaking authority as “excessive.” I think it’s fair to say that under her leadership, OIRA will not necessarily scale back its encroachment into what should be expert-driven policy matters.

Big business is behind the RAA push

An analysis of OpenSecrets lobbying data revealed that trade associations, PACs and individuals linked to companies that have lobbied in support of the RAA also contributed $3.3 million to Senator Rob Portman’s 2016 campaign. One of the most vocal supporters of the bill is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose support for the bill rests on the assumption that we now have a “federal regulatory bureaucracy that is opaque, unaccountable, and at times overreaching in its exercise of authority.” Yet this characterization actually sounds a lot to me like OIRA itself, which tends to be fairly anti-regulatory and non-transparent, and has a history of holding up science-based rules for years without justification (like the silica rule). Senator Portman’s RAA would give OIRA even more power over agency rulemaking by tasking the agency with writing guidelines on how agencies should conduct risk assessments and conveniently not requiring corporations to be held to the same standards.

When OIRA tried to write guidelines for risk assessments in 2006, the Chamber of Commerce advocated for OIRA’s risk assessment guidelines to be judicially reviewable so they could be “adequately enforced,” claiming that agencies use “unreliable information to perform the assessments,” which can mean that business and industry are forced to spend millions of dollars to remedy those issues. It is no wonder, then, that the Chamber would be so supportive of the RAA, which would mandate OIRA guideline development for risk assessments, possibly subject to judicial review. OIRA issuing guidelines is one thing, but making those guidelines subject to judicial review ramps up the egregiousness of this bill. All sorts of troubling scenarios could be imagined.

Take, for example, the EPA’s human health risk assessment for the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is just one study that will be used for the agency’s registration review of the chemical, which has been linked to developmental issues in children. The EPA sought advice from the FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel on using a particular model to better determine a chemical’s effects on a person based on their age or genetics and to predict how different members of a population would be affected by exposure, called the physiologically-based pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic (PBPK/PD) model. The agency found that there is sufficient evidence that neurodevelopmental effects may occur at exposure levels that are well below previously measured exposure levels.

If OIRA were to produce risk assessment guidelines that were judicially reviewable, the maker of chlorpyrifos, Dow Chemical Company, could sue the agency on the grounds that it did not use an appropriate model, consider the best available studies, or that its peer review was insufficient. This would quickly become a way for industry to inject uncertainty into the agency’s process and tie up regulatory decisions about its products in court for years, delaying important public health protections. A failure to ban a pesticide like chlorpyrifos based on inane risk assessment criteria would allow more incidences of completely preventable acute and chronic exposure, like the poisoning of 50 farmworkers in California from chlorpyrifos in early May.

“Risk assessment is not a monolithic method”

A one-size fits all approach to government risk assessments is a bad idea, plain and simple. As the NRC wrote in its 2007 report:

Risk assessment is not a monolithic process or a single method. Different technical issues arise in assessing the probability of exposure to a given dose of a chemical, of a malfunction of a nuclear power plant or air-traffic control system, or of the collapse of an ecosystem or dam.

Prescriptive guidance from OIRA would serve to squash the diversity and flexibility that different agencies are able to use depending on the issue and the development of new models and technologies that best capture risks. David Michaels, head of OSHA during the Obama Administration, wrote in his book Doubt Is Their Product that regulatory reform, and in this case the RAA, offers industry a “means of challenging the supporting science ‘upstream.’” Its passage would allow industry to exert more influence in the process by potentially opening up agency science to judicial review. Ultimately, the RAA is a form of regulatory obstruction that would make it more difficult for agencies to issue evidence-based rules by blocking the use of science in some of the earliest stages of the regulatory process.

The bill will be marked up in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee tomorrow, and then will likely move onto the floor for a full senate vote in the coming months. Help us fight to stop this destructive piece of legislation by tweeting at your senators and telling them to vote no on the RAA today.

Five Ways to Move Beyond the March: A Guide for Scientists Seeking Strong, Inclusive Science

The March for Science took place April 22 in locations all over the world — an exciting time for scientist-advocates and a proud moment for the global scientific community.

As we reflect on the March, we must also reflect on the fact that organization of the March on Science 2017 has been a microcosm of the structural, systemic challenges that scientists continue to face in addressing equity, access, and inclusion in the sciences.

Others have written eloquently regarding the steep learning curve that the March on Science Washington DC organizers faced in ensuring an inclusive and equitable March. The organizers’ initial missteps unleashed a backlash on social media, lambasting their failure to design a movement for all scientists and exhorting them to consider more deeply the ways in which science interacts with the varying experiences of language, race, economic status, ableness, gender, religion, ethnic identity, and national origin.

The March has taken steps to correct these initial missteps, correctly choosing to engage directly with the issue and consult with historically excluded scientists to better understand and examine the ways in which science interacts with the ongoing political reality of bias in society.  It must be noted, however, that improvements like their new Diversity and Inclusion Principles, though an excellent initial step, still mask the unheralded efforts of multiple scientists of color to correct the narrative.

At the core of the controversy, and perhaps underlying its intellectual origins, is the popular fiction among scientists that Science can (or should) be apolitical.

Science is never apolitical.

It is, inherently, a system of gaining knowledge that has been devised by, refined by, practiced by, misused by, and even (at times) weaponized by human beings — and as human beings, we are inherently political.

Therefore science is not a completely neutral machine, functioning of its own volition and design; but rather a system with which we tinker and adjust; which we tune to one frequency or the other; and by dint of which we may or may not determine (or belatedly rationalize) the course of human action.

And so when we understand that science is not apolitical, we are freed to examine the biases, exclusions, and blind spots it may create — and then correct for them. In doing so, we can improve ourselves, broaden the inclusivity of our work (and potentially improve its usefulness and/or applicability), and advance the quest of scientific inquiry: to find the unwavering truths of the universe.

The March on Science organizers have come a long way in recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, but what comes next? How can scientists living in this current political moment engage in individual and collective action (hint: it’s not just about calling your representatives). What can we do?

  1. Study the history and culture of science. As scientists, we are natural explorers and inherently curious. We ought to direct some of that curiosity toward ourselves; toward better understanding where we come from, who we are, and why we think the way we do. Historians of science and those engaged in social study of science have demonstrated how science is a human enterprise, influenced by culture and politics of specific times and places. These studies have shown how blind spots — in language, in culture, in worldview, in political orientation—can change our results, skew our data, or put a foot on the scales of measurement. At times, these biases have caused great harm, and at others have been fairly benign—but these analyses together all point out how science is more robust for recognizing sociocultural impacts on its practice.
  2. Understand our own political reality, and seek to understand the realities of others. Take some time — even ten minutes a week — to ask yourself if your actions reflect your beliefs. What beliefs do you hold dear, both as a scientist and as a person? How do they influence the way you think about, study, and conduct science? What do you assume to be true about the world? How does that impact the way in which you frame your scientific questions? How does it influence the methods, study sites, or populations you choose? How does the political reality which you inhabit—and its associated privileges and problems—direct your attention, shape your questions, or draw you to one discipline or the other? What presumptions do you make about people, about systems, or about the planet itself? What do you do, think, or feel when your assumptions are challenged? How willing are you to be wrong?
  3. Open the discourse. Inclusive science won’t happen by accident—it will happen because we work to eliminate the sources of bias in our systems and structures that list the ship toward one side or the other. And the only way we can learn about these sources of bias is to (1) acknowledge their existence, then (2) begin to look for them. Talk to other scientists—at conferences, on Twitter, on Facebook, on reddit, on Snapchat, through email chains, through list-servs—any way you can. Listen for the differences in your perspectives and approaches. Ponder on the political reality from which they might originate. Ask questions, and genuinely want to hear (and accept) the answers. Then go back and reconsider the questions regarding your political reality and how you could now approach your science based on what you have learned of others. As a clear example, western science has consistently overlooked the already-learned lessons of indigenous science and disregarded the voiced experiences of indigenous researchers. Greater recognition of—and collaboration with—indigenous scientists has the potential to greatly speed and improve advances in our work. Opening the discourse is a first step toward ameliorating this deficit in our learning.
  4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Reach out to scientists who do not look like you, do not speak your dialect, do not come from your country, do not share your values or religion, do not frame questions in the same way, and do not hold the same theories precious. Share equally in the experience of scientific discovery. Choose a journal that will assign multiple-first-authorships. Publish open-access if you can, and share directly if you can’t.
  5. Choose to include. Take responsibility at all stages—in the planning for science, the choosing of methods, the hiring of staff, the implementation—for creating strong, inclusive scientific teams and systems. Be aware of how your own political reality affect your scientific design, planning, or implementation. Check your unrecognized presumptions or biases. Challenge yourself to ask your question through a different lens or through different eyes. Choose to participate in the improvement and refinement of our shared scientific machine.

