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Standing Ground: The State of Voting Rights in Year One of the Trump Administration

Flickr/Michael Fleshman

On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of these United States.  By the time the president-elect had actually taken office, he had already put into motion his intent to see through a radical transformation of the nation’s electoral laws.  Mr. Trump’s nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, his collaboration with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to establish an “electoral integrity” commission, and his nomination of a series of controversial judicial appointees soon after inauguration, all reflected an extension of his campaign’s attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections.

Fears of non-citizens voting and election rigging emerged as a major pillar of candidate Trump’s nativist agenda, and its emphasis on the contamination of our institutions by outsiders.  Having already established his legitimacy-bashing credentials as a leader of the conspiracy to question President Obama’s citizenship, Mr. Trump regularly attacked electoral institutions, once tweeting “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.”  He even went so far as to declare at a rally, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win!”  Not more than a few weeks after his Electoral College victory, Mr. Trump re-initiated his attack, claiming, as usual without any evidence, that he would have won the popular vote, were it not for “millions of people who voted illegally.”

Total retaliation

Hunter S. Thompson once referred to the sort of vengeful resentment that characterizes Trumpist politics as an “ethic of total retaliation.” That sounds like an accurate account of this administration’s attempts to dismantle voting rights this year.

First came President Trump’s appointment of Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions, who applauded the 5-4, 2013 Supreme Court decision overturning the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act, had previously been called “a disgrace to the Justice Department” by Senator Ted Kennedy during a failed appointment for a federal judgeship.

Under Sessions, the Department of Justice has reversed position in several major voting rights cases. It has urged that a Texas voter identification law that it previously deemed racially discriminatory remain in effect.  Sessions has similarly reversed the Department’s interpretation of the National Voter Registration Act, and is now defending an Ohio voter list purge case where thousands of eligible voters were removed from the polls.

Next, and after the Trump team legally acknowledged that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake,” came the “election integrity” commission lead by Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence.  Kobach had previously pushed illegal citizenship and identification requirements on voters in Kansas, but was successfully sued multiple times by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating federal voting rights.  In his new role, he sought to dismantle those protections.

Instead of recruiting actual election experts, the commission looked like the S-Men of voter suppression, with members like Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams, and Ken Blackwell.  The first substantive act of the commission was to try to collect sensitive voter list information from states, an act that the Election Privacy Information Center referred to as “without precedent and crazy.”  The mere threat of the Kobach commission acquiring control over private electoral data initiated a never-before-seen voter deregistration, at the same time that election administrators wasted precious resources addressing commission concerns.

Finally, judicial appointments have initiated a more subtle but certain erosion of voting rights. President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has already provided a 5th vote to protect a racial gerrymander in Texas.  Lower level nominees like Thomas Farr, referred to as the “legal architect of North Carolina’s voter suppression” who built a career defending the state against voting rights claims, has been nominated, rejected, and renominated to a district court there.  Mark Norris, a Tennessee legislator who has similarly promoted “proof of citizenship” requirements at voting precincts, was nominated to the Western Tennessee district court.  The list goes on, demonstrating the president’s intent to use the judiciary as a stronghold, from which to beat down and destroy the legacy of voting rights that has been built over the last half century.

This year also saw the House Administration Committee try to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, the only federal agency charged with improving electoral integrity.  Similarly, the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to investigate violations of the (Watergate-inspired) Federal Election Campaign Act, has been rendered so dysfunctional from stalled appointments and partisan stalemate that it will never investigate potential violations of the 2016 Trump campaign.

Standing ground

Nevertheless, the story of voting rights in 2017 is one of mobilized resistance and cautious optimism. From its inception, civic journalism and organized resistance have kept public attention focused on both the Justice Department and the Kobach commission.  Excellent reporting by ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman revealed that von Spakovsky had authored a memo received by the Attorney General before he was even on the commission, arguing for the exclusion of any Democrats, academics or moderate Republicans from the commission.  A White House official recently acknowledged that the commission was a “shit show” after it was dissolved, in part because a federal court had ordered that Kobach release internal communications from which one of its Democratic members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, had been excluded.

Voting rights groups ranging from Hip Hop Caucus’s Respect My Vote! campaign, to the A.C.L.U., Common Cause, and Democracy Initiative rallied to protest the commission at the few public meetings that it held.  Nearly every state refused to hand over at least some of the sensitive data that Kobach had requested, and multiple lawsuits were filed by voting rights litigators to protect voter information.  News organizations also analyzed the numerous problems with flawed data being presented at commission meetings.

Also leading by example, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine established its own Committee on the Future of Voting, which has so far held four easily accessible, public meetings, bringing together the nation’s top election law experts, political and computer scientists, security advisors and administrators to address very real challenges to free and fair elections.  They have shown what a real electoral integrity commission looks like.

Moreover, there is hope that the Supreme Court, having heard its first partisan gerrymandering case in a decade last year, will establish a constitutional standard for identifying redistricting plans that violate political equality.  The Supreme Court is set to hear a similar case against a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland this Spring, and there are a host of other cases from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas that could result in stronger redistricting and voter eligibility requirements across the country.  These and related cases highlight the advances that social scientists have made in the measurement and estimation of constitutional standards.  None of these cases would have moved forward last year without the commitment of mobilized citizens, the research of impartial social scientists, and the legal assistance of voting rights advocates fighting on their behalf.

Looking back, the state of voting rights one year into Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired fear, as intended, but also confidence in the use of evidence-based arguments to hold government accountable.  That’s good, because 2018 is going to be a voting rights battle, given the November opportunity to replace Congressional leadership with actors who will bring the president to heel.  Citizens must be ever more vigilant in protecting their electoral institutions, and demand that integrity, rather than ideology, be the guiding principle of election law.

Michael Fleshman

From National Parks to the EPA, Trump Administration Stiff-Arms Science Advisers

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to meet with National Park System Advisory Board members last year, prompting most of them to quit. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration’s testy relationship with science reminds me of that old saying: Advice is least heeded when most needed.

Earlier this week, three-quarters of the members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to hold a meeting with them last year. The board was established more than 80 years ago so scientists and former elected officials could advise the Department of the Interior on a variety of national park and monument issues, including the designation of national historic and natural landmarks.

With zero input from the 12-member board, Zinke dramatically reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah to open them up to grazing and mining; arbitrarily increased park visitor fees; and reversed a ban on plastic water bottles in the park system.

Their resignation should not come as a surprise. Zinke’s cavalier treatment of the National Park System Advisory Board is just the most recent example of an administration-wide rejection of independent scientific expertise, according to a report released Thursday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

After reviewing the status of 73 science advisory boards at six federal agencies and interviewing 33 current and former board members, UCS researchers found that last year the boards met less often than in any year since the government started keeping records in 1997. They also found that nearly two-thirds of the boards met fewer times than their charters recommend, and board membership dropped 14 percent from the previous year, twice as much as during the first year of the Obama administration.

Some of the meetings that did take place, meanwhile, could hardly be designated as such. Panel members told UCS researchers that several in-person meetings were replaced by perfunctory telephone conference calls, some lasting for as little as 15 minutes.

The boards UCS included in its analysis advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration, and provide a good representative sample of the 218 scientific and technical panels currently serving the federal government. Generally comprised of volunteer experts from academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments, these committees keep federal agencies abreast of the latest, cutting-edge research and make recommendations on short-term challenges, such as epidemic outbreaks, and ongoing issues, such as nuclear safety.

Besides Interior, one of the biggest offenders is the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the agency 14 times on behalf of his campaign contributors to try to block air and water protections. Last October, Pruitt issued new rules barring anyone who receives EPA grants from serving on agency advisory panels. Remarkably, he maintained that those scientists have a conflict of interest, regardless of the fact that the EPA does not dictate the outcome of its grantees’ research. He then packed the agency’s Science Advisory Board with industry scientists with clear conflicts of interest.

Perhaps most emblematic of the Trump administration’s contempt for science is the fact that the president has yet to appoint his science adviser, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Last October, The Washington Post reported that Trump has taken longer than any president in modern times to name his science adviser. That was three months ago, and the position is still open, as are the posts of deputy director and four congressionally mandated associate directors. In the meantime, the president has made a string of “unadvised,” ill-advised science-related decisions, most notably pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and appointing Pruitt, a climate-science-denying attorney, to run the EPA.

When the nine National Park System Advisory Board members quit last Monday, former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, the head of the board, explained their rationale. “We resigned because we were deeply disappointed with the [Interior] Department and we were concerned,” he said. “[Zinke] appears to have no interest in continuing the agenda of science, the effect of climate change, [or] pursuing the protection of the ecosystem.”

The same holds true for the entire Trump administration, and that doesn’t bode well for public health or the environment.

New Report Reveals Trump Administration Is Abandoning Science Advice

Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

Unease. Frustration. Indignation. Experts serving as members of federal advisory committees are being frozen out of the very avenues that were designed to encourage external input on scientific issues to the federal government.

A new Center for Science and Democracy report released today, Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees, reveals the Trump Administration’s widespread under-utilization of science advice in its first year.

In an effort to cut science out of the equation, this sidelining has taken different forms: Meetings have been postponed, cancelled, or abbreviated. Experienced experts have been dismissed. Rules governing committee membership have been altered to ease the stacking of committees with industry-affiliated scientists, and to crowd out independent experts. In some cases, committees have been disbanded entirely, or placed in limbo for agency-wide “review.”

What we found

In this report, we analyzed the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Interior (DOI), Food & Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Commerce (DOC). We also interviewed more than 30 current and former advisory board members.

We found that last year, the DOE, EPA, and DOI met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997. At the DOE, DOC, and EPA, fewer experts are serving on advisory committees than at any time since 1997. And nearly two-thirds of the 73 committees surveyed are meeting less than they are directed to in their own charters.

And this decrease in activity isn’t just as a result of it being the first year of a new administration. Membership on advisory committees decreased 14 percent from 2016, while membership only decreased 7 percent in the first year of the Obama administration and less than 1 percent in the first year of the Bush administration.

Neglect, disregard, and egregious politicization

This blatant neglect of committees at the DOI made headlines this week when 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board at the Department of Interior resigned due to frustration that the Secretary had failed to meet with them or schedule a single meeting for the committee in 2017. Its members were not consulted when making important decisions about our national parks, just as DOI’s resource advisory councils, including one in Utah, were not consulted when deciding to shrink monuments in those jurisdictions.

The disregard of science advice has gone well beyond neglect. The Food and Drug Administration completely disbanded the 25-year-old Food Advisory Committee that examined issues like nutrition and food safety and was the agency’s only committee dedicated solely to food issues. And members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report no contact at all from the administration over the past year, with “no plans to reconstitute it.”

And in the most egregious politicization of science advisory boards, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has pushed a new policy banning any scientist who currently receives a research grant from the EPA from serving on advisory committees. Pruitt’s directive has radically reshaped the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientifically Counselors (BOSC), and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), breaking precedent by refusing to renew terms of committee members and tripling the representation of industry-affiliated scientists on the EPA SAB.

Experts are clamoring to be heard

Advisory committees operate differently across agencies and for good reason. They have different missions and require expertise spanning disciplines and fields. The one thing that all of these committees have in common is that they are composed of highly distinguished experts that are eager to get to work. In over 30 interviews held with members of a range of advisory committees, there was a resounding interest in resuming advisory activities and discussing the pressing issues under the relevant agencies’ authority that require their attention. Why waste the time of these individuals unless their time and potential science-based recommendations aren’t of any interest?

