Catalyst Winter 2017

Standing Strong for Science and Democracy

Protesters standing up for science


Photos: Julie Dermansky, Jean Sideris/UCS, Liz Lemon/Flickr

UCS is ready to respond when Trump administration policies threaten public health and safety or weaken the role of science in policymaking.

By Seth Shulman

Early on a wintry morning at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters of the Union of Concerned Scientists, as most staff members are just arriving at work, a dedicated team is already hunkered in a conference room, hard at work—as they have been each morning since the election—monitoring news about the incoming Trump administration, prioritizing available resources, and overseeing the organization’s rapid response. This morning’s top agenda item: responding to the dismaying announcement that then President–elect Donald Trump plans to appoint ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to head the US State Department.

The group readies a press response that includes a forceful statement from UCS President Ken Kimmell that Tillerson’s nomination is further evidence that “President-elect Trump is creating a government of, by, and for the oil and gas industry.” Before the day is out, the sound bite will reverberate in press accounts around the world.

Public Health and Safety at Stake

After one of the most contentious US elections in memory—and based on everything we know so far about the Trump administration—federal decisionmaking based on science, data, and evidence now faces an enormous threat. In no sense did American voters grant the new president a mandate to turn back the clock. And yet, the election results raise the specter of backsliding on the critical progress our nation has made on many vital issues.

UCS is mobilizing as fast as we can because we recognize how much is at stake.

Science. Evidence. Facts. Reason.

They form the very foundation of a strong democracy—indeed, of America itself. They protect our health. They keep our communities, families, and children safe. As an organization, we will not sit passively by when our health and safety are threatened. We will not be silent in the face of an administration that has already begun to fill its ranks with people like Tillerson, whose company has worked to confuse the public about climate change. Or politicians such as Scott Pruitt—the Trump nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency—who has actively sued the agency in recent years to prevent it from enforcing clean air and clean water safeguards. We will stand strong for science and democracy.

“Scientists will pay close attention to how the Trump administration governs, and are prepared to fight any attempts to undermine the role of science in protecting public health and the environment,” says James McCarthy, UCS board chair emeritus, professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University, and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “We will hold them to a high standard from day one.”

“Americans recognize that science is critical to improving our quality of life, and when science is ignored or politically corrupted, it’s the American people who suffer,” says physicist Lewis Branscomb, a UCS member and professor at the University of California–San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy who has served as vice president and chief scientist at IBM and as director of the National Bureau of Standards under President Richard Nixon. “Respect for science in policy making should be a prerequisite for any cabinet position.”

Of paramount concern are climate change and other vital issues of public health and safety. As a UCS statement explains, without investments in science in the public interest and policies that draw upon scientific evidence, “children will be more vulnerable to lead poisoning, more people will be exposed to unsafe drugs and medical devices, and we will be less prepared to limit the impacts of increasing extreme weather and rising seas.”

UCS Outreach Coordinator Liz Schmitt shows up for science in Washington, DC.

UCS Outreach Coordinator Liz Schmitt shows up for science in Washington, DC.
Photo: Liz Schmitt/UCS

But we also recognize that this new administration poses potential threats not just to science but to our democratic principles as well. “At UCS, we reject rhetoric and will resist actions that divide the nation by race, religion, gender, geography, or any other factor,” says UCS President Ken Kimmell. “We cannot move forward to tackle the enormous challenges of our time without a cohesive, respectful, and pluralistic society.”

And that means, among other things, continuing the organization’s strong commitment to environmental justice and policies that help protect everyone—especially low-income communities, tribal communities, and communities of color who bear a disproportionate burden of climate impacts and environmental degradation.

A Watchdog for Science

Drawing upon nearly 50 years of experience, UCS is fast positioning itself as a leading watchdog of science-based public policy in the new administration. (For more on our track record fighting for scientific integrity during the George W. Bush administration, see the Then and Now column) In the months to come, we will scrutinize all legislation and proposed regulations that serve special interests above the public interest, we will expose the actors behind it, and we will mobilize the scientific community and the broader public to fight back as needed.

With impressive speed, UCS has already taken preemptive action. We released an open letter to the Trump administration and Congress urging them to set a high bar for integrity, transparency, and independence when using science to inform federal policies. The letter has now been signed by more than 5,500 scientists from all 50 states, including 25 Nobel Prize recipients and several advisors to Republican and Democratic presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama (see the sidebar).

We’ve also released a report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking, that lays out the case for independent, impartial science in policy decisions, offers lessons from the past two administrations, and establishes a baseline assessment of the current state of scientific integrity at federal agencies, against which we can more effectively judge the actions of the Trump administration moving forward.

Meanwhile, the initial response from our members has been impressive. In just a matter of weeks since the election, 3,000 scientists joined our Science Network, swelling its ranks to more than 20,000. We have seen more people join our webinars and visit our conference tables, and have been swamped with a heartening surge in unsolicited donations and offers of support. We know we’ll be calling on our members and supporters like never before, so the increased interest gives us a strong start as a leading organization in the fights ahead. But we’ve only just begun.

Using Science to Bolster Our Democracy

[Scientists’ Sign-On Letter]

Excerpts from the Scientists’ Letter to President Trump and the 115th Congress

Excerpts from the Scientists’ Letter to President Trump and the 115th Congress

“From disease outbreaks to climate change to national security to technology innovation, people benefit when our nation’s policies are informed by science unfettered by inappropriate political or corporate influence. . . .

“First, creating a strong and open culture of science begins at the top. Federal agencies should be led by officials with demonstrated track records of respecting science as a critical component of decision making. . . .

“Second, Congress and the Trump administration should ensure our nation’s bedrock public health and environmental laws—such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act—retain a strong scientific foundation, and that agencies are able to freely collect and draw upon scientific data to effectively carry out statutory responsibilities established by these laws. . . .

“Third, Congress and the Trump administration should adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental threats. . . .”

If you are a scientist, you can add your name to the scientist sign-on letter.  And scientists and non-scientists alike can take action to protect science-based safeguards.

As former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, “We are each entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.” You can count on UCS to closely monitor the Trump administration’s activities and ensure its policies are grounded in the best available, impartial, and independent science, and to push back when they aren’t. We will also continue, as we always have, to find ways to make progress. In particular, we’ll expand our work on the state, regional, and municipal levels to promote smart science-based policies. This past summer, for example, we helped California and Massachusetts pass farsighted bills that go far beyond federal policies in moving us toward a clean energy future.

Equally important, we have a strong tailwind working in our favor on clean energy because the economics are improving so rapidly. Advances are possible in all the states, and the presidential election does not change that. For example, Texas has invested billions of dollars in transmission lines that take advantage of plentiful and inexpensive renewable energy—wind energy is now so inexpensive in some areas that it’s being given away at night. And Illinois recently passed an impressive package committing the state to substantial increases in solar and wind power (see Advances).

The bottom line is this: UCS will continue to work toward practical solutions and, regardless of whether or not our elected leaders choose to come together, we will stand up on behalf of science and democracy as forcefully as needed. We will call out elected officials and special interests when they ignore science and undermine safeguards that protect people’s health and safety. We will expose fossil fuel companies when they deceive the public and their shareholders about climate change. We will connect members of our Science Network with local groups working to reduce the pollution that makes their children sick. We will provide research to communities on the front lines of climate change—threatened with rising seas, wildfires, floods, and drought.

In short, we will find ways to make progress on the issues that matter and, as always, will rely heavily on you for support—the more than 500,000 supporters who make possible our work toward a healthier planet and safer world.