Ignoring politics doesn’t insulate us from it—if scientists want to be champions for knowledge, then we have to defend our practice from the human tendencies that threaten to unravel it—exclusion, tribalism, competition, and bias. Science can’t be apolitical, but it can be a better path to knowledge—so let’s make it happen.

 

Alexandra E. Sutton Lawrence is an Associate in Research at the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, where she focuses on analyzing innovation & policy in the energy sector. She’s also a doctoral candidate in the Nicholas School of the Environment, and a member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee. She’s also a former member of the global governing board for the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists (INNGE).

 

 

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant is a conservation biologist with a focus on large carnivore ecology in human-modified landscapes, with a concurrent interest in communicating science to diverse audiences. Dr. Wynn-Grant is the deputy chair of the Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity committee for the Society for Conservation Biology.

 

 

 

Cynthia Malone is a conservation scientist and social justice organizer, whose intersectional, trans-disciplinary research ranges from primate ecology to human wildlife conflict across the tropics, including Indonesia and Cameroon. She is a cofounder and current co-chair of the Society of Conservation Biology’s Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee.

 

 

Dr. Eleanor Sterling has interdisciplinary training in biology and anthropology and has over 30 years of field research and community outreach experience with direct application to biodiversity conservation in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. Dr. Sterling is active in the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), having served for 12 years on the SCB Board of Governors and she currently co-chairs the SCB’s Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee, which she co-founded. She also co-founded the Women in the Natural Sciences Association for Women in Sciences chapter in New York City.

 

Martha Groom is a Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and the College of the Environment at the University of Washington.  Her work focuses on the intersections of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, and on effective teaching practice. A member of the SCB Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee, she is also a leader of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Washington, a summer intensive program for undergraduates aimed at building truly inclusive conservation practice.

 

Dr. Mary Blair is a conservation biologist and primatologist leading integrative research to inform conservation efforts, including spatial priority-setting and wildlife trade management. She is the President of the New York Women in Natural Sciences, a chapter of the Association for Women in Science, and a member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Committee.

 

 

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.

Shake, Rattle, and Rainout: Federal Support for Disaster Research

Hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes are simply natural events—until humans get in their way. The resulting disasters are particularly devastating in urban areas, due to high concentrations of people and property. Losses from disasters have risen steadily over the past five decades, thanks to increased populations and urban development in high-hazard areas, particularly the coasts. There is also significant evidence that climate change is making weather-related events more frequent and more severe as well. As a result, it is more critical than ever that natural hazards research is being incorporated into emergency planning decisions.

NOAA map denotes a range of billion dollar weather and climate disasters for 2016.

Improving emergency planning for the public’s benefit

A handful of far-sighted urban planning and management researchers, with particular support from the National Science Foundation, began studying these events during the 1970s. I participated in two of these research studies. Both opportunities afforded me clear opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives, a major reason I chose my field.

In 2000, a group of researchers from the University of New Orleans and Tulane University looked into the effects of natural hazards on two communities: Torrance, CA (earthquakes) and Chalmette, LA (hurricanes). This research focused on the oil refineries in both communities. We looked at emergency-management protocols, potential toxic effects due to refinery damage, and population impacts.

Hurricane Katrina photo of oil spill in Chalmette, showing oil tanks & streets covered with oil slick. US EPA photo from “http://www.epa.gov/katrina/images/oilspill_650.jpg” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Although California has a far better-developed emergency management system at all levels of government, Chalmette was less vulnerable than Torrance, due to the advanced warning available for hurricanes. We also found that, though even well-informed homeowners tend to be less prepared than expected, renters are more vulnerable to disaster effects due to inadequate knowledge, dependence on landlords to secure their buildings, and generally lower socioeconomic status. Our findings had major implications for community-awareness campaigns, suggesting that more than disaster “fairs”, public flyers, and media attention are needed. We concluded with a series of recommendations for emergency managers and planners to improve their communities’ prospects.

This conjoint-hazard research also stimulated in-depth studies of the various aspects of what is now called “natech”. For example, a pair of researchers subsequently found that natural hazards were the principal cause of more than 16,000 releases of hazardous materials between 1990 and 2008—releases that could have been prevented with better hazard-mitigation planning and preparation. The implications for regulation of businesses that use hazardous substances are obvious. So are the ramifications for public outreach and disaster response.

The second NSF-funded study, conducted at Florida Atlantic University, began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Before starting, we scoured the literature for earlier research on housing recovery, only to discover that most of it dealt with either developing countries or one or two earthquake events in California.

We focused on housing recovery along the eight-state “hurricane coast” from North Carolina south and west to Texas. A case study of New Orleans quickly revealed the extent to which local circumstances, population characteristics, and state and federal policies and capacity impaired people’s ability to restore their homes and rebuild their lives. We assembled data on the socioeconomic, housing, and property-insurance characteristics of the first- and second-tier coastal counties, as well as information about state and local disaster-recovery policies and planning.

The research team then developed a vulnerability index that provides a numerical snapshot for each county, as well as a series of indicators that contributed to the overall rating. These indicators can be used to evaluate specific areas in need of improvement, such as building regulations, flood-protection measures, and reconstruction policies—for example, restrictions on temporary housing—as well as the extent to which each area contributes to overall vulnerability.

Science informs public policies

Although imperfect, indexes do provide policy-makers and stakeholders with valuable insights. Moreover, our analysis of post-disaster housing policies revealed the inadequacies in federal provision of temporary housing, the most critical need once community safety has been restored. The controversies surrounding FEMA’s travel-trailers—high cost, toxic materials, and haphazard placement—made national news. Now there is increasing recognition that small, pre-fabricated houses are a better approach, presuming that local jurisdictions allow them to be built regardless of pre-disaster construction regulations. More planners are engaged in looking at these regulations with disaster recovery in mind.

I’m proud of the research I’ve contributed to, but I’m even more gratified with the impacts of that research. Many of our recommendations have been directed at government actors, and it is through those actors that real differences are made in people’s day-to-day lives—and in their resiliency in the face of disaster. In an era of accelerating environmental change, helping communities endure will be ever more dependent on cutting-edge research of this kind. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the endeavor.

 

Joyce Levine, PhD, AICP, received her PhD from the University of New Orleans. As an urban planner with thirty years of experience, she became interested in pre- and post-disaster planning by preparing her dissertation under hazard-mitigation guru Raymond J Burby. She participated in two NSF-funded projects that focused on hazard-prone states — California and Louisiana in the first, and the southern “hurricane coast” in the second. She is the author of an extensive study of the housing problems i New Orleans reported by government and the media during the first six months after Katrina. Although she has retired from academia, she continues to follow disaster research in the U.S.

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.

Graphic: NOAA

5 Reasons Why the Regulatory Accountability Act is Bad for Science

Last week, Senator Rob Portman introduced his version of the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), a bill that would significantly disrupt our science-based rulemaking process. A version of this inherently flawed, impractical proposal has been floating around Washington for nearly seven years now, and the latest, S. 951, is just as troubling as previous iterations.

The impact of the RAA will be felt by everyone who cares about strong protections and safeguards established by the federal government. Think about food safety, environmental safeguards, clean air, clean water, the toys that your kids play with, the car you drive, workplace safety standards, federal guidance on campus sexual assault, financial safeguards, protections from harmful chemicals in everyday products, and more. You name it, the Portman RAA has an impact on it.

The Portman RAA is at best a solution in search of a problem. It imposes significant (and new) burdensome requirements on every single federal agency charged with using science to protect consumers, public health, worker safety, the environment, and more at a time when Congress and the president are cutting agency resources. It also requires agencies to finalize the most “cost effective” rule, which sounds nice, but in practice is an impossible legal standard to meet and would most likely result in endless litigation. This requirement is emblematic of the overall thrust of the bill, a backdoor attempt to put the interests of regulated industries ahead of the public interest.

Basically, because there isn’t public support for repealing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, and other popular laws that use evidence to protect the public interest (including civil rights and disabilities laws, worker protection laws, transportation safety laws, and more), the Portman RAA weakens the ability of agencies to implement these laws by rewriting the entire process by which safeguards for Americans are enacted. In doing so, the Portman RAA would impact everyone’s public health and safety, especially low-income communities and communities of color, which often face the greatest burden of health, environmental, and other safety risks.

For this blog, I have chosen to focus on what the Portman RAA means for the scientific process that is the foundation for federal rulemaking. For information on all of the other troubling provisions in the legislation, legal scholars at the Center for Progressive Reform have a neat summary here.

Here are 5 destructive provisions in the Portman RAA as they relate to science and science-based rulemaking. Bear with me as we take this journey into administrative law Wonkville.