This suppression of information at this level makes it easier for Trump and his political appointees to make progress at deconstructing the administrative state, removes a vital check on the work being done at agencies, and prevents the best available science from being considered in the first place.

Policy decisions are based on a variety of factors, but if independence scientific analysis isn’t included as a consideration, then we’re flying blind—which might in fact be the actual goal for this administration. Why else would you neglect your own science advice infrastructure? Imagine a high school basketball coach unwilling to listen to 20 Steph Currys waiting eagerly on the sidelines with a slate of play options that would easily win his team the game. Why not listen unless your plan was to lose all along?

We can’t afford to let the Trump administration continue to make regulatory decisions without taking the time to analyze impacts. And, no, evaluating just the costs to oil companies, chemical companies, and developers is not sufficient. Experts are clamoring to be heard and members of the public would prefer that policymakers make fully-informed decisions that protect our health, rather than half-baked decisions informed by politics alone.

We must all fight to raise the political price of sidelining science and scientists. Because when policymakers don’t have access to the best independent scientific input, they can’t effectively protect all of us.

Scientists serving on federal advisory committees or working in the government who perceive that their work is being sidelined should get in touch with the UCS Science Protection Project to get confidential advice on strategic action. And we should all continue to call on our elected officials to further investigate the ways in which this administration is disregarding the government’s own scientists and external advisors, and what its squandering of this resource means for public health and safety.

Five Lessons Our Science Network Watchdogging Teams Have Taught Us

It is one year since the Presidential inauguration, though to many of us it now seems like time is measured in dog years—each approximates seven in our own lifetimes. The election really energized the science community and many others to push back against the hateful rhetoric and frightening agenda of the president and his administration.

That rhetoric too often embodies racism, misogyny, homophobia, and divisiveness. And the agenda has valued big business interests over the public interest across the board, withdrawing public health, safety and environmental protections to boost corporate profits.

Here at UCS, we called on our Science Network to help us respond to a broad range of attacks on science as part of the new Administration’s agenda. The response has been wonderful and we have a lot to show for it. Not everyone has the time or inclination to take on the challenges of advocating for science on a regular and sustained basis, but over 1,000 of our Science Network members have so far stepped up for this higher level of engagement. I don’t mean to say they are the only ones fighting back, but these individuals have agreed to be on “watchdogging” teams around the country to speak out at a local level, engage their elected representatives, and serve as focal points for bringing science into the debates over public policy.  These teams have become partners in the fight, and from them we have learned many important lessons. Here are my top five:

Constituency and local knowledge matter

Our watchdogging team members speak to their elected officials, and to their communities, as neighbors and constituent voters. And despite all the concerns that people may have about our political culture, constituency still matters to elected officials. That doesn’t mean that an official will always do what you ask, but you will at least be heard.

Team members also understand local issues and challenges, as well as local politics, that it would be hard for a national organization like UCS to gather in any other way. That local and regional perspective helps everyone in the science community to build our knowledge and our story-bank of the impacts of attacks on science on people all across the country.

Our neighbors, too, are often more receptive to information over the back fence or on the front steps from someone who lives nearby than from the expert from far away. Letters to the editor in a local paper can have as much or more impact than pieces published in national press. More than 80 of our watchdogging Science Network members have published letters or op-eds, and that is building more recognition of key science issues at a local level. Letters to elected officials in various states (Maine, Montana, Missouri, Nevada, and North Dakota) and nationally have had over 5,000 signatories. And hundreds of personal calls have been made to Senate and House members offices.

UCS Legislative Associate Amy Gutierrez and Campaign Manager Danielle Fox guiding summit participants in finding connections between local issues and federal policy (Missoula, MT), August 25, 2017.

So, when our watchdogging team members meet with their representatives—dozens of times now over the last six months—they have a chance to get up close and personal. With a little support from us, they are delivering strong messages to fight those attacks on science that might seem obscure, but when brought into a local setting can really take on new importance. Like the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would so bog down the regulatory process that even if new threats to the public are identified, it would be almost impossible to develop new protections. Or defeating really terrible nominations to science positions in key agencies, like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Letters and emails from more than 4,000 scientists and calls from hundreds more helped turn the tide against these appointments.

Scientists have a lot to say

In our training as scientists we tend to focus on gaining fundamental skills in our discipline, but along the way, we all build our knowledge of how science itself works.  That means, as a marine scientist, I can certainly talk about my area of expertise, but I can also talk about the process by which science informs policy broadly across many science disciplines. And I can explain what the scientific method means, how peer review and other quality control and feedback mechanisms work, and why scientific evidence is so very different from a political opinion. More than that, it is pretty easy for me to look at data, graphs and evidence in a variety of fields and understand the basic messages even if I am not deeply engaged in that field of research.

All of that can be helpful in talking to officials and fellow residents, and in writing for a broader audience. The point is, scientists can speak out knowledgeably on issues beyond our own fields of study and have a lot to bring into a discussion of public policy. Many scientists are learning for themselves how helpful their voices can be in the public debate. For example, when Sen. Blunt (R. MO) introduced a bill to roll back progress on vehicle fuel economy standards, scientists and other concerned citizens went to meet with Sen. Donnelly’s staff (D. IN) to voice their opposition. They weren’t all automotive engineers or air pollution scientists, but they could talk about the bills misguided approach to fuel economy.

A little training goes a long way

For many experts, skills such as communicating with non-scientists, the media and a broader public don’t come naturally. We are trained to communicate to scientific audiences in our own fields. But in a public or political setting, the challenge is to be clear about the major lines of scientific evidence and their broader meaning or implication. That’s a skill we can learn, much as we have learned the other skills that make for good scientists.

So too is learning how to engage with elected officials, or journalists or media editors, or community organizations. We have been offering training and mentoring in all of these topics, and Science Network members have responded. Our 12 training workshops have reached 1184 members this past year. Our monthly calls regularly have 50 or more participating. Our state scientists’ summits in Montana, Nevada, Maine and Missouri, collectively had more than 100 participants.

Outreach Coordinator Jessica Thomas explaining the UCS Watchdog campaign with summit participants (Reno, NV), September 23, 2017.

While the summits included training in political advocacy, these workshops primarily served as opportunities for participants to learn from each other and plan actions to take on the state level. With that beginning, the sky’s the limit. Science Network members have co-authored compelling op-eds on the importance of science in our democracy, and held effective meetings with their Congressional delegations, despite doing it for the first time.

To find the best recruiters, look in the mirror

Having 1,000 scientists watchdogging is great, but the network needs to grow with a substantial capacity to self-organize to take action. That’s because to have a sustained impact on our democracy, scientists need to be active and engaged in the public discourse in as many places, in as many communities and issues as possible, not just while Trump is in office but going forward too. We are here to provide resources on issues where we can, as well as financial support through our Science for the Public Good small grants, and our Science and Democracy Fellowships (coming soon).

But it is Science Network members themselves that can help recruit more colleagues, in their states, to Stand Up for Science. They are best placed to know who has the passion and the commitment to be involved in this work, and they have made connections with wonderful local advocates we might never have known. They know how to reach the people in their states who make the decisions that affect their communities. And since the election, 4500 new members have come into our network looking for ways to get involved. We need everyone to get involved and to learn from each other. It’s about the role of science in democracy—and that impacts every person in the country.

Advocating for science feels good too

I hope we are past the old debates about whether advocating for what you believe compromises your ability to do science. It doesn’t. A friend of mine, a scientist deeply involved in the fight for environmental justice, once said, “You need to feed that other part of your brain too. The part that cares about the world, your neighbors, and the legacy we leave. That part that makes you want to advocate for what’s right.” We can still do our work as scientists and at the same time stand up for science. Everyone’s action may not look the same, but everyone needs to speak up.

We’ve heard from Science Network members how exciting it was to speak up for their community’s best interests in the public realm—and that it was easier than they had thought. And we have to admit that during a sometimes frustrating year, our watchdogging members consistently reminded us that this country is made up of its people, not just its politics.

So to our Science Network partners in watchdogging, thank you for all you do. Please stay involved, engaged and keep teaching us every day. Not signed up to watchdog with UCS? Join now.

Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall

When it comes to President Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (never mind the fact that many such physical barriers already exist), many people have focused on two questions: Shouldn’t there be comprehensive immigration reform instead? And who’s going to pay for it?

But there’s another question we should ask. Who is going to build it?

I’m referring to the engineering companies that will actually design and construct “the wall.” Whatever form it takes (a monolith or a mishmash), hundreds of companies are lining up to build it—and that reflects the willingness of many companies to profit from divisive politics. Unfortunately, engineering education, practice, and ethical codes provide engineers almost no guidance on the broad political implications of their work.

The presidential administration has only just begun the lengthy process of building the wall. First, on Feb. 24, the Customs and Border Protection office issued a pre-solicitation to gauge interest from companies. (The response was overwhelming, with more than 600 companies submitting proposals, of which, according to a CNBC analysis, “[a]t least 133 companies were listed as owned by minorities—including 39 by Hispanics.”) Then, on March 17, CBP issued two detailed solicitations—one for designing and building a concrete wall and another using other structures. These solicitations will really set in motion the engineering process.

Before any concrete is poured, within companies, there will be spirited discussion and debate among engineers and managers about design and costs. Memos will be written, and company leaders will be briefed. The administrative work of contracting will take shape. If a company doesn’t have the expertise or skills to do a particular task, it may join forces with another company or group of engineers who do. In short, the wall will be a product of engineering decision-making.

But how much of the decision-making process will discuss the ethics of being involved with building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?

When big contracts are on the table, there can be very little incentive for a company to refrain from doing the work in the name of good moral behavior or the public welfare. For instance, leading engineering companies are involved in designing and building pipelines to bring more tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., in spite of the negative social and ecological impacts.

Social justice advocates see the wall within a broader discussion about immigration, and engineers should, too. Engineers have a moral responsibility to understand the context of their work. The federal judge who recently blocked the Trump administration’s second immigration-related executive order put it in the context of language used by the president over the past several months. Similarly, engineers cannot and should not view the wall as a singular engineering project. Instead, they should think of the social and political implications of the barriers that already exist between the U.S. and Mexico, and they should evaluate the social, political, and humanitarian implications in the context of another wall born of divisive politics—the one between Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Among a host of humanitarian and human rights issues, the wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has created incredible animosity. The wall has become a symbol of conflict for so long that both Israeli and Palestinian children “grow up feeling that they are destined for conflict with their neighbors,” according to Laurel Holliday, author of Children of Israel, Children of Palestine. But for companies bidding on the U.S.-Mexico wall, the politics of the project have been stripped away and translated into technical specifications.

In today’s political climate, engineers cannot remain passive and allow legislators and politicians to decide what the “public good” is. All members of a community must be engaged and responsible in deciding what the public good is and how to create it—and that goes especially for engineers and the companies they work for, because they can have a disproportionate and lasting impact on a community.

