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8 Times Your Voice has been Silenced by the Trump Administration

The Trump administration is routinely undermining your ability—and mine, and everyone else’s in this country—to exercise our democratic rights to provide input on the administration’s proposed actions through the public comment process. Public comments are just what they sound like: an opportunity for anyone in the public, both individuals and organizations, to submit a comment on a proposed rule that federal agencies are required by law to read and take into account. Public comments can raise the profile of an issue, can help amplify the voices of affected communities, and can show policymakers whether a proposal has broad support or is wildly unpopular.

It should be noted that public comments aren’t necessarily a reflection of public opinion as a whole. Whether or not people have an opportunity to comment depends on many factors, such as how long the public comment period was open, how accessible the language of the rule was, and whether interested parties raised awareness. But the amount of comments is a useful data point in assessing the degree of support a federal action is receiving or not.

As my colleagues and I have investigated the Trump administration’s continued attacks on science, we have noticed an insidious pattern. The administration has, time and again, approved rules for which the public overwhelmingly voiced opposition. Allow me to present eight times where the Trump administration not only ignored science, but potentially disregarded the will of the American people as indicated by the public comments.

1. Gutting the Endangered Species Act

A recent rule from the Department of the Interior (DOI) substantially dismantled the science-based protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead of allowing the best available science to guide decisions on the listing of endangered and threatened species, the new rule is forcing federal agencies to consider economics in the listing process, to ignore the impacts of climate change on habitats, and to allow the hunting, fishing, or unintentional killing of threatened species.

More than 800,000 public comments were submitted opposing the changes under the ESA.

2. Targeting legal immigrants who receive public assistance

Informally known as the “public charge” rule, this dangerous rule from the Department of Homeland Security gives the administration broad latitude to deny visas or green cards to immigrants who have ever—or might ever—receive public assistance, including food, medical, and housing assistance. As a result, participation in important safety net programs including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps), and public housing programs, is likely to fall among immigrant families. The science suggests that this will undermine public health broadly and will put the health and well-being of immigrant children, in particular, at risk.

The regulation drew more than 266,000 public comments (including 10,000 comments from UCS supporters) that overwhelmingly opposed the rule.

3. Approving “cyanide bombs” that kill wildlife

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reauthorized the use of sodium cyanide in devices that are designed to kill natural predators such as coyotes, foxes, and wild dogs. But in reality, these “cyanide bombs” can hurt, maim or kill any type of wildlife that is unlucky enough to encounter them, including children and pets.

According to an analysis of public comments by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Environmental Law Center, the vast majority opposed the measure. Of the 22,400 public comments received, only 10 submissions indicated support for this rule.

4. Harmful emissions from industrial farms are no longer recorded

Large industrial farms—especially CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), which generate vast quantities of animal waste—can release hazardous air emissions that endanger people’s health. The EPA used to collect data on two hazardous gases emitted from farms, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, but they recently passed a rule to stop this valuable data collection to local authorities. Previous attempts by community groups to try and compile the same data at the state level have been largely unsuccessful, meaning that without the EPA’s data, there is no mechanism in place to collect these data.

Of the 87,473 public comments received, 99 percent were in opposition to the new rule.

5. Rolling back nutritional standards for school meals

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a rule which weakened the nutritional standards of lunches/breakfasts served at school and benefited the food industry at the expense of children’s health. The rule makes it easier for schools to obtain waivers to bypass whole grain requirements and serve less-nutritious white bread instead. In addition, the rule delays lower sodium limits until after 2020, and allows children to opt for sugary, flavored milk again. This may have been a pet issue for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, as he signaled wanting to carry out this action just weeks after coming into office.

Of the 85,000 public comments submitted for the rule, the vast majority favored keeping intact the original nutrition standards for sodium (96 percent) and whole grains (97 percent).

6. Rolling back safety protections for offshore oil workers

Remember the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which killed 11 workers, injured 17 other workers, and was the largest environmental disaster in US history? A number of evidence-based measures were put into place afterwards to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. These included better/more frequent safety inspections and more testing of the blowout preventor, which is the last line of defense to stop an uncontrolled oil spill. And yet under the Trump administration, a DOI sub-agency has issued a rule rolling back these protections and claiming, without evidence, that it would provide the same level of worker safety.

The public clearly doesn’t believe that. Here’s what it says in the text of the final rule: “A large majority of the approximately 118,000 comments that BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] received voiced significant concerns about the proposed changes.”

7. Downplaying environmental concerns for oil/gas drilling in the Arctic

Back in December 2018, another DOI sub-agency released a draft of an environmental impact statement to examine the impact of oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This is normally an intense review that takes a few years to complete. However, the Trump administration completed this one in just five months, and it has been widely criticized for ignoring the science, particularly for downplaying and underestimating the impact on polar bears, caribous, and other wildlife. Additionally, DOI leadership sidelined federal scientists at various stages, first in a different but related review of how polar bear populations would be affected by seismic surveys, and in 18 different memos where scientists identified significant gaps in the data used for the environmental impact statement.