1. The RAA ignores intellectual property, academic freedom, and personal privacy concerns.

S. 951 includes harmful language similar to the infamous HONEST Act (previously known as the Secret Science Reform Act) and applies it to every single agency. While the Portman RAA language (page 7 starting at line 19 and page 25 starting at line 14) includes some exemptions that address the criticisms UCS has made of the HONEST Act, the bill would still require agencies to publicly make available “all studies, models, scientific literature, and other information” that they use to propose or finalize a rule.

The exemptions fall considerably short because the language has zero protections for intellectual property of scientists and researchers who are doing groundbreaking work to keep America great. For most scientists, especially those in academia and at major research institutions, much of this work, such as specific computer codes or modeling innovations, is intellectual property and is crucial for advancement in scientific understanding as well as career advancement.

In effect, this provision of the Portman RAA would prevent agencies from using cutting-edge research because scientists will be reluctant to give up intellectual property rights and sacrifice academic freedom. In addition, many researchers don’t or can’t share their underlying raw data, at least until they have made full use of it in multiple publications.

Given that the research of scientists and the expertise built up by labs is their scientific currency, S. 951’s intellectual property and academic privacy language would lead to one of two outcomes:

  • One, it would stifle innovation, especially when it comes to public health and safety research, as many early career scientists may not want to publicly share their code or computer models and undermine their careers. Scientists could risk all their ideas and work being pirated through the rulemaking docket if a federal agency wanted to use their information as part of the basis for proposing and/or finalizing a regulation.
  • Two, agencies wouldn’t be able to rely on the best available science in their decision-making process because those who have the best information may not want to make their intellectual property public. And of course, agencies are required to propose and finalize regulations based on the best available science. This is even reaffirmed by the Portman RAA (more on that later). Thus, you have a catch-22.

Like the HONEST Act, this language fundamentally misunderstands the scientific process. There is no reason for anyone to have access to computer models, codes, and more, to understand the science. Industry understands this very well because of patent law and because of the trade secrets exemptions (industry data would be exempted from the same disclosure requirements as intellectual property and academic research) but there is no equivalent protection for scientists, whose basic goal is to advance understanding of the world and publish their work.

And while the exemptions attempt to ensure protections of private medical data, they do not go far enough. For example, agencies that rely on long-term public health studies to propose and finalize science-based regulations could still be forced to disclose underlying private health data related to a study participant’s location and more, all of which may lead to someone’s privacy being put at risk.

2. The RAA puts science on trial.

The Portman RAA provides an opportunity for industry to put the best available science that informs high-impact and major rules on trial. In a provision (page 16 lines 13-17)  that reminds me of Senator Lankford’s radical BEST Act, S. 951 will give industry an opportunity to initiate an adversarial hearing putting science and other “complex factual issues that are genuinely disputed” on trial.

But what does it mean for science and other facts to be genuinely disputed? The RAA is silent on that point. Hypothetically, if an industry or any individual produces their own study or even an opinion without scientific validity that conflicts with the accepted science on the dangers of a certain chemical or product (say atrazine, e-cigarettes, chlorpyrifos pesticide, or lead), federal agencies charged with protecting the public using best available science would be forced to slow down an already exhaustive process. The thing is, you can always find at least one bogus study that disagrees with the accepted facts. If this provision had been around when the federal government was attempting to regulate tobacco, the industry would have been able to use it to create even more roadblocks by introducing bogus studies to dispute the facts and put a halt to the public health regulations.

This is just another way to elongate (and make less accessible to the public) an already exhaustive rulemaking process where everyone already can present their views through the notice-and-comment period. This provision plays up the “degree of uncertainty” that naturally exists in science, while ignoring a more sensible “weight of evidence” approach, which is exactly what opponents of science-based rulemaking want. This adversarial hearing process does nothing to streamline the regulatory process, but it does make it harder for federal agencies to finalize science-based public health, safety, and environmental protections. The Scopes-Monkey trial has already taught us that putting science on trial doesn’t work. It was a bad idea nearly 100 years ago, and it’s a bad idea today.

3. The RAA adds red tape to the science-based rulemaking process.

The Portman RAA, ironically, includes duplicitous language that requires proposed and final rules to be based on the “best reasonably available” science (page 8 lines 10-14 and page 25 lines 14-18). The thing is, this already happens. Many underlying authorizing statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, have this requirement, and to the extent that this bill is supposed to streamline the regulatory process, this appears to do the opposite. If anything, this is litigation bait for industry, meaning that the legally obscure language could be used to sue an agency and prevent science-based rulemakings to be implemented.

The thing is, anyone can already challenge the scientific basis of regulations since they are already required to be grounded in facts. This just rests upon a faulty assumption that agencies aren’t doing their jobs. The bottom line? Through this and other provisions, S. 951 adds redundancy and procedure when the supporters of the bill are claiming to get rid of it.

4. The RAA has imprecise language that could force burdensome requirements on agency science.

The Portman RAA uses vague language to define agency “guidance” (page 2, lines 14-16) that could be interpreted to encompass agency science documents, such as risk assessments. For example, if an agency conducts a study on the safety of a chemical, finds a health risk associated and publishes that document, would that study be subject to the burdensome RAA requirements on guidance (i.e. go through a cost-benefit analysis)? The language is ambiguous enough that this remains an open question.

Furthermore, by adding additional requirements for guidance documents, such as cost-benefit analysis, it would make it harder for regulators to be nimble and flexible to explain policy decisions that don’t have the binding effect of law, or to react to emerging threats. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has frequently used guidance documents to quickly communicate to the public and healthcare providers about the risks associated with the Zika virus, an emerging threat that required a swift response from the federal government. Just imagine the amount of time it would take for the CDC to effectively respond to this type of threat in the future if the agency was forced to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on this type of guidance.

Overall, many agencies use guidance as a means of explaining how they interpret statutory mandates. Because they don’t have the effect of law, they can be easily challenged and modified. The new hurdles simply prolong the guidance process and make it more difficult for agencies to explain interpretations of their legal mandates.

5. The RAA increases the potential for political interference in agency science.

The Portman RAA would give the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) the power to establish one set of guidelines for risk assessments for all of the federal science agencies (page 33 lines 16-18). The thing is, this one-size-fits-all idea is unworkable. Individual agencies set guidelines for risk assessments they conduct because different issues require different kinds of analysis. OIRA is filled with economists who are not scientific experts that can appropriately understand public health and environmental threats. Under this bill, OIRA would also determine the criteria for what kinds of scientific assessments should be used in rulemaking. This office should not have the responsibility to put forward guidelines dictating agency science. This is a clear way to insert politics into a science-based decision. My colleague Genna Reed will be expanding on this point specifically later this week because of how troubling this provision is.

For a proposal that is aimed at streamlining the regulatory process, the question must be asked, for whom? If anything, the Portman RAA grinds the issuance of science-based protections to a halt, and adds additional red-tape to a process that is already moving at a glacial pace.

The bottom line is that this latest version of the RAA, albeit different from previously introduced versions in the Senate and somewhat distinct from the House-passed H.R. 5, leads to the same outcome in reality: a paralysis by analysis at federal agencies working to protect the public from health and environmental threats and a potential halt to the issuance of new science-based standards to ensure access to safe food, clean air and clean drinking water, and other basic consumer protections.

Photo: James Gathany, CDC

What Does Scott Gottlieb’s Leadership Mean for Scientific Integrity at the FDA?

Later this afternoon the Senate will vote to confirm Scott Gottlieb as the next U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner. What does this mean for scientists and science-based policymaking at the FDA? His conflicts of interest are certainly an indication that the pharmaceutical industry will benefit more from his tenure than Americans’ health.

Gottlieb is a medical doctor with extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry, including GlaxoSmithKline and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, taking $400,000 from drug and medical device companies in consulting and speaking fees between 2013 and 2015. He has not been shy in his criticism of what he calls FDA’s “cumbersome” drug approval process, and has recommended fast-tracking approval by using surrogate markers to gauge the effectiveness of new products. Surrogate markers would allow drug companies to conduct shorter studies with smaller sample sizes. A win for drug companies, but not necessarily for public health.

Many have called President Trump’s band of department heads the “corporate cabinet” because of the astounding degree of conflicts the individuals have with regulated entities, i.e. corporations. They are the epitome of foxes guarding America’s henhouses. Despite the fact that Trump campaigned upon promises to “drain the swamp” of former lobbyists in federal government, his actions during his first several months in office have not supported his pledge. Gottlieb has mentioned that he would recuse himself from decisions within the next year having to do with all 20 companies with which he has had a financial relationship. But after one year, all bets are off. Scott Gottlieb will be making policy decisions that directly impact companies with which he has had financial ties and personal relationships. Judging from his past statements on the FDA regulatory process as well as his work history, it doesn’t seem likely that he will be making completely science-based, objective decisions that weigh the health of Americans over the profits of drug companies.