But the engineering community’s response thus far has been divorced from these important issues. Here’s what representatives of three bidding companies have said:

  • “We’re not into politics. We’re not left or right. We’re a construction company and that’s how we survive. … We don’t see it as politics. We just see it as work,” Jorge Diaz, who manages De la Fuente Construction Inc. in California, told the Guardian.
  • “We’re focused on the work, we’re not a political body, left or right or what have you. We go after the job and provide high-paying jobs for our workforce and great opportunities for our company,” Ralph Hicks, vice president of governmental affairs for R.E. Staite Engineering in California, said to KPBS.
  • “There could be a political backlash, but we are in business to make money and put people to work and provide a good service, whether it’s a wall or substation or airport or prison. We don’t want to approach it from a political standpoint, only from a business standpoint,” George Ishee, national sales manager for Cast Lighting, based in Hawthorne, New Jersey, told a local newspaper.

Another engineering company owner, Patrick Balcazar, who owns San Diego Project Management in Puerto Rico, went even further, suggesting that building a wall will provide a future economic opportunity to employ engineers to tear it down: “My goal is to build a wall so I can make enough money so we can turn this thing around and tear down the wall again.”

Not every company bidding for the wall will share these points of view, but they highlight a particular problem with how many engineers and companies see their role in the world and how their work is valued. As it stands, much of engineering is focused more on financial incentives than social impact and human welfare.

Further, the reality is that engineers and companies always work with or for someone with particular political motives, and so their work is always political. By saying building a wall is “just work,” engineers and companies shift the moral burden from themselves—those who actually design and build these projects—to those who order and pay for them. But people, politicians, and governments can talk all they want about doing something; they do not have the skills to actually do it.

The fundamental canon of the Code of Ethics by the National Society of Professional Engineers states, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Unfortunately, there is only vague guidance given to engineers on how to implement this canon, with emphasis more on client relationships rather than social good. The American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics does a better job here. It says: “Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes and devices,” thus pointing to the political implications of engineering work.

For engineers working on politically charged projects, there can be friction between their professional obligations and their moral obligations, dilemmas they are untrained to grapple with. While an engineer may raise concerns about the safety of a project (to make sure, for example, the wall won’t collapse and hurt a border patrol officer), there tends to be little to no support for engineers who question the morality of the project they work on.

But just because a project is politically and professionally justified and economically feasible does not make it ethically or morally justified. That’s why it’s frustrating that most engineering education programs across the country provide only scant ethical training, particularly in the context of social good; there are few resources, examples, and role models for ethically conflicted engineers to turn to. Engineers have incredible power, but if they aren’t managers or company leaders, it can be difficult to speak up about the ethics of particular projects. Historically, engineers have been routinely ostracized and silenced when questioning leadership decisions. For example, engineers predicted the failure of the O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters yet NASA proceeded with launch. We all know what happened next.

Look through most engineering programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. and you’ll see very few courses dedicated to ethical training. Frequently, those that are offered aren’t required, or ethics forms a two- or three-week component of other classes, either at the beginning or the tail end of an undergraduate career. Efforts to infuse ethical training deeply in engineering education struggle against already packed course schedules, and ethical issues are rarely discussed at engineering conferences. So those of us who are engineers have to take it upon ourselves to deeply engage with the ethical challenges and dilemmas we face. Engineers should constantly ask themselves (adapted from the founding document of Science for the People): Why are we engineers? Who do we work for? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?

If engineering is only about making money, then let’s not call it engineering; profiteering would be a more appropriate description. But if engineering is “rooted in a goal to improve our societies by producing structures that render them more just, more equitable, and more beautiful,” as the Architecture Lobby writes, we—engineers—need to do a better job at thinking about who and what is affected by the choices we make. If engineering is about working on technical projects that “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” then a thoughtful, compassionate, and contextual reading of this fundamental canon cannot justify engineers giving their expertise, time, and resources to a border wall that will embolden and embody divisive politics.

“We’re just doing our job” just does not cut it with morally challenging, hot-button issues. It never has, and it never should.

Originally appeared on Slate.com.

Darshan Karwat is an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a former AAAS fellow in Washington.

The Science of Sovereignty: Two Cases Show How the Future of Voting Rights Depends on the Integrity of Data

This week, two major court cases concerning the right to an equal and effective vote revealed how crucial scientific integrity in the courts is going to be if voting rights are to be secured for all Americans. On Tuesday, a federal court threw out North Carolina’s Congressional districting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, relying on extensive empirical models and statistical evidence that demonstrated both discriminatory intent and effect. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments regarding Ohio’s “use-it-or-lose-it” voter list purging process, during which considerable time was dedicated to issues of data integrity and availability. Both cases illustrate the growing importance of our ability to measure equal justice under law, and the degree to which claims of voting rights violations are based on quantitative arguments.

Measuring intent and effect in gerrymandering

The North Carolina decision handed down Tuesday included an extended discussion of the courts’ “obligation to keep pace with the technological and methodological advances so it can effectively fulfill its constitutional role to police ever-more sophisticated modes of discrimination.” In their 205-page opinion, the court reprimanded defendants for arguing that claims should be dismissed simply because they “rely on new, sophisticated empirical methods that derive from academic research.”

The opinion explicitly relied on such methods for establishing the intent of the North Carolina legislative leaders to discriminate against voters of the opposing party. They did this through a combination of computer simulations that showed the near impossibility of the adopted plan being chosen without intending to discriminate, given the traits of that map compared to alternatives, and data visualizations that experts say illustrate the “signature” gerrymandering effect of partisan vote shares being non-linearly distributed across districts.

In finding a discriminatory impact, the court relied on both simulations and statistical tests of partisan asymmetry to demonstrate the near certainty that the governing party engineered itself at least one additional seat, and likely several additional seats, through the adopted plan.

Does a non-response “count” as a signal of any relevance?

In the Ohio voter list purge case, Justices repeatedly asked about available data from both sides that would provide an empirical context for the legal arguments. In particular, Justice Sotomayor asked about estimates of how many of those purged from voter lists had actually changed residence out of their districts, as the state assumes. Similarly, Justice Breyer stated that they were looking at “an empirical question” and inquired about the availability of “numbers, or surveys” of residential movement within the state, as well as estimates of what percentage of residents typically throw away mailed notifications, so as to get some grasp of what it means when a voter does not respond to a notification.

Indeed, a crucial challenge to the defense revolved around just what information was obtained from the notifications. Justice Alito pushed Plaintiff’s counsel to assess whether nothing additional was learned, such that the removal was based purely on non-voting, which is prohibited.  Alito suggested that the state learned something, non-response, from the unreturned notifications, but counsel countered that no information about residency was obtained.

Neither side claimed that they could provide accurate numbers of the total disenfranchised, even though the arguments critically turn on the extent of discrimination taking place, and how those who do not return notifications should be classified so as to estimate what percentage of non-respondents had actually moved. Plaintiff’s argument rested partly on the claim that, because the percentage of Americans who move every year is low relative to the share of non-respondent voters in Ohio who were purged, the Ohio process necessarily results in false-positives, and must “vastly over purge” voters from registration lists.

An arms race: the technology of discrimination v the technology of empowerment

The amount of time spent on such questions in the Ohio arguments reaffirms the extent to which the identification and measurement of voter behavior is going to be central to challenging voting rights as we move forward. Further, estimating the impact of administrative procedures and eligibility requirements, while statistically difficult, is going to be of even greater importance, if we need to untangle compound effects in order to assess their performance.

Together, this week’s cases show that scientists, the courts, and the public need to advocate for greater scientific integrity, not only in the domain of legislative policymaking, but throughout the policy making process, including litigation, where improved methods and models can “provide a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

Trump Political Appointees Interfere in Scientific Grants Process Take Two: The Department of Interior

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

The Department of Interior (DOI) has directed political appointees to begin reviewing discretionary grants to make sure that they align with the priorities of the Trump administration. The discretionary grants include any grants worth $50,000 or more that are intended to be distributed to “a non-profit organization that can legally advance advocacy” or “an institution of higher education.” The memo detailing the directive was sent by Scott J. Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget.

The directive is being strictly enforced. Cameron’s memo notes that “Instances circumventing the Secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.” The sentence is not only bolded, it’s italicized as well. To explain why the new grants process was needed, Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said that “the new guidance continued the responsible stewardship of tax dollars.”

Remember when this happened at the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) basically instituted the same process of grant review last year. While it is not uncommon for political appointees to get involved in the grants process, their involvement is generally limited to broadening solicitations for grant proposals. The US Federal Government refers to these solicitations as “Funding Opportunity Announcements” or FOAs. These FOAs include information about what type of work the agency is expecting and whether or not the applicant would be eligible for funding. Thus, an FOA is extremely important for both the government and the applicant because it highlights the agency’s priorities for the funding, which also serves as a guideline for an applicant’s proposal. Political appointees have generally broadened FOA’s in the past so that they are more inclusive, not restrictive to an administration’s priorities as is being seen here with DOI’s new process.

Agencies have grant review systems already in place

DOI already had a grant review system in place before this new system came along that worked just fine. This begs the question: why they are changing it? Part of the grant review system is that discretionary grants are reviewed by independent experts who assess grant proposals using a uniform rating or scoring system established by the awarding agency. The proposals are evaluated based on criteria specific to the grant—for some programmatic grants these criteria are dictated by statutory authority (e.g., grants in the brownfields program at the EPA). Therefore, as former Secretary of Interior David J. Hayes noted, “Subjugating Congress’s priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.”

Based on expert criteria, or those set out by statutes, a panel of experts will assign a score to each reviewed proposal and then meet to discuss the merits of each. The proposals that receive higher scores are deemed more competitive relative to those with lower scores. Depending on the amount of funding available for a grant program, the panel will recommend a percentage of the top scoring grants to be funded.

A list of recommended grants for funding are then sent to the head of the program, who may or may not be a political appointee, for review. The amount of information on recommendations that the appointee might receive varies. Sometimes the appointee might receive abstracts of proposals or they might just receive a list of the institutions or researchers recommended for funding. However, what is common practice when a head of a program receives this list is that they generally agree with the expert’s recommendations. Former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, Christine Todd Whitman, chimed in on this issue when it happened at EPA, “We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background.”

Will DOI use this new process to delete science?

In the case of EPA political appointees reviewing grants, scientifically defensible language was removed from many descriptions of grant projects, and some grants were rescinded that were already recommended by a panel of experts. It was clear that the new process was specifically set up to undermine science and scientific experts at EPA, especially those working on climate change related issues.

DOI doesn’t have a good track record of supporting science lately, having halted two important studies by the National Academies of Science, and completely scrapping climate change work from its new strategic plan. It has yet to be seen if the new grant review process will result in scientifically defensible language being deleted from grant descriptions at DOI, or if the agency will rescind important scientific work like was done at EPA. However, the scientific community will be watching for such attacks on science and we’ll fight back against them if this administration continues this appalling tactic.

One Year of Attacking Science: How the Trump Administration Measures Up

Having collected evidence on the multiple ways that the Trump administration has been attacking science over the past year, it is becoming clear that this administration doesn’t just want to hide or ignore the facts. This administration is attempting to decimate the scientific process.

At the six-month mark of this administration holding office, we documented 44 attacks on science in our report, Sidelining Science Since Day One—that number has now jumped to 64. The implications are frightening.

An open letter to the Trump administration

Prior to the Trump administration taking office, more than 5,500 scientists signed an open letter asking then president-elect Trump and the 115th Congress to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being. There are now more than 6,000 signatories on the letter.

These scientists called on the Trump administration and Congress to take several actions to strengthen the role that science plays in policy making. So how has the Trump administration measured up against the demands of thousands of scientists?