The Center for American Progress conducted an analysis of the 1 million public comments that were submitted on the draft environmental impact statement; 99 percent of them raised serious concerns about it and about drilling in the region.

8. Dismissing evidence showing the benefits of preserving national monuments

There are a lot of reasons to praise national monuments. They are rich sources of paleontological finds (including dinosaur fossils), they encompass ancient Native American sites, and they provide boosts to the local economy. But that didn’t stop the DOI from proposing to shrink ten national monuments. Documents received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request offered an opportunity to see “behind-the-curtain” and learn how the agency considered the public comments. And the news isn’t good.

Senior DOI officials downplayed, ignored or dismissed evidence highlighted in the public comments that justified the continued protections of the monuments. They also boosted any evidence of benefits to shrinking the monuments (which primarily revolved around industry concerns). They seemed to have made up their minds before going into the process, with one official saying “barring a surprise, there is no new information that’s going to be submitted” in the public comments.

The public’s voice should not be silenced

The Trump administration really ought to be considering public comments. While the public comment process definitely could use some improvements, it provides a critical mechanism for the public to have a say in the decisions our government is making. Often, public comments are the only opportunity for the public to weigh in on proposed rules. And the process provides a way for federal agencies to consider the perspectives of people with diverse knowledge and skills.

But although the Trump administration has trampled this democratic process, we shouldn’t grow apathetic or disheartened. There is still real value in providing your voice in the form of thoughtful, well-written comments with scientific evidence – comments that are more likely to sway government officials. Your public comments will enter the administrative record and they are often used as evidence in court when judges are deliberating whether agency rules or rollbacks are necessary or appropriate. If the public largely opposes a rule or rollback, the judge will consider that when deliberating whether the rule should stand. This is likely one of the reasons that the Trump administration has lost over 90 percent of the court cases on deregulatory actions.

So don’t let the Trump administration off the hook – we need your voice in this fight more than ever. You can take action on the administration’s current efforts to rollback SNAP, an effective, evidence-based program that helps put food on dinner tables of millions of low-income families across the country. Keep speaking up, keep fighting the good fight, and keep exercising your democratic right to comment.

Facing Uncertain Future, Puffins Adapt to Survive Climate Change

Eastern Egg Rock, Maine — In the midst of a second-straight record year for breeding Atlantic puffins, the research crew on this tiny, treeless jumble of boulders six miles out to sea pondered how long this good fortune would last amid climate change.

“I wonder if the puffins can feel the change,” said crew supervisor Sarah Guitart, 29, a marine science Boston University graduate of Boston University. “How long will they adapt? Will they adapt or die?”

These puffins got more than enough fish in the 46th year of Project Puffin, the world’s first successful restoration of a seabird to an island where human activities eliminated it. Puffins had not bred on Egg Rock for nearly 100 years after being killed for their meat and eggs by people living and fishing along the coast. Puffins were down to their last pair or two in the entire state of Maine in the early 1900s.

This summer ended with 188 breeding pairs of puffins on Egg Rock, surpassing last year’s record of 178. One day, the count of breeding and nonbreeding birds hit a record 407.

“The first puffins I saw this summer, I almost cried,” Nadia Swanson, 22, a wildlife ecology graduate of the University of Wisconsin said. “Then to have the chance to be out here all summer with them flying all around me, especially after having just graduated from college, I just wish everyone could feel that joy.”

Puffin gathering food for chicks on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine – July 2019

There are now 1,300 breeding pairs of puffins on several islands in Maine. They are a significant source of revenue in the state’s $6.2 billion tourist economy, with 9,200 wildlife watchers circling Egg Rock on Audubon-narrarated cruises last summer.

Some politicians now understand the value of the bird. In the first visit ever to Egg Rock by a member of Congress, Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree told the Bangor Daily News in July, “There’s there’s an awful lot we can learn from what [seabirds] are eating and what these [researchers] are observing.”

Researchers have learned a lot since 1981, when Steve Kress, the founder of National Audubon’s Project Puffin, saw the first breeding puffins return to Eastern Egg Rock with fish in their mouths for chicks.

That was the culmination of eight years of bringing chicks to the island from Newfoundland, which is hundreds of miles away. Kress and colleagues banded them and raised them in makeshift burrows until they fledged into the Atlantic Ocean.

Skeptics thought the chicks would go back to Newfoundland when their breeding instincts kicked in two or three years later. But they chose Maine. To fool birds reared on Egg Rock that the island was their home, Kress planted puffin decoys and mirrors around the island. Such techniques have since been used to preserve 65 species of seabirds in 17 nations.