What FDA scientists think about industry influence on the agency’s mission

Back in 2015, we surveyed several agencies, including the FDA, to find out how scientific integrity was faring under the policies instituted by the Obama administration. Forty-five percent and 33 percent of surveyed FDA scientists said that the level of consideration of political interests and business interests, respectively, at the agency was “too high.”  One-third of respondents agreed that the FDA has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests.

When we asked how the mission of the FDA and the integrity of the scientific work produced by the FDA could best be improved, several themes arose. In addition to calls for increased agency funding and staffing, additional transparency, and more opportunities for scientists to attend conferences and collaborate with other scientists, survey respondents also called for less industry influence on science and policy decisions at the FDA. I urge Scott Gottlieb to take a look at some of the following concerns from real FDA scientists about the relationship between FDA and the pharmaceutical industry.

  • Industry should have fewer opportunities to interfere with science process, not more:
    • “Minimize the links between the Agency and the industry it regulates—primarily those that provide money from industry to the FDA and those that lead to future employment opportunities for FDA management.”
    • “Stop having industry make a call to FDA and “put pressure” on an approval.”
  • User fee arrangements have pressured the FDA to cater to industry and approve more drugs:
    • “The mission of those Centers which are funded in large part by user fees has been altered, in my opinion, to cater to industry and whatever their concerns are at the moment. There is an inherent conflict of interest in being paid/funded by the industries we are supposed to regulate. That said, FDA has made great strides in meeting MDUFA (user fee regulations) reduced review timelines and increasing the number of device approvals. However, my concern is that some devices that may not have met their efficacy endpoints—e.g., they don’t work—will get approved/cleared anyway because they don’t pose any safety concerns. I believe we should follow our “science”-based evidence rather than compromise to keep industry happy.”
    • “During the Bush years, our mission shifted from making sure drugs were safe and effective to making sure they were ‘safe, effective and approved in a timely manner.’ (That made no sense because if a drug is safe and effective, it *will* be approved). We need to institute safeguards so that business interests don’t influence decisions, depending on who is in the White House.”
    • “NOT taking money from industry via PDUFA funds and getting all FDA appropriations from the government and not making all the PDUFA quid pro quo to satisfy industry for its money. This PDUFA arrangement/program keeps increasing all kinds of arrangements to benefit industry.”
    • “I think that ADUFA has changed the working environment and there is a more pressure to approve drugs. Sponsors are more vocal in their complaints, whether or not they are justified.”
  • The revolving door at the FDA is dangerous:
    • “By stopping the revolving door of industry people who are brought into high level positions, wreak havoc during their tenure, then return to the industry from which they came.”
    • “Although it obviously would be difficult to achieve due to pressure from politicians and businessmen, it would be better if high level (and other) FDA employees were not part of the revolving door process in which people come from the regulated industry (or law firms representing the regulated industry), work for the FDA and then return to high paid jobs in the private sector.”
    • “I don’t think we should be filling leadership roles at the agency with ex-pharmaceutical company executive. I don’t think the fear of being sued by pharmaceutical companies should limit our regulatory authority.”

While agency scientists seem uncomfortable with the level of corporate involvement in regulations, industry is likely feeling pretty comfortable with the current regulatory landscape for food and drugs. Tom Price, who has invested in and made policy decisions in line with drug manufacturers while a member of Congress, is now the head of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In late April, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was removed by the Trump Administration. Murthy had issued a 2016 report on e-cigarettes concluding that use among children and teenagers is a “major public health concern.” Shortly after he left office, the FDA announced it would be delaying enforcement of e-cigarette regulations that were finalized last year.

Last week, a leaked memo revealed that the Trump administration is planning on slashing funding to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy by 95 percent during a time when heroin and prescription painkiller use in this country and related preventable deaths are spiraling out of control. And as obesity and related health consequences continue to rise,  Mr. Gottlieb has already indicated that he would be open to delaying implementation of changes to the nutrition facts label including an added sugar line, as the food industry has requested. It seems like any regulation that inhibits the ability of drug or food manufacturers to approve and introduce an endless stream of new drugs and food additives will be unpopular under this administration.

A plea from FDA scientists and the public

Mr. Gottlieb: I implore you to stick to the commitment you made during your confirmation hearing to make decisions based on safety and efficacy and to be “guided by the science,” “guided by the expertise of the career staff,” and “guided by impartiality and what’s good for patients as a physician.” As FDA commissioner you must remember that the FDA is beholden to the people, not the pharmaceutical or food industries.

And hey, your new employees agree. To protect scientific integrity at the FDA, surveyed scientists urge the agency (that’s you now!) to “recognize that FDA’s customers are the general public; the sponsoring companies submitting new treatments are not.” And to remember that “clear acceptance that our ‘customer’ is the American people, and our mission is protecting and promoting public heath. Our customers are NOT industry, and performance metrics should not be geared to appeasing industry stakeholders at the expense of the public.” Let the expertise of those career scientists be your guide!

Advisory Committee Shakeup Targets Independent Science and Scientists

Right now, the Trump administration is taking a backdoor approach to putting politics over science. There is a full-on assault afoot to strip away the independence of advisory committees at several government agencies. The reason? A renewed interest in shaping policies to fit particular political positions rather than having a basis in strong science.

On Friday, Scott Pruitt’s EPA failed to renew nine members on the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), the advisory committee that reviews the work of scientists within the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) on everything from chemical safety to air pollution to fracking. Despite being told that their positions were being renewed, an EPA spokesman has confirmed that the academics may instead be replaced with industry experts who better “understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.”

Typically BOSC members serve two three-year terms. Four members had finished their second term and were set to leave the committee, but half of the 18 BOSC members were set to begin their second term this month; instead the agency chose not to renew their terms. One of the first non-renewed members to go public, Robert Richardson, told the Washington Post, “I’ve never heard of any circumstance where someone didn’t serve two consecutive terms,” he said, adding that the dismissals gave him “great concern that objective science is being marginalized in this administration.”

Promoting conflicts of interest?

Science advice to agencies should be independent. This helps federal agencies make science-based decisions that keep us safe and healthy. But often this advice from scientists, which is based on objective reviews of the best available science, often doesn’t provide corporations with their ideal policy prescriptions.

Since this administration has illustrated time and time again its willingness to do industry’s bidding, political appointees at agencies are delaying and disrupting the way that these committees are supposed to work: independently and transparently with the public’s best interests at the heart of all evaluations.

To be clear, committee members are selected based on scientific merit, not political positions. According to a 2013 solicitation for committee members, the way that nominees are evaluated is based on the following:

(a) Scientific and/or technical expertise, knowledge, and experience;

(b) availability to serve and willingness to commit time to the committee (approximately one to three meetings per year including both face-to-face meetings and teleconferences);

(c) absence of financial conflicts of interest;

(d) absence of an appearance of a lack of impartiality;

(e) skills working on committees and advisory panels; and

(f) background and experiences that would contribute to the diversity of viewpoints on the committee/subcommittees, e.g., workforce sector; geographical location; social, cultural, and educational backgrounds; and professional affiliations.

Note that members of the committee must have an “absence” of conflicts of interest, not just a minimization of them. This language will be important to watch as the EPA puts out a call for nominations in the coming months to fill the 13 slots now sitting empty on the committee. Independent science advice must be free from undue political or financial pressure. While the advice coming from scientific advisory committees are not the only consideration for policy makers, the relied-upon science must be objective and independent in order to advance the government policies that best protect our health and safety.

EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire told the Washington Post that, “the agency may consider industry experts to serve on the board as long as these appointments do not pose a conflict of interest.”

I know a great way to avoid industry conflicts of interest: Hire independent academic scientists instead. Or maybe just keep the hardworking, well-respected scientists that were already planning on filling those positions for another three years.

Perhaps there’s another reason that Administrator Pruitt is looking for fresh committee members. According to the Washington Post, “Pruitt has been meeting with academics to talk about the matter and putting thought into which areas of investigation warrant attention from the agency’s scientific advisers.” Essentially, the EPA is taking a hard look at where industry experts could be a good fit.

The head of the BOSC’s Air, Climate, and Energy subcommittee, Viney Aneja, is one of the committee members who has not been renewed. What does that mean for this committee whose focus it is to review the work of the EPA ORD’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program? This is likely an area of special concern to Administrator Scott Pruitt, given that he does not acknowledge that climate change is due to human-generated emissions and therefore will be looking for ways to interfere with research efforts that support policies that take action on climate change. This same kind of influence would be troubling for the EPA ORD’s five other research programs: chemical safety for sustainability, human health risk assessment, homeland security research program, safe and sustainable water resources, and sustainable and healthy communities.