Appointing unqualified agency heads

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that science-based agencies be led by officials with a strong track record of respecting science as a critical component of decision making. Yet the Trump administration has often chosen leaders for science-based agencies that are unqualified, conflicted, and/or openly hostile to the mission of their agency.

For example, Kathleen Hartnett-White was just re-nominated to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the office in charge of overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Hartnett-White’s anti-science views on climate change, air pollution and health, clean and renewable energy, and the role of science in public policy suggest she would do little but harm our environment and public health. She is unfit for the position.

Other government leaders now in charge of overseeing the regulation of industry have come directly from those industries – a clear conflict of interest. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has financial interests that are not severable to the agency’s work on cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. Therefore, the director of the CDC has had to recuse herself from discussions and decisions regarding this work even though they are important issues the US needs to address. Without leadership on these issues, will the CDC be able to properly address these health challenges?

Some leaders also have been openly hostile to scientists. For example, Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was recently entangled in a decision to hire Definers Public Affairs to handle the agency’s press coverage. However, there is evidence that Definers was also involved in targeting EPA staff who have expressed personal views not in line with those of the Trump administration by submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for their emails. This sends a chilling signal to staff to not speak out against any wrongdoing within the EPA.

Dismantling science-based policy-making

Scientists also called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that 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. They should also safeguard the independence of those outside the government who provide scientific advice.

Yet, we’ve not seen the Trump administration or Congress protect the scientific backbone of these bedrock laws. The 115th Congress introduced 63 separate pieces of legislation to undermine the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, we have seen Congress attempt to include harmful anti-science policy riders in negotiations around the federal budget, all aimed at gutting the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

President Trump also began the process to rescind the US involvement in the Paris Agreement, which will have lasting effects on the planet’s atmosphere and air quality. Furthermore, this administration has made it more difficult for the public to access information and data that science-based agencies provide.

There are multiple other examples of how the Trump administration and the 115th Congress have and continue to undermine science…

Targeting government scientists

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to allow federal agency scientists the freedom and responsibility to:

  • conduct their work without political or private-sector interference
  • candidly communicate their findings to Congress, the public, and their scientific peers
  • publish their work and participate meaningfully in the scientific community
  • disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science
  • ensure that scientific and technical information coming from the government is accurate

Since the Trump administration has taken office, we have seen federal scientists attacked. Federal scientists have been censored. They have been reassigned to undertake tasks not affiliated with their expertise. They have been prevented from attending conferences.

At the EPA, it is possible that some scientists may have been targeted for their personal views of the Trump administration. Additionally, the Trump administration is using various strategies to hollow out agencies by diminishing their scientific workforce.

Perhaps the most devastating impact of all, however, is that these actions create a hostile work environment for agency scientists that stokes fear, results in self-censorship, lowers staff morale, and sends a chilling message to scientists across the country that their work is not valued.

Slashing science funding

Lastly, the scientific community asked President Trump and Congress to provide adequate resources to enable scientists to conduct research in the public interest and effectively and transparently carry out their agencies’ missions.

Instead the Trump administration has proposed to cut a number of key research programs and slash substantial amounts of funding from science-based agencies. The administration has even withheld funding from research programs illegally. Congress also has attacked the funding of graduate students.

But when it comes to science funding, the true measure of the administration and Congress will be judged when a final decision on FY18 funding is made over the coming weeks, and a decision on FY19 funding is made over the coming months.

Scientists are keeping their word

The letter that scientists penned to President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress was an assurance that the scientific community would hold them accountable for the misuse of science in policy-making decisions.

Scientists have kept their word and are not taking these attacks on the scientific process lightly. They have successfully pushed back against and defeated anti-science nominees like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Graduate students mobilized like we’ve never seen before to defeat a provision in the new tax reform law that would have prevented poor and middle-class Americans from pursuing scientific careers. And scientists are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to march and let this administration know that they’re not scared to use the powers bestowed upon them in this country to fight back.

Science has saved many lives and provided our society with extraordinary benefits. We cannot afford to let this administration undermine it.

Trump Administration Rescinds Fracking Rule for Public Lands: A Blow to Public Protection

Photo: Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons

At the end of last month, we saw yet another casualty in the Trump administration’s war on science-based policy. The administration announced it would rescind a 2015 rule at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development on public land. Though not unexpected, this move was disheartening. The 2015 BLM fracking rule was an important step in protecting people from many unchecked risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. To understand what we lost, let me quickly review the national setting back in 2015 when the rule was issued.

The BLM fracking rule, rescinded by the Trump Administration, was the only major federal rule governing risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development. Photo: Shutterstock.com/krivenko

A Wild West of oil and gas drilling

Around 2008, the oil and gas industry refined methods of hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling that made the process of shale oil and gas drilling more economically viable. This led to a rapid expansion of oil and gas development across the country. Many of the new places seeing oil and gas development had never experienced drilling in close proximity before, and now it was happening around them—in some cases, literally in their backyards. The nation was caught off guard. Notably, the scientific community had to play catch-up to assess risks to air and water and from occupational chemical exposure. Reports began to surface from communities complaining of drinking water contamination or poor air quality causing health concerns. But scientific studies on these subjects were limited.

One major barrier to understanding the risks associated with the new boom in fracking was a lack of transparency from industry. Researchers studying air quality around facilities were only able to take measurements from facility fencelines without closer access to emission sources on site. Researchers studying water quality were forced to analyze samples without any baseline measurements of what water quality was like before drilling started. And physicians were forced to make medical decisions about patients without knowledge of the chemicals they were exposed to because companies refused to disclose chemicals used in fracking fluid.

As a result, the public was left in the dark. The federal government failed to take a large role in regulating this Wild West of oil and gas drilling, leaving regulation largely up to states—many of which were ill-equipped to manage a new and complex industry now ever-present in their state. In some ways the federal government was limited in what it could do. The infamous “Halliburton Loophole” in the Safe Drinking Water Act prevents the EPA from protecting people from fracking risks to drinking water using the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The BLM fracking rule: the federal government steps up

But one way the federal government could take action (or at least so they thought) was by creating a rule dictating how unconventional oil and gas drilling could happen on public lands. Thus, the BLM fracking rule was developed. While modest in scope, the BLM rule was an important step toward greater regulation and disclosure of an industry unaccustomed to playing under such constraints. The rule set standards for well construction, wastewater management, and chemical disclosure. The greater chemical disclosure requirement was huge. It meant companies couldn’t continue to hide behind trade secret claims and the public, scientists, landowners, medical personnel, workers, and first responders would now have greater access to information about chemicals involved and risks to health.

The rule’s requirements about well construction and wastewater management could also have gone a long way toward minimizing risks of groundwater contamination—perhaps the issue of greatest concern for communities based on several high-profile cases of large-scale drinking water contamination. This is an area where we also saw a high degree of industry misconduct. There were cases of dumping wastewater and many accidental spills and leaks. In other cases, water was contaminated by faulty well-casings or natural and manmade fissures in bedrock that allowed fracking chemicals or naturally occurring hazardous chemicals to reach water sources. All the while, industry often hid behind their narrow definition of fracking, despite a public understanding and concern about water contamination throughout the process—from initial drilling, to oil and gas production, to transportation from the site. Setting standards, even if only for public lands, could have encouraged companies to adopt such protocols industry-wide, guarding against future water contamination.

The rule also restricted where drilling could happen. It required companies to avoid endangered species habitats. This was important for species like the sage grouse which live in prime areas for development and need quiet spaces for mating. (Side note: This is actually one of three hits on the sage grouse by the Trump Administration. Earlier this year it reopened state management plans that were designed to ensure the species could stay off of the endangered species list. And last week, the administration rescinded an order for the BLM to prioritize oil and gas permit granting outside of sensitive sage grouse territory.)

Back to square one: leaving us in the dark

Though the rule was stayed by a court in 2016 and thus wasn’t in effect when the Trump Administration made this move, the rule did sent a signal to industry that they would soon have to accept a more transparent and safety-focused business model. Without such a rule on the books, we are now back to square one when it comes to federal protection of people against the risks of fracking. And that leaves us all in the dark.

At the CDC, as Elsewhere Throughout the Government, Words Have Consequences

It does not matter who pulls the semantic shroud over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it comes to matters of science and health, any level of silence at the CDC is a declaration that saving lives is secondary to politics.

According to a recent Washington Post story, higher-ups banned from budget requests the words: “diversity,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” even “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald claimed that no words were banned, “period.” But at a minimum, multiple sources confirm that meetings were held on how to craft budget requests so as not to trigger opposition from conservatives in Congress.

Evidence-based declines

Whether ordered or voluntary, the evidence of such changes is clear: many of the above words have already been disappearing during President Trump’s first year, according to Science Magazine. Use of the phrases “diversity” and “vulnerable” are down a combined 68 percent compared to President Obama’s last budget. Use of the phrase “evidence-based” is down 70 percent.

That latter fact hardly seems to be a coincidence given a President with a documented casual relationship with the truth who, according to the Washington Post fact-checking department, has made 1,950 false or misleading claims in his first year in the White House.

The declines in the use of this terminology is consistent with other scientific erasures in the first year of Trump. An analysis this fall by National Public Radio found a major drop in the number of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation containing the phrase “climate change.” Only 302 NSF grants contained the phrase last year, compared with the annual average of 630 during the Obama administration—that’s a 52 percent decline.

NPR quoted Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, as saying, “In the scientific community, we’re very cautious people. We tend to be quite averse to notoriety and conflict, so I absolutely have seen self-censorship among my colleagues.”

Real-life consequences

The obvious question of course is whether shying away from diversity and vulnerable populations such as transgender people in budget requests, or shrinking from assuring that studies are evidence-based will result in failures to monitor disparities and effectively protect Americans’ health.

For instance, take the issue of racial health disparities. It would be tragic if the Trump administration allows a reversal of the progress that has come through decades of dedication from the career scientists and medical and public health experts at the CDC and its parent Department of Health and Human Services who have trudged on regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress.

A good example is the case of black men and women between the ages of 45 and 54, one of the most historically vulnerable groups, who have long died from chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer at far higher rates than the national average.

In 1980, according to CDC data, the death rate for black men and women in that age group was 1,480 per 100,000 people and 768 per 100,000 people, respectively. Both rates stood more than twice as high as those for their white male and white female counterparts (699 per 100,000 and 373 per 100,000, respectively).

Even during the Reagan years, in an administration frequently hostile to civil rights and friendly with apartheid South Africa, then-HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler saw fit to address these yawning racial gaps head on. In a landmark 1985 task force report on “Black and Minority Health,” she wrote that the disparities were an “affront to both our ideals and to the ongoing genius of American medicine.” She said it was time to “decipher the message inherent in that disparity.”

That report called for a dramatic increase in health studies to help devise effective, evidence-based interventions for specific racial groups. Unlike the murky controversy of the moment, the 1985 report’s language made it clear that “diversity” was a critical word. Under a section titled, “Implications of Diversity,” the report said: “This diversity among populations is reflected in language difficulties, in cultural practices and beliefs with respect to illness and health, in differences in their birth rates, in differences in the afflictions which kill them.”

Years of progress, but more work ahead

The efforts during the Reagan years set the stage for dramatic progress, even though there is plenty more work still to do.

The death rate for black men aged 45 to 54 dropped 15 percent in the 1980s during the Republican administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It dropped another 19 percent in the 1990s, and 19 percent again in the 2000s, mostly under the two terms of Democrat Bill Clinton and the two terms of Republican George W. Bush. Finally, under the two Democratic terms of Obama, the rate dropped yet another 18 percent.

The result is a current death rate for these black men of 678 per 100,000, less than half the 1980 rate. The death rate for black women in the same age group is down 42 percent from 1980.

The dramatic progress, and the obvious work left to do, is precisely why the Trump administration must not turn its back on these kinds of evidence-based accomplishments—or the forthright use of language that helped achieve them.

Besides, semantic silence has been tried before and has failed.

In one telling episode during George W. Bush’s first term, for example, HHS tried to eliminate the words “inequality” and “disparities” from a national report on health disparities.

A strong early draft had said: “Inequalities in health care that affect some racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographical subpopulations in the United States ultimately affect every American. From a societal perspective, we aspire to equality of opportunities for all our citizens. Persistent disparities in health care are inconsistent with our American values.”

That draft also said, “The personal cost of disparities can lead to significant morbidity, disability, and lost productivity.”

The final report in late 2003 erased the above, replacing it with this far more cheerful message: “The overall health of Americans has improved dramatically over the last century. Just in the last decade, the United States has seen significant reductions in infant mortality, record-high rates of childhood vaccinations, declines in substance abuse, lower death rates from coronary disease, and promising new treatments for cancer.”

The firestorm that erupted over the two versions forced then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to publish the stronger draft online in early 2004. As if to second its importance, a National Academies report that year said “widespread, reliable, and consistent data” by race and ethnicity are “critical to documenting the nature of disparities in health care and developing strategies to eliminate disparities.”

This is no time to stop developing strategies. Remaining disparities are every bit as urgent as when Margaret Heckler’s task force report said that people of color “have not benefitted fully or equitably from the fruits of science or from those systems responsible for translating and using health sciences technology.”

We can see from examples such as these that words can have serious consequences for Americans’ health. After all, you cannot determine what needs to be done without the language to speak about it.

Data Integrity and Voting Rights: Will the Supreme Court Protect the Right to Not Vote?

The first major voting rights case of the year comes before the Supreme Court next Wednesday, when Justices hear arguments over the state of Ohio’s “supplemental process” for removing people from voter registration lists. The case is important procedurally and politically. While only a handful of states currently use a procedure as strict as Ohio’s, if the Court upholds, it will likely be adopted by more states. Politically, the issue of voter list management has become a partisan one, with Republicans claiming that threats of voter fraud necessitate more stringent cleaning of voter rolls, while Democrats argue that such tactics serve to suppress voter participation. The heart of the matter concerns the scientific integrity of eligible voter data.

The legal issues with Ohio’s process

If a registered voter in Ohio does not vote in a two-year period, they are sent a notification to verify eligibility by a local election board, and removed from the rolls if they fail to respond and do not vote in the next four years. Plaintiffs argue that such a voter purge would have disenfranchised over 7,000 Ohio voters in the November 2016 election, had it not been for the Sixth Circuit Court’s determination that the supplemental process “constitutes perhaps the plainest possible example of a process” that violates the National Voter Registration Act’s prohibition against list-maintenance programs that assume non-voters have moved after verifications have been sent, and remove them if they never respond.

The defendant, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, has responded by arguing that the failure to respond, rather than the notification, is the trigger that “breaks the prohibited link between nonvoting and removal.” Further, defendants make a textual argument regarding a sub-section requirement of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, that registrants who have not voted and do not respond to a notice “shall be removed” from the voter list, though that subsection also prohibits removal solely for failure to vote. Finally, defendants argue that prohibiting Ohio’s specific trigger would be an infringement on federalism and the right of states to determine their own triggers within the boundaries of federal law.

Looking for clarity on federal protections

The Supreme Court’s analysis will be consequential in shaping those federal boundaries, and by extension, the administrative policies and technologies that are adopted by states prior to the 2018 elections. Unfortunately, federal priorities have been confounded by the controversial reversal of the Department of Justice’s position on this case. Last August, federal attorneys under new Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that, as a result of the “change in Administrations,” they now support Ohio’s process, in contrast to Obama-era officials who sided with plaintiffs. This highly unusual about-face only muddies the legal waters as the Supreme Court prepares to wade in.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court needs to clarify the protections afforded by the federal government under the Elections Clause, which gives Congress authority to “make or alter” state election regulations, a provision that the Framers included specifically with the intent of keeping states from manipulating Congressional elections so as to subvert the power of the federal government. In this regard, defendants are correct to point out that this is a question of federalism.

Integrity and access aren’t conflicting goals

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 were both crafted by Congress with the explicit intent of increasing voter registration and participation in the electoral process. The state of Ohio claims that these regulations have “dueling purposes” of facilitating access to the ballot, but also ensuring the integrity of the process, which in their view necessitates regularly cleaning and purging voter lists.

While the value of one’s vote can be unconstitutionally diminished either by denying it to eligible voters, or by contaminating votes cast with ineligible votes, the Supreme Court needs to recognize that these purposes are not necessarily “dueling” or in conflict. To the extent that there are administrative policies and technologies that can improve both access and integrity, the Court should be suspicious of any regulation that sacrifices equal access to the vote when a less burdensome procedure is available that protects electoral integrity as well or better than the proposed policy.

In this context, there are several regulatory and technological innovations that are demonstrably superior to Ohio’s supplemental process. For one, it is possible to use existing statewide data in a manner that more effectively identifies residential changes and eligibility than Ohio’s notification process. Algorithms are being developed that couple multiple databases from state records, and could more accurately identify what Ohio claims they are looking for, residential changes, without accidentally removing eligible voters from the lists.

Studies have also indicated that Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), that is, requiring eligible residents to opt out of voter lists rather than opt in, can both substantially increase political participation and provide a more accurate database to verify voter eligibility. Employing such technologies not only provides a more secure and effective means of protection against voter fraud, to the extent that it exists, they also protect against external hacking and violations of integrity in a way that many current techniques do not. The Supreme Court needs to take questions of data management and integrity into account if they are to uphold their obligation to apply strict scrutiny to the violation of our constitutionally protected right to a free, fair and equal vote.

Anti-Science Nominee Kathleen Hartnett-White Faces Renewed Scrutiny for Top Environmental Post

Hartnett-White's extreme views and lack of understanding of basic scientific issues were on full display at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Kathleen Hartnett-White was an ill-advised nomination to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) from the get-go.

Perhaps the Trump administration assumed her nomination would fly under the radar. CEQ is not exactly a high-profile entity; you don’t hear or read much about it. Nor is there much public discussion about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that the CEQ oversees, even though NEPA is considered the Magna Carta of Environmental Law—so admired it has been replicated by nations around the world. (For more, here’s some quick background on CEQ and NEPA).

Serving industry interests over the public interest

Be assured, however, that regulated industries (especially the petrochemical industry) are well aware of NEPA. Some may be counting on Hartnett-White to weaken its environmental and public health protections. One commenter even noted that Hartnett-White’s nomination is a “game changer” in terms of CEQ ensuring agency enforcement and implementation of NEPA; the commenter mused that “It seems Trump has a very different role in mind, and CEQ is being lined up as a streamlining agency to make sure permitting is happening more quickly…. Maybe the idea is that CEQ will be pushing agencies to get things done quicker and not get bogged down in broader NEPA reviews.”

Along with other Trump appointees—like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry—Harnett-White, if confirmed, seems destined to serve industry interests over the public interest. That should worry all of us.

Facing intense scrutiny

White’s nomination hasn’t escape scrutiny in either mainstream or social media. It got a lot of press (here, here, here, here). More than 300 scientists sent a letter to the Senate opposing her nomination “because one thing more dangerous than climate change is lying.” (More here.) And she did herself no favors at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where her extreme views and lack of understanding of basic scientific issues were embarrassing and on full display (see for yourself).

Her written responses to EPW Committee questions for the record also reiterated some of her anti-science views on climate change, particulate air pollution, mercury and air toxics, and the Clean Air Act. And then of course there is the fact that she actually plagiarized some responses from the answers submitted by other Cabinet nominees.

Despite her embarrassingly poor performance at the hearing and her historically extreme views, Hartnett-White was narrowly voted out of the EPW Committee on a strict party-line basis on November 29, 2017. But her nomination did not make it to the Senate floor in 2017.

Dangerous, outside the mainstream, and unfit to lead CEQ

Although CEQ is relatively small and unknown, it plays a critical role in our nation’s public health and environmental protection, especially through NEPA. And Hartnett-White’s views on climate science, air pollution and health, clean and renewable energy, and the role of science in public policy are dangerous and outside the mainstream. Our country needs and deserves a more qualified candidate to lead CEQ.

Kathleen Hartnett-White vs. Science

These few snippets of her views and prior statements make their own case—and you can see more here.

Hartnett-White: “Ambient PM [particulate matter, a.k.a. soot] levels in the United States today are low and I do not believe that PM at these levels pose a health hazard. There is considerable uncertainty in the scientific literature about whether exposure to PM actually causes adverse health outcomes and, if it does, at what concentration effects may occur.” (Written submission to EPW questions for the record, 2017: Question 34, page 13.)

Science: Numerous scientific studies document adverse health effects of particulate matter (e.g., here and here). A 2017 Harvard study could find no evidence of a safe level of exposure to smog or particulate matter.

Hartnett-White: “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and carbon is certainly not a poison. Carbon is the chemical basis of all life on earth. Our bones and blood are made out of carbon. A natural, trace gas in the Earth’s atmosphere, invisible and odorless, carbon dioxide does not contaminate the air as genuine pollutants can do. Ambient CO2 has zero health impacts. This falsely maligned natural gas is better known as the “gas of life” because it is a necessary nutrient for plant growth — the food base of life on the planet earth.” (Op-Ed in Austin American-Statesman, 2016)

Science: Credible scientists and institutions recognize CO2 as the most important and dangerous driver of climate change; it remains in the atmosphere for decades and, as a climate pollutant, is associated with a host of health impacts. See here, here, here, and here.

Hartnett-White: “IPCC science claims of 95 percent certainty that human activity is causing climate calamity are more like the dogmatic claims of ideologues and clerics than scientific conclusions.” (June 2014 TPPF policy document, titled “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case”).

“There’s a real dark side in the kind of paganism, the secular elites of religion now being evidently global warming.” (From 2016 interview on the TRP Show, The Right Perspective)

Science: IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5) is the result of the collaboration of over 800 scientists from 80 countries and the assessment of over 30,000 scientific papers.

Hartnett-White: “I am not at all persuaded by the IPCC science that we are standing on some precipice…. “We’re not standing on a cliff from which we are about to fall off.” She also called the scientific conclusions from United Nations panels “not validated and politically corrupt.” (Washington Post, 2017)

Science: IPCC, 5th Assessment Report (AR5), Summary for Policy Makers (SPM), pages 8-16:  “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

Public health experts also sound the alarm. The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change…”exposes the urgency for a response as environmental changes cause damaging effects on health worldwide now.”