EPA spokesperson J.P Freire also said that “We’re not going to rubber-stamp the last administration’s appointees. Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool.” He continued, “This approach is what was always intended for the board, and we’re making a clean break with the last administration’s approach.” But if this was always the intent for the board, why is it only being instituted now, more than 20 years after the committee was established? Why, if these scientists still have expertise that fits the needs of the committee would they need to make this change to the process?

An assault on independent science advice

This current assault on the way that our government seeks science advice from outside experts is not unique to the EPA. The Interior Department is now “reviewing the charter and charge” of more than 200 advisory committees according to agency officials. Administrator Ryan Zinke has postponed the work of these committees in the meantime, including the Bureau of Land Management’s 30 resource advisory committees, the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, and issue-specific panels that take on issues like invasive species and wildlife trafficking.

Earlier in the year, members of Congress introduced the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act, which seeks to change the requirements for the EPA SAB so as to give industry greater influence while adding extra burdens that make it harder for the committee to meet its charge of providing science advice. I wrote about the potential harms of this bill here.

Following the playbook on political interference in science

This is not the first time that scientific advisory panels have been targeted for political interference in the United States. During the G.W. Bush administration, agency officials subjected nominees to political litmus tests that had no bearing on their expertise and appointed members to committees with serious conflicts of interest. For example, 19 of 26 candidates for an advisory board at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center were rejected, three of which because of their views on abortion or because of their public criticism of the president. Three qualified experts were dismissed from a peer review panel at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for supporting a health standard opposed by the administration. In 2002, HHS placed several individuals with known ties to the paint industry on a lead-poisoning advisory panel, while rejecting highly qualified candidates nominated by HHS scientists. Ultimately the panel did not support lowering the lead-poisoning threshold, despite strong scientific evidence that even very low lead levels harm children.

Some panels have been disbanded altogether because members’ research findings were inconvenient for the administration. In 2003, for example, White House officials abolished a highly distinguished expert committee that advised the National Nuclear Security Administration because its members had published papers on the ineffectiveness of “bunker buster” nuclear weapons, which the administration planned to develop. This type of behavior is antithetical to the way in which science should be used in policy making.

Undermining science, aiding industry

Representative Lamar Smith said of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) earlier in the year that, “The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government…The conflict of interest here is clear.” Smith and several other Republicans misunderstand what a conflict of interest is and what independent science advice should be.

A scientific advisory committee should be composed of scientists who are experts in their fields and who are qualified to evaluate scientific research to help agencies meet their missions to protect public health and the environment. Period. One thing advisory committees are not, and should never be, are venues for industry to insert junk science and spread misinformation about science that protects our public health and safety.

This isn’t 1984. You can’t just throw scientific conclusions into the metaphorical memory hole. Likewise, you can’t just discard independent scientists and halt the work of important scientific bodies under the radar without public backlash. We are watching this administration and will stand up for science whenever we see that it is being sidelined in the name of political or industry interests. You can follow along as we document attacks on science by the Trump administration and Congress and look for ways to push back.

What’s Next After the Peoples Climate March? Riding the Momentum and Bringing It Home

Were you at the 2017 Peoples Climate March? Or one of its sister marches? If so—or if you just caught the story on the news—you know that something big just happened.

In 90+ degree heat, just a week after an overlapping science march, an estimated 200,000 people turned out in Washington, DC to show their anger and resolve for US climate action. Tens of thousands more took part at an additional 370 marches across the country.

So now what?

The climate justice block of the People’s Climate March gets ready to march. Credit: UCS/Audrey Eyring

Marchers will long remember the heat that day. It forced many people to the sidelines for shade, rest, and hydration. I rested there about halfway through with my group of 20 friends and family, while my 72-year old dad tried to recover from heat exhaustion and my kids blew bubbles over the streaming crowd. He had taken the sleepless overnight bus from Maine so he could travel with his activist friends. When my aunt tried to get him to leave he asked to sit a while and “watch his people” march by. In all our glory.

For people like him who have been at this a long time, and for those new to the fight who need a reason to stay in it, the march is a chance to see a whole world of people of common cause, be reminded of our strength, and return to our work with new resolve. In this political moment, April 29, 2017 was a unique gift.

These two boys traveled from Massachusetts for the march. My son on the left. His friend’s sign reads: Climate Warrior in the Making. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

By all accounts, the march was a success. But now we’re back home, rested, and wondering: what now?

There are paths from the march to the kind of climate wins we so badly need—and UCS is working hard to identify and prioritize which high-impact actions should come next. But there’s one tactic that all of us should employ as we return to our daily lives in the wake of this historic march: We need to bring it home. The most egregious actions may be coming from DC, but many of the fights to block them must play out locally.

We need to take every opportunity to be heard, to say loud and clear that undercutting climate science and sidelining climate solutions is bad for our country, our economy, our community, and our families.

We need to speak up in our local papers, at public events, with opinion leaders and influential communities, with our neighbors, and with our elected officials.

We need to remind everybody that America runs on science, that America depends on climate solutions, and that we will keep fighting until we get there.

Momentum and resolve: It’s not the moment, it’s the movement.

Like so many other groups, UCS was out in force on Saturday (we were the ones rolling the giant chalkboard). And like so many others, we were there not only because of our history of work on climate change, but also because in this moment, with climate science and policy under assault, the climate movement can not afford to be back on its heels; we need to regain our momentum and show our resolve.

The climate fortunes have swung far, too far, and in a terrible direction. Now it’s time to come roaring back.

The crowds that mustered for this march showed that the reversal is under way and gaining momentum.

The Peoples March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice” succeeded in bringing together one of the broadest coalitions in recent memory: scientists, environmental justice advocates, indigenous groups, youth leaders, faith groups, policy advocates, labor groups, business leaders, green groups, human rights groups, politicians, and more… and at the fore of it all, everyday folks from communities on the front lines of climate change. Check out these beautiful photos. It’s a big tent, with a deliberately broad agenda: in the motto “We Resist, We Build, We Rise,” there’s something for everyone to rally behind.

And as we find our place in this movement, we—as individuals and organizations—need to clarify our role, take it up, and live into it with resolve.

One role in the movement: Standing up for science

For many of us, that role is standing up for science.

There are some key tactics that the current administration is deploying as part of its strategy to dismantle existing climate policies and advance science-free policy making, to the non-coincidental benefit of fossil fuel interests. These include anti-science rhetoric, staffing federal agencies with anti-science administrators, denying or misleading on science, and pursuing deep budget cuts to vital science-based functions of the federal government.

One role is to stop them wherever we can.

UCS—including our science network, members, and half a million activists—is keeping a close eye as a watchdog for anti-science policy actions and budget cuts at the federal level, and activating measures to push back on assaults by Congress and the administration. Even with federal leadership as egregiously anti-science as this, this is something we and this movement know how to do.

But none of us came here to play defense for four years. And as our movement gains momentum, opportunities will open up for us to combine our defensive stance with an offensive one.

This march was planned many months ago to mark the 100th day in office of the new president. Many of us anticipated pushing for stronger climate policies under a climate-friendly president. No one imagined 100 days quite like these, but here we are. And right now the climate movement—and the larger “resistance” it is part of—have incredible energy and, let’s face it, anger to channel. So let us start taking the fight to them.

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We resist. We build. We rise.

This is what it looks like when 200,000 people march together for climate, jobs, and justice. It is absolutely beautiful. Together, we will chart a different path forward: away from Trump’s agenda of a cruel, polluted, and divided country, and towards a clean energy economy that works for everyone.

Posted by People's Climate Movement on Sunday, April 30, 2017

Going on offense: Showing up, speaking out, making it hurt

After months spent largely on defense, strategies are gelling to channel the national climate movement into dispersed, localized climate action. Many of the attacks on science originate from DC, but most must be fought locally. So here are some thoughts:

  • Going after attacks on science – Denying climate science and denigrating climate scientists is a tactic that has had too many users and too few costs for those who use it. It’s time for constituents to raise the political costs for elected leaders, and make it hurt, politically, when they deploy anti-science rhetoric or actions.
  • Fighting silence (and complicity) – Science, facts, and reason form the very foundation of a strong democracy—indeed, of America itself. They protect our health. They keep our communities, families, and children safe. They safeguard our future. And right now, too many elected leaders are silent as science, facts, and reason are dragged through the mud on their watch. It’s time to start calling out the spinelessness of these elected officials and hold them accountable when they let such threats to our democracy go unchallenged. Looking back, no one will parse the difference between silence and complicity. History has its eyes on them—and we’ve got their offices on speed dial.
  • Standing with each other – To “Resist, Build and Rise” we need to strengthen our movement even as it grows. A colleague’s favorite quote from the PCM organizing experience was “If you’re not arguing, your coalition isn’t big enough.” Creating space to grow—for groups to see themselves in the movement, step in, find a voice and a role—is vital. For us to hold that growing movement together, though, and see it grow stronger, we need to be good allies. Individuals or groups need to find and take opportunities to stand with each other and elevate those voices that too often get drowned out—and we need to do so not just on march day.