Hartnett-White: “[The IPCC] never really takes on an explanation of how the other variables in climate affect climate. […] It never takes on the Sun.” (Speaking at Ars Technica, 2016)

Science: IPCC SPM, Page 8.  Shows the negligible contribution of “natural forcings” and “anthropogenic forcings.” See also NASA data, Figures 1 and 2 and National Academy of Sciences, page 9

Hartnett-White: “Most green energy policies undermine human progress.” (from her book Fueling Freedom, co-authored with Heritage Foundation fellow Stephen Moore).

Science: See, for example: Renewable Resources: The Impact of Green Energy on the Economy; The Economics of Renewable Energy: Falling Costs and Rising Employment; more here and here.

Hartnett-White: “Government by popularly elected representatives on the one hand and the government by federal administrators swearing by the authority of science, on the other hand, are contradictory notions. I would call the latter, moreover, an acutely dangerous notion. Regrettably, in the modern United States these two incompatible policy-making models clash often, and with dire results. Elected officials trying to carry out their public duties—e.g., maximizing access to clean, affordable energy—meet stubborn opposition from federal mandarins brandishing their scientific credentials.”  (Texas Public Policy Foundation, 5/18/2012)

Science: To the benefit of public health, federal scientists have “brandished their scientific credentials” on a host of toxic substances (e.g., lead, arsenic, silica), not to mention on HIV, bird flu, food safety, etc.   (Add your favorite to the list here.) This recent op-ed by former EPA Administrator Ruckleshaus is also worth a read.

A second bite at the apple?

There may be hope yet. Senate rules require all unconfirmed nominations still pending at the end of its first session be sent back to the White House—unless there is unanimous consent that it be held over without re-nomination. If a nomination is sent back, the confirmation process begins all over again. And, thanks to Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the Hartnett-White nomination has gone back to the White House. This means President Trump would need to re-nominate her—or someone else—and there may be another EPW hearing and vote before any nominee goes before the full Senate for confirmation. (Read about this here.)

This provides several opportunities for a re-think. Hartnett-White could avoid herself further embarrassment and withdraw her nomination or the administration could decide to do the same and instead nominate a more qualified candidate for this important post.

If Hartnett-White is re-nominated, EPW Committee members who previously voted for her could put party politics aside and NOT send her nomination to the Senate floor. And, if all else fails, the full Senate could look honestly at her record, her anti-science and unscientific views, her coterie of ardent benefactors among polluting industries, and her own deep conflicts of interest, along with her questionable support of and at times outright hostility for our fundamental environmental laws. And then the Senate itself could do the right thing and reject her nomination.

Time to speak up. Again.

We’ve seen how our collective voices can make a difference. Public pressure and scrutiny has already forced other unqualified candidates to withdraw, including Sam Clovis, who was nominated to be chief scientist at the US Department of Agriculture; and Michael Dourson, who was nominated to be Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances of the EPA.

We need to exercise our voices (and writing skills) yet again to oppose this egregious nomination.

Call your senators today at 866-580-8532 and urge them to oppose the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett-White. You can prepare with more information and talking points to help you have as effective a call as possible.

If the White House does nominate her once again, call your Senators and ask them to oppose her confirmation. You can also help fight this nomination by penning a letter to the editor or an op-ed for your local paper (some helpful hints here), and speaking out on social media.

We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. But time is of the essence; the time to act is now.

All I Want for Christmas Is Added Sugar Information Over Disinformation

The struggle is real right now for all of us trying to watch our added sugar intake this holiday season as we await the implementation of the revised nutrition facts label. Now, thanks to the administration’s delay of implementation dates, we’ll have longer to wait for clear labels.  Want to know how much sugar was added to that egg nog? Tough. How about that fruit cake? None of your business. Trying to figure out whether you’ll max out on your daily sugar intake from that cup of hot cocoa? Better luck in 2020!

The Sugar Association had the gall to claim that the added sugar label was “not grounded in science” when it was finalized in May 2016. Now, multiple revelations over the past year have shown the way in which the organization has sidelined science using the disinformation playbook since at least the 1950s. It is clear as crystal that the Sugar Association cares only about science that downplays the risks of sugar consumption. All other data is subject to being contested or buried altogether.

Speaking of burying data, here’s how the Sugar Association used “The Fake” to end a research study with inconvenient initial findings.

In a November PLoS article, UCSF researchers found that the Sugar Research Foundation had suppressed its own research when its results indicated that rats fed a high-sugar diet had a statistically significant increase in likelihood that they would have higher levels of beta-glucoronidase which is associated with bladder cancer. SRF funded the 15-month study in 1968 to be led by W.F.R. Pover at the University of Birmingham. When Pover reported his results and asked for more time to complete the study, SRF Vice President, Hickson, described the study’s value as “nil” to industry executives, leading to a denial of the funding request and a termination of the incomplete study. This meant that the study’s conclusions were never published and that the link between a high sugar diet and associated cancer risk were kept secret from the public, until now. As recently as 2016, the Sugar Association has denied the link between sugar consumption and cancer, stating that “no credible link between ingested sugars and cancer has been established.”

The Sugar Association has also spent years trying to shift attention off of the harmful impacts of added sugar, using “The Diversion.”

The same UCSF research team published a study last year which revealed that as a part of its campaign to increase sugar consumption in the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation funded its own literature review on sugars, fats, and chronic heart disease in an obvious attempt to dispel the rumors that calories from sugar were at least part of the problem. The SRF paid Dr. Mark Hegsted and Dr. Robert McGandy, under the supervision of Harvard University’s Fredrick Stare, a total of nearly $50,000 (in 2015 dollars) for their work. And the SRF was heavily involved throughout the review process, urging the scientists to focus on the perils of fat consumption. The SRF vice president and director of research, John Hickson, emphasized in 1965, “Our particular interest had to do with that part of nutrition in which there are claims that carbohydrates in the form of sucrose make an inordinate contribution to the metabolic condition, hitherto ascribed to aberrations called fat metabolism. I will be disappointed if this aspect is drowned out in a cascade of review and general interpretation.”

Another trick up the sleeve of the Sugar Association was their use of “The Screen,” taking advantage of the funding relationship it had with Harvard University’s nutrition department.

Just as the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association today work with academic scientists to advance their talking points, when the trade association’s aforementioned literature review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, the authors did not disclose the funding or close involvement of the SRF in the review. Dr. Fredrick Stare, the founder and chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, had an extended history of funding from the sugar and food industry: over 30 papers authored by members of his department were funded by the SRF just between 1952 and 1956. Stare’s department at Harvard is a key example of how industry funding can influence academic science, with dangerous consequences for public discourse and public policy.

Despite all we know about the disinformation campaign of the sugar industry, government officials are still failing to see through their same old distraction tactics and talking points about “sound science” to act to protect our health rather than the trade association’s profit margin. The result? Delayed access to information on the nutrition facts label even though we know that sugar is one of the risk factors implicated in the obesity crisis that continues to worsen every year.

Early last month, UCS submitted a comment to the FDA urging them to choose information over disinformation and not to go through with the further delay of enforcement of the revised label. To formally delay compliance of this already long-awaited and scientifically supported rule would be an arbitrary step backward for public health. 

Bah-humbug.

Trump Vows to Kill 50 Years of Federal Health and Safety Protections

New York City smog in the 1960s. Photo: Wikimedia

President Trump wants to set the regulatory clock back to 1960, and last week he acted it out for the cameras.

Wielding a pair of golden scissors at a White House photo op, he cut red tape strung around two stacks of paper. One was a small pile of some 20,000 pages representing the amount of regulations in 1960; the other a mound of more than 185,000 pages representing those of today.

“We’re getting back below the 1960 level,” Trump declared, “and we’ll be there fairly quickly.”

There’s only one problem. That mountain of paper Trump used as a prop symbolizes hard-won measures that protect us.

To refresh the president’s memory, back in the 1960s, smog in major US cities was so thick it blocked the sun. Rivers ran brown with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River and at least two other urban waterways were so polluted they caught on fire. Lead-laced paint and gasoline poisoned children, damaging their brains and nervous systems. Cars without seatbelts, air bags, or safety glass were unsafe at any speed. And hazardous working conditions killed an average of 14,000 workers annually, nearly three times the number today.

In response, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other landmark pieces of legislation to protect public health and safety. Some of those laws also created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other federal agencies to write and enforce safeguards.

None of those laws, or the regulations they spawned, existed in 1960.

Trump grew up on dirty air

Trump should remember quite well what it was like in the 1960s. After all, he lived in New York, at the time one of the dirtiest cities in the country. Garbage incinerators routinely rained ash on city streets, while coal- and oil-fired power plants spewed a noxious mix of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and toxic metals. John V. Lindsay, the city’s mayor from 1966 to 1973, famously quipped, “I never trust air I can’t see,” but it was no laughing matter. On Thanksgiving weekend the year Lindsay took office, the smog was so bad it killed some 200 people.

The waterways coursing around the city’s boroughs, especially the Hudson River, were just as filthy. In 1965, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller accurately called the Hudson “one great septic tank.” Indeed, 170 million gallons of raw sewage fouled the river daily while factories along its banks treated it as a waste pit. A General Motors plant in Sleepy Hollow, 27 miles north of New York City, poured its paint sludge directly into the river. Even worse, General Electric manufacturing plants in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls dumped about 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable human carcinogen, into the river over a 30-year period ending in 1977. Since 1984, a 200-mile stretch of the river from Hudson Falls to Manhattan’s southern tip has been on the EPA’s Superfund program list of the country’s most hazardous waste sites.

Protections prevent disease and save lives

Fast forward to today. By and large, the environmental laws Congress began passing in the 1970s have been remarkably successful.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, for example, tens of billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash have been kept out of U.S. waterways since it was enacted 45 years ago. In New York City, harbor water quality has improved so much that humpback whales have returned for the first time in a century.

Thanks to the Clean Air Act, nationwide emissions of six common pollutants—carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter (soot) and sulfur dioxide—plunged 70 percent on average between 1970 and 2015.

New Yorkers are breathing easier, too. On Earth Day last April, the city’s health department released a report announcing that air pollution in the Big Apple is at the lowest level ever recorded. Between 2008 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter declined 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, while sulfur dioxide levels plummeted 84 percent after the city and state tightened heating oil rules.

That’s all good news for public health. In 2010 alone, according to an EPA study, Clean Air Act programs that reduced levels of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone prevented an estimated 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and 1.7 million asthma attacks across the country.

These accomplishments, however, do not mean it’s time to eliminate or weaken environmental safeguards. There is still much left to do. Consider that in just one year—2015—polluters dumped more than 190 million tons of toxic chemicals into waterways nationwide; at least 5,000 community drinking water systems violated federal lead regulations; and some 116 million Americans lived in counties with harmful levels of ozone or particulate matter pollution, which have been linked to lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems, and premature death.

If you can’t kill ’em, just don’t enforce ’em

Fortunately, it will be very difficult for the Trump administration to roll back 50 years’ worth of congressionally mandated rules protecting the public from industrial poisons, harmful drugs, adulterated food and defective products. Trump’s regulation czar conceded the point immediately after the December 14 White House photo op.

“I think returning to 1960s levels would likely require legislation. It’s hard for me to know what that looks like,” said Neomi Rao, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget. “Deregulation also takes time. If we’re doing something consistent with the law, it takes time to reduce rules.”

In the meantime, the Trump administration is resorting to the next best—or worst—thing, depending on your perspective: It has cut back dramatically on enforcing environmental laws.

A recent New York Times investigative report compared the number of enforcement actions filed in the first nine months of the Trump EPA with what the two previous administrations did over the same time period. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA initiated about 1,900 cases, about a third fewer than under Lisa Jackson, President Obama’s first EPA administrator, and about a quarter fewer than under Christine Todd Whitman, who directed the agency under President George W. Bush and was not known for aggressive enforcement.

The Times also found that the Trump EPA is reluctant to seek civil penalties. In its first nine months, the agency tagged polluters for about $50.4 million for violations. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to roughly 70 percent of what the Bush EPA levied and only about 39 percent of what the Obama EPA sought over the same time frame.

To make matters worse, Pruitt is threatening to cut off funding for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which files lawsuits on behalf of the EPA’s Superfund program to force polluters to cover the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites. In recent years, the EPA has reimbursed the division more than $20 million annually.

In an apparent attempt to blunt criticism, Trump acknowledged at last week’s photo op that purging a half century of protections could have an adverse impact, and he assured Americans that he would not let that happen.

“We know that some of the rules contained in these pages have been beneficial to our nation, and we’re going to keep them,” he said. “We want to protect our workers, our safety, our health, and we want to protect our water, we want to protect our air, and our country’s natural beauty.”

Somehow, I’m not convinced. Given the president’s penchant for lying, his administration’s abysmal track record, and now his avowed intention to kill nearly 90 percent of federal regulations, the smoke Trump is blowing is as thick as 1960s New York smog.

2017: Standing Up for Science—and Chalking Up Some Wins

In 2017, UCS’s efforts to build a healthier, safer, more sustainable world faced some of the toughest obstacles we’ve ever encountered. With its circus-like atmosphere continually showcasing the politics of greed and grievance, the Trump administration has attempted to sideline science across the board and block progress on key UCS issues from renewable energy to sustainable agriculture.

But here’s the rub: “alternative facts” can take you only so far; reality has a way of reasserting itself. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has famously put it, science “is true whether or not you believe in it.” So, the Trump administration can try to deny climate science, but it can’t hide the effects of climate change already upon us, such as the devastation from one of the worst hurricane seasons in memory. Or the fact that wildfires in California are continuing to rage in December, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres and displacing tens of thousands of residents.

Little wonder, then, that 2017 was the year one million people around the world took to the streets in marches extolling the importance of science. With a surge of newly energized scientists and activists across the country, it’s also no accident that UCS membership is now larger than ever before—with more than a half-million supporters swelling our ranks.

So, despite President Trump’s boasts about all the “winning” his administration was going to usher in, here are some fact-based reasons to take heart as 2017 draws to a close:

We’re defending hard-won gains

Early on in the Trump administration, UCS successfully resisted gag orders on scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and we have managed—so far at least—to block the passage of bills in Congress that seek to restrict the role of science in setting public safeguards. We’ve even played a key role in helping to block the nominations of particularly unsuitable candidates for key oversight roles in areas such as agricultural science and chemical safety. After the Trump administration’s tragically misguided decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, UCS even helped pressure enough Republican senators to break ranks to fully sustain US funding for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—the body responsible for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

We’re continuing to make solid progress in many states and cities

For all the Trump administration’s talk about a resurgence of the coal industry, the facts on the ground tell a very different—and more heartening—story about the progress states around the country are making to lower global warming emissions and foster the growth of clean energy. Not only did California approve an expansion of its landmark law limiting global warming emissions, Illinois passed one of the nation’s most comprehensive energy bills, including expanded access to clean energy for low-income households. And Michigan raised its bar for clean energy and energy efficiency to 35 percent of electricity sales by 2025, among many other gains. In collaboration with partners, we even persuaded the city of Los Angeles to electrify its entire bus fleet by 2030.

We’re increasing pressure on fossil fuel companies

We also saw substantive progress over the past year in our campaign to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their decades-long role in spurring global warming through the sale of their products while misleading the public about established climate science. In May, UCS earned a key victory when shareholders at ExxonMobil’s annual meeting voted for the first time ever to require the company to make regular reports about how its bottom line is affected by climate change. Since then, we published a groundbreaking scientific article in the respected, peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change  in which a team led by UCS scientists was the first to link changes in global temperature and sea level rise to emissions specifically attributable to individual fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil. With several court cases already underway and plaintiffs eager to draw on this powerful new scientific evidence, the pressure is on these fossil fuel giants to end their underhanded campaigns of deception and their ongoing efforts to block the policies we need to combat global warming.

We’re standing up for science and getting stronger

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that it has been a trying year for everyone who values the role of science in developing policies to protect public health and safety. And we know that much more trouble lies ahead. Many hard-won policies—from sensible fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to the Clean Power Plan—continue to face an all-out, sustained assault in which the voices for the role of science, analysis, and smart policies remain badly outnumbered on Capitol Hill.

But standing up for science has arguably never been more necessary and we’re up to the task. With rapid-response teams meeting virtually every day, UCS has raised frequent, loud alarms in response to the Trump administration’s attacks on science. We chronicled their cumulative effects in a July report titled Sidelining Science from Day One and we are actively continuing to  publicize these attacks as they happen.

Best of all, we’ve found that, shaken out of its complacency, a broader public than ever before is joining our efforts and we’re moving rapidly to enlist more help from our energized supporters. Early this year, we called on scientists across the country to help us watchdog administration activities especially in their areas of expertise; hundreds have volunteered. More recently, we launched a “Science Champions” campaign, offering a variety of effective ways for nonscientists to stand up for science in their communities. In August, we launched the Science Protection Project to connect government whistleblowers with legal assistance. And, through our new Science for Public Good fund, we are offering UCS Science Network members grants to implement innovative strategies to promote science-based decisionmaking.

We’re grateful for all the help from our members and supporters and we’re gearing up for some major battles in 2018. When it comes to protecting people’s health and safety, we’re in no mood to compromise. And, with science on our side, we’re just hitting our stride.

Trump’s Two-Minds on Climate Change Puts America’s Security Last

Today President Trump released the National Security Strategy (NSS) which lays out the Administration’s “America First” vision: a stark departure from decades of previous Administration’s commitment to multilateral engagement.  In another standalone move, President Trump has removed any mention of climate change as a national security threat in the National Security Strategy.

The last National Security Strategy in 2015 under the Obama Administration recognized climate change as one of many global threats we need to prepare for:

Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water. The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure, and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.”

President Trump’s National Security Strategy follows his consistent censorship of and attack on science and climate change, but it is also a contradiction to legislation that he just signed into law.

Yes, Just Last Week President Trump Confirmed Climate Change Is a Major Threat to U.S. National Security and Our Armed Forces Overseas

On December 12, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law, recognizing that climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.  The act requires the Pentagon to do a report on how military installations and overseas staff may be vulnerable to climate change over the next 20 years.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the language in the bill, it’s worth a read – see Section 335: Report on effects of climate change on Department of Defense – just a few pages in the 740 page bill.

The language recognizes previous statements by Secretary of Defense James Mattis on climate change, including:

‘‘It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.’’

And

‘‘I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.’’

In addition to citing other high-ranking military staff and reports on climate change impacts, the legislation requires the report to include:

  1. “A list of the ten most vulnerable military installations within each service based on the effects of rising sea tides, increased flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, thawing permafrost, and any other categories the Secretary determines necessary.
  2. An overview of mitigations that may be necessary to ensure the continued operational viability and to increase the resiliency of the identified vulnerable military installations and the cost of such mitigations.
  3. A discussion of the climate-change related effects on the Department, including the increase in the frequency of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, and the theater campaign plans, contingency plans, and global posture of the combatant commanders.
  4. An overview of mitigations that may be necessary to ensure mission resiliency and the cost of such mitigations.”
While POTUS (And Other Climate Change Apologists) Have Their Heads in The Sand, It Doesn’t Mean the Risk Is Gone; In Fact, It’s Growing

In previous blogs (here and here), I’ve spoken to the long history of the military’s understanding of the threat of climate change on our national security.

NAS Key West is Expected to Lose Currently Utilized Land to Sea Level Rise.

Last year, UCS released “The U.S. Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas” which provides a snapshot of 18 military installations exposure to sea level rise and storm surge.  Without extensive flood risk mitigation measures, we found that by the end of this century, most military installations can expect a large increase in the frequency of tidal flooding, storm surges that cover greater areas at increased depth, and loss of usable land area to the sea.

For Naval Air Station Key West, for instance, the findings were particularly stark. By the end of this century, under a high sea level rise scenario, the installation will be almost completely under water.

In a Navy Times article, the Department of Defense recognized the value of the analysis:

DoD values the UCS’s insights into the impacts of climate change on military installations,” Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Badger told Navy Times. “We welcome their report and its findings. We recognize climate change impacts and their potential threats represent one more risk that we must consider as we make decisions about our installations, infrastructure, weapons systems and most of all, our people.”

Our most recent sea level rise analysis  – “When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities” – makes clear the challenges the nation faces from climate change-driven sea level rise.

However, sea level rise is just one of the many climate change risks we’re facing now, and that are growing.

Leaving Climate Change Behind While Addressing National Security Simply Puts America Last, Not First.

While President Trump continues to hold the United States back from acting on climate change, the international community continues to move forward.  In November, my colleague spoke to Syria’s announcement that they would join the Paris Agreement, leaving the United States as the sole country not joining the global effort to combat climate change.

It’s not only a shame that President Trump will delete climate change as a U.S. threat from his National Security Strategy, it is irresponsible. In fact, the government’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), just released a new report last week that finds that when it comes to our military installations overseas, the Department of Defense needs to do better at incorporating climate change in adaptation and planning.

I’ve written previously about the implications of climate change on national security, where I highlight the 2016 report by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and the six key pathways in which climate change will threaten national security. The 5th key pathway addresses the negative impacts on investments and economic competitiveness. It should resonate with the POTUS and be just one of many reasons climate change should not be deleted from the National Security Strategy.

While we have come to expect inconsistency from this administration, we must not accept it when it comes to the vital area of national security. After all, if America is to be first, it cannot risk being unprepared for these climate related risks that threatens our national security.

Photo: Ian Swoveland The Union of Concerned Scientists

The Trump Administration Word Ban Extends to Other Federal Agencies. Its Ongoing Assault on Science Is Much Worse.

A word ban extends beyond the CDC, the Washington Post reported last night, including at another, unnamed HHS agency that was told how to talk about the Affordable Care Act, presumably to discourage people from signing up for health care. The directive came from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates the president’s budget proposal and rule-making agenda.

On Friday, the Washington Post broke the news (and other outlets confirmed) that CDC officials were prevented from referring to seven words when putting together the agency’s budget: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.

If only the banning of “science-based” and “diversity” was the worst thing the Trump administration has done to science.

Additional terminology guidance given to the State Department suggests that the administration intends to pull funding from science-based HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives that work to promote abstinence-only programs instead, even though peer-reviewed research consistently finds that abstinence-only programs do not delay sexual activity or change other sexual risk behaviors.

The CDC word ban was widely repudiated by scientists, senators, and public health advocates. The issue has attracted enormous attention (even from Cher!) as emblematic of a morally, scientifically, and ethically corrupt style of governing.

In an email to staff last night, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said that the CDC “remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution…science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Yet recently, CDC scientists were banned from responding to basic data requests from reporters without political approval—a clear violation of the agency’s scientific integrity policy.