Resistance groups like Indivisible and the Town Hall Project have captured specific tactics for going on offense locally—strategies and tactics that are relevant for and essential to the climate fight. We in the climate movement can label the nesting dolls however we like, depending on our priority issues; the point is the fights are often one and the same, and so many of the tactics can be as well. Here are some:

  • Contact your legislators and keep on contacting. Phone calls work. If you can’t get through to their Washington, DC, office, try your local office. It’s also effective to send postcards.
  • Plan to visit your legislators during a congressional recess. You can find out when your legislators are home for work periods by checking here for the Senate and here for the House.
  • When planning your visit, think about people you know who could be powerful persuaders, especially friends who are from another party, who are medical or public health professionals, or who represent business, faith, or veterans groups.
  • Watch your local news and read your local paper. Respond quickly to stories, articles, or opinion pieces that cast doubt on climate science or downplay the need for climate action. Tips for responding to the media can be found here.
  • Show up at town halls held in your district or in neighboring cities and be heard. You can find information on upcoming town halls here. And remember, speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.
  • You can of course join a UCS mailing list, watch out for action alerts from us, and make time to take the action suggested. Whenever possible, go beyond the one-click action: Personalize your email to your legislator or your comment to a federal agency. Or show up at a rally outside your legislator’s office.
  • And stay in touch with the Peoples Climate Movement and with UCS as we roll out tactics and tools for getting this job done.
Until next time….

During the march, my seven-year old struggled with the heat, especially during the long stretch before the crowds began moving. He was sporting a T-shirt hand-painted for the march. (Al Gore, god love him, had been kind enough to praise his choice of text, “Small But Mighty,” and ignore the giant chocolate ice cream stain running neck to waist.) He had been chanting to himself in the bathroom “when I say climate, you say justice!” He had made his own sign and used at least 300 pieces of tape to secure it to the pole. He was ready!

Only now he was done. Spent. Ready to go home.

Sound familiar?

We took turns blowing up an enormous, oversized beach ball and when it was done, he launched it into the sea of people. It was volleyed around our area for a while, but as warned, soon bounced out of sight, the sound of delighted marchers wafting back to us. Mid-way through the march, I hoisted him up to see it again, far in the distance, this time being sent high into the air by many hands on a painted parachute. He glowed. Just like I did, two-stepping with strangers to a brass band. Just like my dad did watching us all stream by. Maybe just like you did at some point on April 29.

And with that, one 7-year old was refreshed and ready for action. Strangers celebrating the simplest joys, even while engaged in one of the strongest acts of protest: it’s a gift we give each other that renews and stays with us.

Thank you, people of the Peoples Climate March. Until next time.

The Guardians of the Future, the group my family marched in, make their way through the heat. Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring

 

Climate Adaptation, Adaptive Climate Justice, and People with Disabilities.

Climate activism tends to frame climate change as a problem to be solved by fighting against it, raising calls to reduce emissions in order to minimize or avoid the consequences of climate change (“climate mitigation”).

Cutting emissions is certainly important, as lower emissions will lead to smaller temperature increases, with less intense climate impacts along with it, compared to a high-emissions scenario. But in contrast to this rhetoric, the truth is that we cannot stop climate change outright and avoid its consequences – and even with our best efforts, the world will still be a vastly different place.

A 2016 report analyzed the climate impacts of a 1.5°C world and the impacts in a 2.0°C world, and both showed marked increases in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (including storms and heat waves), variations in crop yields, rising sea levels and expanding coral bleaching. 2.0°C was shown to be a drastically different world indeed.

Other experts are predicting us passing the global target to a much scarier future. A recent paper projects that 2.5°C may be possible with extreme measures in a realistic political climate, but even that would prove difficult.  Given this inevitability and its intensity, reducing carbon emissions is not enough – we should prepare for what’s on the way.

When we prepare, we need to keep everybody in mind, and especially the most vulnerable groups with the least resources and ability to adapt on their own. This is what I like to call “adaptive climate justice,” which also creates a level playing field in the face of historical inequalities and oppressions.

One of the most vulnerable populations with the fewest resources, and the most unique needs, are people with disabilities. The reasons are vast. Among other things, evacuating storms and other emergencies requires focused planning. Heatwaves especially affect people with fragile health, climate migration is phenomenally difficult for this group, and people with disabilities are often the first to be abandoned under the age-old triage mentality.

In response to all these issues, adaptation needs to include the concerns of people with disabilities and value us as individuals to protect. This adaptive climate justice must happen with full force, and start happening now.

Climate adaptation: How the science community can help (in addition to more research)

Climate change is guaranteed to progress in the years to come regardless of our level of emissions, and each degree of warming will lead to yet stronger consequences.

As storms become stronger, oceans rise, and droughts intensify, we must adapt our societies and way of life to match our new environment. This may mean improving our disaster response and reinforcing our infrastructure for stronger storms, or transforming our water management systems to better handle drought.

The International Organization on Migration notes a widely-cited estimate of 200 million “environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis,” so in some cases, we may even need to explore managed & proactive relocation – or at least developing systems that are able to handle domestic and even international migration.

Unfortunately, climate activists are already encountering barriers to change system-wide and plenty of resistance from those in power, even when it comes to switching to renewables. Pushing for these new efforts at adaptation  will be no small task and may challenge our capability for change, but it is vital to protect lives and well-being.

How can the scientific community help in these efforts? We need to be more forthright about what the science points to:  climate change is going to get worse, and we need to get ready. It ultimately does a disservice to the public to tell them that things will stay stable so long as we install solar panels and wind farms and switch to electric cars.

People are liable to be caught off-guard, while governments and other actors are less likely to prepare for the one-time events (i.e. stronger storms) and gradual transformations (i.e. sea level rise or migration) coming our way.

If we drive home the need to adapt – and use our public legitimacy to do so – then stakeholders are much more likely to get the ball rolling.

Our community must use our expertise to find the best actions to adapt to climate change.  A large amount of energy is already spent on understanding climate consequences and developing renewable technologies, yet a much smaller resource is dedicated to developing plans for adaptation. The resources devoted to both clearly need to grow to a massive extent – but it’s vital to use a larger portion of our energy to develop plans, working with stakeholders to implement them widely.

Adaptive climate justice and people with disabilities

As the climate changes, it is increasingly clear that certain populations are affected more significantly than others – and this will continue into the future. Groups most affected include women, children, people of color, people with disabilities, lower-income communities, and those in areas with especially distinct and significant climate exposure (i.e. low-lying island states or already-arid regions).

People in developing countries are also an incredibly important group on the international front, as they are often the hardest hit with very few resources to adapt (and historically put out the fewest emissions) – and it is a moral imperative to support those nations at a global scale.

Activists are already raising their voices in a call for “climate justice” that protects these populations from climate change itself. However, even this largely focuses on mitigation. “These populations are getting hit hardest by climate change,” the rhetoric goes, “so we must prevent warming to protect their well-being. Stopping global warming is a matter of climate justice.”

Mitigating climate change will certainly help these many oppressed and vulnerable groups, and is arguably the most essential first line of defense. Yet there is another piece of climate justice that we must include moving forward.

True climate justice also needs to provide the resources needed to adapt and create equity for all – and transform our systems to do the same. This adaptive climate justice must identify vulnerable groups, determine where their vulnerability lies, and ensure that the international community provides resources and other changes to tackle those needs head on. What might this mean? At the broad scale, wealthy countries can provide resources and assistance to aid developing countries, whether it is through disaster relief funding or technology for drought-resilient crops. (The State Department and USAID have participated in climate-related supports, but these are under threat to proposed budget cuts at the federal level).

Domestic justice can do the same at many levels: for example, ensuring access to air-conditioning for people in poor quality housing or those who can’t afford higher electric bills, including the needs and voices of marginalized communities in disaster readiness and response (DRR) at the federal (i.e. FEMA) and State/local levels, and even reinforcing government services for the potential turmoil of climate stress.

At the World Institute on Disability, our “New Earth Disability” project is addressing adaptive climate justice for people with disabilities (PWD). The diverse disability population includes those with physical disabilities, sensory disabilities (i.e. low vision or hearing), developmental disabilities, psychological disabilities, chronic health conditions and more. PWDs are present in every other population group at a rate of approximately 15%-meaning that our community is spread worldwide and amongst income levels, gender, race, nationality, etc.

People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of health factors, personal and medical needs, and already-existing marginalization. Among other things our community may be isolated during disasters and unable to maintain healthcare and personal supports, have poor health when encountering heat waves or similar effects, and experience disproportionate poverty with reduced ability to manage resource stresses or adapt overall.

Climate-related migration is an especially large issue: people with disabilities are liable to lack access to accessible transportation, become disconnected from personal support networks, lose vital government and healthcare services, or simply be turned away at borders because of their disability status. It’s our job to learn more about these many problems and tackle them head-on.

The many solutions will include resilient government and healthcare services, disability-inclusive DRR, and even managing migration through accessible transit, housing and more.

Switching to an adaptive climate justice mindset and beginning those preparations will require collaboration, focused planning, effective resources, and wide-scale public education (especially for the disability and climate change communities). As a part of the New Earth Disability initiative, we encourage other stakeholders to tackle this challenge and join us in our efforts.

Alex Ghenis is a disability and climate change activist in Berkeley, California. He is the lead project manager for the New Earth Disability project at the World Institute on Disability (WID), which addresses how people with disabilities will be affected by climate change and necessary actions to adapt, and his other work at WID addresses financial literacy and employment policies for people with disabilities. Outside of WID, Alex is a regular contributor to New Mobility magazine, an occasional actor, and a talented slam poet. You can find him on Twitter at @aghenis.

For more details and general thoughts on the connections between climate change and disability, please visit the WID webpage at www.WID.org/NED. WID welcomes opportunities for partnership, outreach, and any projects regarding research or full initiatives. If you are interested in connecting, please email Alex Ghenis at Alex@WID.org.

 

 

Worker Memorial Day: 13 Workplace Fatalities Occur Every Day in the United States

Amidst the groundswell of information, energy, and genuine excitement around last week’s March for Science and the upcoming People’s Climate March, there’s another global and national event that should not get lost in the mix.

This one relates to workers—you know, those dedicated and hardy souls that are the backbone of what makes America great.

Workers, the engine of our economy, are also our partners, children, relatives, co-workers, friends, and neighbors. And too many of them get more than a paycheck for their efforts (recognizing that the paycheck they do get may be less than a living wage). Some of our nation’s workers die, get sick, injured, or become disabled because of workplace exposures, hazards, and conditions. And these workplace incidents are largely (very largely) preventable.

April 28— Workers Memorial Day. The day each year that we recognize, commemorate, and honor these workers. It is also a day to renew the fight for safe workplaces. It’s more important now than ever.

Data give us a quantitative look into these preventable events, but they don’t begin to capture the horror and loss they entail. Just imagine having to deal with the knowledge that a loved one was suffocated in a trench collapse; asphyxiated by chemical fumes; shot during a workplace robbery; seriously injured while working with a violent patient or client; killed or injured from a fall or a scaffolding collapse; or living with an amputation caused by an unguarded machine.

Or the heartache of watching a loved one who literally can’t catch a breath because of work-related respiratory disease. Or is incapacitated by a serious musculoskeletal injury. Or has contracted hepatitis B or HIV because of exposure to a blood-borne pathogen at work.

I could go on—but you get the picture.

What the latest data tell us:

Workplace injury fatalities: In 2015, 4,836 U.S. workers died from work-related injuries, the highest number since 2008.

That’s about 13 people every day! In the United States!

The number of immigrant workers killed on the job reached a nearly 10-year high, with Latino workers having an 18% higher fatality rate than the national average. Work in construction, transportation, and agriculture continues to be the most dangerous, and workplace violence remains a growing problem for workers. Older workers are also at high risk, with those 65 or older 2.5 times more likely to die on the job.

Deaths from work-related illness: Deaths from work-related occupational disease (like silicosis, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (Black Lung), occupational cancer, etc) are not well-captured in data surveillance systems. It is estimated that another 50,000-60,000 died from occupational diseases—an astounding number. And, for many, their deaths come years after suffering debilitating and painful symptoms.

Non-fatal cases: And then there are the nonfatal injuries and illnesses. Employers reported approximately 2.9 million of them in private industry workers in 2015; another 752,600 injury and illness cases were reported among the approximately 18.4 million state and local government workers (1).

In addition to the physical and emotional toll these preventable incidents take on workers and their families, they exact an enormous economic cost. The societal cost of work-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses was estimated at $250 billion in 2007 based on medical costs and productivity losses (2). I suspect these costs are well higher today (1). They are certainly not less.

Glass half empty, half full

Despite these data, it’s important to note that workplace health and safety in the U.S. is a LOT better than it used to be, due in large measure to the struggles of labor unions and working people, along with the efforts of federal and state agencies. Workplace fatalities and injuries have declined significantly, and exposures to toxic chemicals have been reduced.

This progress is a testament to the effectiveness of health and safety regulations and science-based research.

We can thank the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for many of these protections and safeguards. We must also acknowledge and thank the persistence, energy, and efforts of the workers, unions, researchers, and advocates that have pushed these agencies along the way.

[OSHA and NIOSH were established by Congress in 1970; the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was establishes in 1977 (although the first federal mine safety stature was passed in 1891). OSHA’s statutory mandate is “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” NIOSH was established as a research agency focused on the study of worker safety and health to empower employers and workers to create safe and healthy workplaces. MSHA works to prevent death, illness, and injury from mining and to promote safe and healthful workplaces for U.S. miners.]

Despite this progress, there’s much more to be done. It’s simply not acceptable that each and every day in this country, on average 13 workers die on the job as a result of workplace injuries.

It’s not acceptable that each year, many thousands more die from occupational diseases. And that millions sustain non-life threatening injuries and illnesses that impact their daily lives.

The human, social, and economic toll is simply far too high. [Remember: this is all largely preventable.]

With the current anti-regulatory fervor and anti-science fervor in our nation’s capital, the protections, safeguards, science, and research of these agencies are at great risk. We have already seen the Trump Administration and congressional actions roll back some worker protections and block or delay others. Agency budgets and programs are on the chopping block.

Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant and vocal in our support for worker health and safety safeguards and protections.

So, as we get ready to head out to work today and tomorrow , let’s pause for a minute on Worker Memorial Day to remember those workers who have lost so much because of their jobs— along with those who continue to produce the goods and services we all enjoy, depend on, and often take for granted. And let’s get ready to use our voice, votes, and collective power to demand and defend rules, standards, policies, and science-based safeguards that protect this most precious national resource—our working men and women.

UCS will keep you posted on how and when you can weigh in. Let’s do this.

  1. AFL-CIO. Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2017. Available at https://aflcio.org/reports/death-job-toll-neglect-2017
  2. Leigh JP. Economic burden of occupational injury and illness in the United States. Millbank Q 2011;89:728–72.

A Peer Review of the March For Science

This past weekend, the March For Science drew hundreds of thousands of scientists and science supporters onto the streets in 600 locations on six continents. It was, by most accounts (including those of science historians), an unprecedented event. But big-picture speaking, how did it do?

“Pluses and deltas” is a popular retrospective exercise amongst grassroots organizers, and offers a constructive way to answer this question. It asks: where did we go right (pluses), and how can we improve (deltas)? Here are my top two pluses and deltas for the March For Science.

Plus #1: The March For Science mobilized the immobilizable. As a scientist-activist who has been organizing scientist-led campaigns and rallies under hashtags like #StandWithScience for several years, I know first hand how hard it can be to get introverted, politically-ambivalent scientists worked up—let alone out of their labs and into the streets. In that sense, last Saturday was incredible. “The march represented a sort of coming-out party for many scientists flexing a fledgling political muscle,” Vox’s Brian Resnick observed. In D.C. he met Charlotte Froese Fischer, an 87-year-old atomic physicist who “until today…had never attended a political rally of any kind, let alone one for science.” At March For Science rallies at Harvard and MIT, I was delighted to see not just the usual suspects, but hundreds of mildly uncomfortable academics who had clearly never waved a sign or chanted in public before (I’ve been there). For many, this was a gateway into political engagement and activism.

Plus #2: The March For Science forced many scientists—not to mention the public, press, and politicians—to grapple with the role of science in society and the relationship between science and politics. As scientists with little or no past experience in political engagement wrestled for the first time with the fear of politicizing science, the march went from officially apolitical to political-but-non-partisan. As my advisor, Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, points out, research indicates that this fear is just that—a fear, unsubstantiated by historical evidence and peer-reviewed experiments, which show that scientists’ credibility is robust to science-advocacy. Indeed, scientists appear to have largely brought this fear upon themselves by conflating the idea of science in the abstract (the scientific method) with the application of science in the real world. In so doing, we handed journalists an irresistible ‘controversy’ over (mostly) semantics. And yet, with time, the march’s communications improved, and on the day, its global message was unambiguous: science serves society.

The march’s successes have helped normalize science-activism, injecting momentum and political potential into this new “science voter” bloc. Capitalizing on this momentum, however, will take work. For me, the deltas of the March For Science involve better embracing the sociopolitical realities in which science operates.