Sidelining science since day one

This starts with words and communication, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Just last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke summoned the head of Joshua Tree National Park to his office for a tongue lashing over tweets the park had sent out referencing climate change. That’s right: the park director flew across the country to be reprimanded for a couple of tweets, in order to send a message to all park directors: talking about climate change is verboten.

And oh, if only word choice was the worst action this administration has taken to undermine the use of science in policy-making. They’re not just trying to downplay the phrase “evidence-based.” They’re trying to ditch the whole idea of basing policy on evidence.

In July, we chronicled how the Trump administration has sidelined science since day one. And since then the abuses of evidence have continued to flow.

The Treasury Secretary claimed that economists were working “around the clock” to come up with analysis justifying the tax bill. They were not. The EPA banned scientists who receive EPA grants—the ones the agency has decided do the most promising environmental and public health research—from providing science advice to the agency. The Department of Interior is trying to defund and prevent public access to the US Geological Survey library system.

The White House has no science advisor, and the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is a ghost town. Numerous political appointees—including the CDC director and the nominee for NOAA administrator—have financial conflicts of interest that lead many to question their ability to do the jobs. The administration has shut down studies where it expects it won’t like the outcome: on climate change in the tropics, on teen pregnancy prevention, and on the health risks of surface coal mining in West Virginia. Science agencies are targeted across the board for severe budget cuts.

An exhaustive list is, quite frankly, impossible. President Trump’s attacks on science harm our environment and make all of us sicker and less safe. If the Trump administration won’t allow federal agencies to do their job, it’s time to ask Congress to step up its game, engage in meaningful oversight, and do its job.

Is CDC Banning the Use of Scientific Words? It’s Time for CDC Director Brenda Price to Speak Up

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been prohibited from using certain words (including diversity, science-based, and vulnerable) in any documents related to next year’s budget, the Washington Post reported late Friday. New CDC Director Dr. Brenda Price has the opportunity to clarify that no such restrictions exist and that staff are explicitly encouraged to make science the centerpiece of the CDC’s work.

The agency’s scientific integrity policy is unambiguous about this point: As the nation’s public health agency, CDC places primary emphasis on scientific evidence for developing policies, guidelines, and recommendations. But officials suggested in a meeting that instead of putting primary emphasis on science, staff should write that “the CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

It’s quite obvious that good public health policy is not based on wishes.

It is unclear whether the directive came from Trump administration officials or from career staff self-censoring to avoid falling into political traps. Career staff at government agencies often modify language to stop their work from being politicized.

Yet there’s a fine line between necessary self-preservation and needless self-censorship. For example, CDC staff took the unusual and unfortunate step of canceling a conference on climate change and public health even before the inauguration.

I have spoken to dozens of CDC staff and grantees in recent months, and so far, much of their valuable public health research and protection work has continued unabated despite the change in administration. Actions that divert the agency from its grounding in science could compromise the progress they are making in tracking opioid overdoses, reducing teen pregnancy, protecting the elderly from the flu, and slowing HIV transmission among transgender Americans.

At its best, CDC should not be a political agency. Its scientific integrity policy affirms this:

CDC has a responsibility to conduct the best science and is committed to disseminating scientific findings and results without being influenced by policy or political issues. Although CDC may conduct research in areas relevant for making policy decisions, the goal of such research is to provide the best evidence to drive policy in the right direction. CDC is committed to ensuring that all information products authored, published, and released by CDC for public use are of the highest quality and are scientifically sound, technically accurate, and useful to the intended audience.

Yet earlier in the year, Axios reported that the CDC now requires scientists to ask for permission before providing scientific information to reporters and the public. “This correspondence includes everything from formal interview requests to the most basic of data requests,” wrote a CDC official. The constraint on employee communication is another clear violation of the agency scientific integrity policy. It’s also time for the CDC to repudiate this kind of muzzling.

CDC research and initiatives have direct impact on public health and safety for all populations—including and especially those who are most vulnerable to public health threats. Effectively tackling public health challenges means being honest and open about risks and who faces these risks. To prevent the agency from losing its legitimacy, CDC Director Price must speak up now to reinforce the centrality of science to the agency’s work.

Conflicts of Interest Matter—Congress Needs to Stop This

With the election of Donald Trump, our government has apparently changed the way in which financial conflicts of interest are addressed by political appointees to his administration. The President himself has, of course, been unwilling to sever ties to his businesses even as his actions in office impact their financial performance. That has raised constitutional issues for some critics and is the subject of ongoing litigation.

But for appointees to the executive branch agencies, conflicts of interest no longer seem to be a major hurdle. My colleagues and I (e.g. here, here and here) have written about this before with regard to several prominent nominees. Of course, the concern is that appointed officials in executive branch agencies will make decisions that favor their own interests now or in the near future.

There is another concern though. Suppose that a high level appointee is scrupulous about following the ethics rules and recuses themselves from any decision that might have the appearance of impacting their own interests (or those of their family and close associates). That has always been my simple understanding of the rules when I served in government or on advisory panels. And in my experience recusal works pretty well because there are always a small number of issues where it becomes necessary for any decision-maker or advisor to step away from the discussion. It happens, but is not often necessary.

I recently noted that Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a critical public health agency—has financial interests that are not severable related to cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. She has recused herself from decisions concerning those issues at the CDC. But cancer and opioid use are two of the major public health crises facing our nation. Now the head of the CDC must stay out of the discussion on how to deal with these huge problems? Does that mean that the CDC will take less of a role in these battles because the director can’t participate?

Now take the nomination of Barry Myers to head my former agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As the CEO of Accuweather, which is essentially his family’s company, Mr. Myers will be affected by decisions about the National Weather Service, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, three of the line offices of NOAA. And not for just a few isolated topics, but the broad scope of work of all of these offices has the potential to impact Accuweather’s business and finances. Since it is a family business (his brother is the founder and president), divestiture is not going to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest. So, properly, he should recuse himself from decisions that have the appearance of impacting his family. Does that mean the new head of NOAA should recuse himself from, say, two-thirds of the work of the agency? I think so, but how can that possibly work? Everyone subordinate to the NOAA Administrator will know that their work may impact him personally. So even recusal seems a weak tool.

Dr. Fitzgerald may be a good public health professional. Mr. Myers may be a good businessman. But that doesn’t mean they are appropriate choices to lead federal agencies if their conflicts of interest run so deep as to be unavoidable. This shouldn’t be the new standard for government officials, because we already have ethics laws on the books. We need Congress to step up and say no to conflicted appointees and ensure that no one is above the law.

Dialogue About Risks of Environmental Exposure Begins with Taking Environmental Justice Concerns Seriously

“We must listen more to the people we serve, have uncomfortable conversations, and increase our push for social justice.” Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director, American Public Health Association

Public health officials are tasked with one of the most critical jobs in our modern risk society: to research, understand, educate, and help prevent the multiple and complex ways in which people are exposed to and suffer from disease. But when public health officials deflect attention away from significant sources of toxic pollutants that put people at risk (and instead blame the overexposed population’s race, lifestyle, or genetics), they do a disservice to the people they are supposed to protect.

Such tactics are expected from industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, who recently engaged in a classic “diversion” disinformation play to baselessly argue there’s no link between elevated risk of cancer from air toxics and oil and natural gas industry emissions among African American populations, as a new NAACP, Clean Air Task Force, and National Medical Association report finds (see my colleague Charise Johnson’s blog takedown of API’s feeble attempt at refuting the report’s scientific claims). But to see the same sort of diversionary tactic in a worrisome op-ed by Dr. Karyl Rattay—director of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH)—raises the question of whose interests the DPH is looking after.

The target of Dr. Rattay’s column was a report recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in which, together with our environmental justice (EJ) partners in Delaware, we reported on air toxics and associated cancer risks in selected EJ communities in the state. We utilized the EPA’s latest (2011) National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), an “ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the United States”. These data represent the state-of-the-science in air quality modeling of air toxics. In our report, contra what Dr. Rattay argues, we have been careful not to overrepresent what the pollutant concentrations mean and have been consistent with EPA’s own statements about appropriate use of the data[1]:

  • We identify pollutants of greatest concern
  • We provide improved understanding of health risks posed by air toxics
  • Additionally, in our recommendations we are contributing to helping set priorities for the collection of additional information, improving emissions inventories, and informing community and local air toxics program in the context of both acute exposures that can be reduced through the Risk Management Program (RMP) rule, and chronic exposures that can be addressed through local toxics reductions programs.

Dr. Rattay claims that “the way [UCS] interpreted the data, and the conclusions they have drawn, artificially inflated a person’s risk of cancer from environmental air pollution”. In fact, we did not inflate (artificially or otherwise) a person’s risk of cancer from environmental air toxics pollution. On page 11 of the report, we carefully adhered to the EPA’s NATA disclaimers by noting that “the health estimates represent average risks and hazards affecting a community rather than exact risks or hazards for a particular person”. Furthermore, the DPH director’s claim that many of the health outcomes we report on can be explained by “lifestyle” choices individuals make is very perplexing. At best, Dr. Rattay is engaging in the ecological fallacy of extrapolating the putative unhealthy lifestyle choices of a few individuals (e.g., smoking) to a population that is demonstrably exposed to undue burdens of air toxics. At worst, Dr. Rattay is echoing the very offensive and debunked claims that low-income people of color make bad lifestyle choices like smoking and barbequing that account for higher cancer rates, and simultaneously downplay the role of the acute and chronic toxic exposures that we have documented.

The Delaware Department of Public Health does not think petrochemical facilities like the Delaware City Refinery are a big deal in terms of air toxics exposure and health risks, and instead thinks environmental justice communities in Delaware just need to quit smoking.

Public health professionals wield a comprehensive and holistic science-based understanding of the complex ways in which disease affects human health. As health, environmental justice, and scientific advocates, we could and should have an open dialogue to better understand the causality chain of various factors that influence cancer and other diseases, which should include individual or collective lifestyle practices, as well as indoor and outdoor environmental exposures to pollutants. But to that, we must include understanding of the structural socio-economic conditions that restrict the range of healthy lifestyle choices that individuals can make. Two examples spring to mind: we know that low-income populations’ access to healthy foods is a growing challenge in Delaware, and that tobacco companies aggressively market to low-income populations.

To be sure, establishing the epidemiological causality between specific health outcomes and pollutants is a difficult task and there’s often not much data to do this reliably and systematically. As a matter of scientific data and methods reliability and accuracy—and by their own admission—there is room for improvement in the EPA’s NATA dataset. But the DPH director chooses to “shoot the messenger” (UCS) instead of making the right call on the limitations of the data, which would be to urge the EPA to improve and increase air toxics data collection, air quality modeling, as well as fine-scale assessments of what these imply for cancer risks related to air toxics exposure.

But to entirely discredit the role of outdoor air toxics obscures the science-based knowledge that low-income communities of color are more exposed to these toxics and are thus at higher risks. This anti-scientific posture does not advance the dialogue that Dr. Rattay says should take place. As I have argued before, deflection away from social and scientific reality contributes to the “legacy of distrust” between low-income populations of color snd our scientific and health institutions, who have not always acted in the best interest of populations at the intersection of unfair environmental hazards burdens and political and socio-economic marginalization. The dialogue begins with taking their concerns seriously—not dismissing them outright.

[1] National Air Toxics Assessment: NATA Frequent Questions. Q3: How can NATA information be used?

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