Delta #1: Having fumbled with the largely mythical fear of politicizing science, scientists must now truly move on if we are to become more effective campaigners and messengers. This means not just rallying in the abstract about the importance of science (“I love science!”), but speaking out on specific issues where science is being trampled on by politicians and policymakers. Climate change epitomizes this. At its best, the March For Science offered a profound statement of our values as scientists, which is a crucial start. But a truly effective narrative for social change also requires a story of “now”: a moment of crisis that challenges those values. By not explicitly articulating President Trump’s war on science (and, accordingly, on all of us) as one of the targets of our protest, the March left room for improvement.

Delta #2: Scientist-activists must embrace the intersectionality of science with politics, race, class, gender, corporatism, and so on. Here, I am referring not to diversity within academia, as exceptionally important and related as it is, but to how the science movement (comprising both scientists and science lovers) sees its place in the world. Unlike the scientific method, the science movement does not—and should never—exist in a bubble. We should embrace opportunities to connect science to real-world issues, both in what we say and who we collaborate with.

In my own field of energy and climate change, for example, we should talk about how last year alone, the solar industry hired more people than the coal industry employs in its entirety. We should talk about how fossil fuel pollution and climate change disproportionately harm and kill minorities and indigenous groups. In short, we should stand in solidarity with those whom our science strives to protect. Not only is this the right thing to do, it is politically effective; by building narratives of shared values, we can broaden our coalition and win the political story wars. The movement for a just and stable low-carbon future doesn’t stop at the laboratory’s edge, but for too many scientists, it still does.

At Saturday’s march, amidst the geeky signs and nerdy chants, Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr.—a leading figure in the climate movement and a VIP guest of the March For Science—was, he reports, a victim in broad daylight of a racist assault by D.C. police officers. “The deeply disappointing truth of this Earth Day case of racial profiling,” Yearwood observes, “was that none of my fellow science marchers stopped or took issue with what was happening. They didn’t question or pause to witness in a way that one would for a member of one’s community.” Of course, the inactions of those present do not represent all marchers or scientists. But in that random sampling—at that moment on that crosswalk—solidarity was absent.

This coming Saturday, April 29, the People’s Climate March offers an immediate opportunity for scientists and science supporters alike to build on the pluses of the March For Science, and to work on our collective deltas. In DC and 250 sister marches nationwide, hundreds of thousands of us will stand up for climate, jobs, and justice. It is an important first test. Can we find the moral courage to not only celebrate values like evidence-based policy, but put them into action on real-world issues like climate change? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones to call out the Trump administration’s anti-science pandering to fossil fuel interests? Is this a moment, or a movement?

 

Dr. Geoffrey Supran is a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT and in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. He has a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT. He has co-led several campaigns to mobilize scientists to engage in climate advocacy, including the fossil fuel divestment campaign at MIT, an open letter from academics urging Donald Trump to take climate action, and the #StandUpForScience rallies in San Francisco and Boston, which were the first major scientist protests against the Trump administration. He spoke at the Harvard March For Science.

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.

I’m Elise, and I’m a Scientist Marching in the Peoples Climate March. This Is Why.

There have been times throughout history when great people have acted to better unfortunate situations.  However, if we examine social and political history you will find times where man had great opportunity to act but did not. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged this behavior by questioning, “How can a man sleep through a revolution?” With a consensus among scientists that climate change is attributed to human activities, we have a unique opportunity unlike any other to exhibit consciousness in the face of a changing climate.

To me, the Peoples Climate March represents a gathering of the masses to make known that we are not asleep; that we recognize the revolution, embrace its challenges, and welcome equitable solutions that will reshape a more sustainable world for all. The Peoples Climate March is more than just a day of people walking in the streets of DC. It is a collection of love and of care and represents the power of people and sound science.

As a scientist I am well aware of the impacts of climate change. We know with great confidence that the sea level will rise, flooding homes and cities. In the Northeast, for example, the region depends on aging infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to climate hazards. The Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the U.S. This increase combined with coastal flooding creates major risk for damage to homes, buildings, infrastructure and life.

We also know that in my home, the Southeast, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, leaving many vulnerable. We understand that temperatures are rising, increasing heat-related illness and deaths. The U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since 1895. According to data from NASA and NOAA, 2016 was the warmest year on record. We know that there will be changes in precipitation causing floods in some areas and droughts in others; and that there will be expansion of the geographic range of hosts of vectors that cause diseases like Zika. These are just a few of the changes we expect to occur.

These changes will mean that people will have to migrate to new areas of the country, more people will deal with the associated mental and emotional health issues, and culture will be lost when people migrate from communities where their family has lived for years to new lands. All of these are consequences of a changing climate, but will those who are rich, those who have made millions of dollars off of carbon intensive industries, have to experience this burden? Not to the extent that the general population will. The impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly.

People of color, Indigenous Peoples, and low-income communities bear disproportionate burdens from climate change itself, from ill-designed policies to prevent it, and from side effects of the energy systems that cause it. Climate change affects our health, housing, economic well-being, culture, and social stability. As a graduate of Tuskegee University, a Historically Black College (HBCU), utilizing knowledge to benefit people, specifically the most vulnerable, was a foundational part of my training. I believe that using my knowledge to work towards a more just climate change agenda is very important and that we must ensure that equity, including addressing racism and classism, be at the cornerstone of all policies and plans.

Climate change presents an opportunity for producing a more just society with a more robust economy. We can provide jobs that help traditionally impoverished people get out of poverty; we can create policies that improve the lives of all, and promote a more sustainable framework for living on this Earth.

I am marching because as a scientist, I understand the science that leads to the impacts; as a person, I empathize with those who are vulnerable to those impacts; and as a global citizen, I have a duty to take action.

 

Elise Marie Tolbert is an ASPPH/EPA Environmental Health Fellow in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Indoor Environments Division. She is currently working on a project to better understand and address heat stress among vulnerable populations. Through her work, she hopes to ensure equity in environmental planning and decision-making. Elise received her B.S. in Environmental Science from Tuskegee University and Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. Elise’s research has explored how pollutants and unhealthy features of the environment can affect human health. Furthermore, she seeks to examine how improving environmental health can produce social justice. Ms. Tolbert’s interests include climate change, environmental health policy, environmental justice and sustainable community development. Her future interest includes continuing her professional education and developing a career in which she can strategically work to alleviate the burden of environmental hazards, specifically for historically disadvantaged populations. Elise also serves as the Founder and Director of Next Step Up, a mentoring and tutoring program in Tuskegee, AL. Through this program, college students assist local high school students by providing the skills and motivation needed to reach their academic and personal goals.

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.

 

March for Science: A Search for Truth, Trust, and Public Support

“Sure, this is nice and all, but be honest, can’t you prove just about anything with ‘a study?’” I’m all too familiar with this question, and I think it stems largely from one simple fact. As scientists, my colleagues and I spend too much time in our labs worried about truth and too little time connecting with the public and building trust. That’s why you’ll find me at the March for Science this weekend along with thousands of my friends and neighbors.

As a professor at Wayne State, the focus of my research is combustion. Almost everyone uses combustion every day. When controlled correctly, combustion in a car’s engine maximizes fuel economy, with a minimum of pollutant emission. These regulations directly impact the economy and public health. But from 2009 to 2015 vehicles sold from VW cheated on these regulations.

How was this cheating uncovered? It was research done a small university lab in the mountains of West Virginia that provided the data which alerted the public to this problem. The shocking part? The WVU study was published May 30, 2014, but the notice of violation from the air resources board did not go to VW until September 2015 and appeared only after VW had made its own public admission. The lack of communication among scientists, the media, and the public prevents environmental crises like this, and others, from reaching us quickly enough.

This is part of what the March for Science is all about. Getting attention paid to science and making sure science gets the support it needs. President Trump’s budget proposal cuts funding to basic science, slashing programs within the NIH, EPA, NASA between 10 and 30 percent, for a net savings of just less than 10 billion, while simultaneously ballooning spending in the military by 52 billion. This kind of policy shift away from science and towards the military is a dangerous shift in US priorities towards ‘might makes right.’  We must stand together against this dangerous idea.

Science brings us together because the essence of science is consensus. That’s a word I wish I heard more coming out of Washington. We must hold all elected leadership accountable to facts. Without support for and trust in science, we don’t have a common basis of facts to decide  what to do next.  I hope you’ll agree that the time is ripe to March for Science and that you’ll walk alongside me as I hold up my sign: “Science is pro-testing,” but if you can’t, then I hope to see you back in Detroit!

 

Dr. W. Ethan Eagle is a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering at Wayne State, and he supports the student-led effort to charter a bus from WSU to DC to attend the Science March on Washington. You can help support those students here https://www.gofundme.com/march-for-sciencewsu.  In Michigan, there are planned marches in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing. Find out more about the events at marchforscience.com.

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.

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