As co-author and photographer with Kress on our 2015 book “Project Puffin,” I spent four days on the island in July, seeing puffins bring plump young haddock and hake fish out of the deep for their chicks. These species of fish have rebounded into abundance in New England with strict fishing limits. There were even occasional herring, which are currently under strict federal limits because of overfishing.

When the puffins took breaks from fishing, they sometimes loafed on boulders in clumps scores thick, waddling around each other in a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, black and white.

For me, this symbolized their resilience, for it belied the fact that the last decade has been the most volatile in the project’s history. These particular puffins reside in the Gulf of Maine, where its waters are warming faster than 99 percent of the global ocean.

In cooler periods, such as from 1997 to 2011, the number of breeding puffins on Egg Rock grew steadily upward from 20 pairs to a then-record 123 pairs.

Then in 2012, the ugly face of climate change reared its head as summer sea-surface temperatures set an all-time record by approaching 70º degrees Fahrenheit, nearly 4 degrees higher than normal.

To most humans, water in the high 60s is still bone-chilling. But in an analogy I came up with last year for The American Prospect magazine after consulting with ocean scientists, 4 degrees warmer for a cold-water fish is like wearing a parka on Miami Beach.

The result was a scary window into a future of unbridled warming.

Unable to shed their “parkas,” the hake, haddock and herring either fled to far out to sea or too deep for puffins to catch.

A lot of what the fish puffins did catch was the wrong shape. Chicks need elongated fish to slurp down. Warm years increases the presence of butterfish, a species more predominant along the mid-Atlantic coast. Butterfish are too oval and wide for young chicks to swallow.

For the first time in a quarter century, the number of breeding pairs on Egg Rock dropped, from 123 pairs down to 104. Other puffin islands in the gulf were dramatically impacted. The number of breeding puffin pairs was more than halved on the national wildlife refuge of Petit Manan Island, from 104 pairs in 2009 to 47 pairs in 2013.

Puffin carrying fish to chicks. Eastern Egg Rock, Maine; July 2019

On Project Puffin’s sister projects on Seal Island and Matinicus Rock, puffin parents fledged only 1 of every 10 chicks, compared to 4 out of every 5 in good years. The birds rebounded with cooler waters from 2014 to 2017. Then last year, Kress and his crews went through a summer they’ve never seen.

The summer began with great promise with cool water and abundant puffin breeding. Then, temperatures spiked close to the 2012 boiling point in mid-July. Puffins stopped finding proper fish to feed chicks. Or they found plenty of the dreaded butterfish. Starvation set in, with researchers finding many dead puffin chicks.

The chicks that clung to life were in such poor condition that 2018 Egg Rock intern Kay Garlick-Ott told me for the American Prospect, “You can actually feel the lack of food in the bird. You expect your fingers to hit something like bones, but it was just a puffball. When I pulled it out of its burrow, I knew it wasn’t right. It was so sad.”

Given what happened in 2012, Project Puffin’s crews steeled themselves for grim end-of-summer reports. When past years went bad, they stayed bad. But the waters cooled dramatically in mid-August. As suddenly as fish had disappeared, they reappeared. Puffins resumed feeding

Author Derrick Jackson holding puffin chick.

chicks that were still alive.

Mid-August is normally the time that chicks have fledged and adults have abandoned the islands for 8 months of migration. But in a frantic effort to make up for lost time, parents fed chicks three weeks longer than usual, some well into September.

Kress said the peaks and chasms of early-summer feast, mid-summer famine and late summer banquet symbolize the unpredictability humans keep throwing at birds like puffins. “The good news is that we saw remarkable adaptations and strategies under adversity,” said Kress, 73. But how much more unpredictability can we subject puffins to?

In the 1980s, the diet of Egg Rock puffins was almost exclusively herring. No more with overfishing. Now come these wild temperature fluctuations as climate change drives many species of marine life northward and deeper. It is uncertain what suitable fish will come to Maine’s puffins, which live at the absolute southernmost edge of their known range in North America.

Then add politics. Only five years ago, it was discovered that Maine’s puffins spend the late winter feeding in waters 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod. Those waters happened to harbor pristine canyons and seamounts where whales, turtles, deep sea corals and other seabirds thrive.

President Obama designated the area a national monument in 2016. The wonders underneath are still being understood as scientists announced the discovery of two new corals this spring, even as warming water threatens their long-term survival.

But in an appeal scheduled to be heard in federal circuit court in October, fishermen are suing to have the designation reversed. They have a key ally in President Trump, who is threatening to gut the key protection undersea monuments offers, a ban on commercial fishing.

On top of that, the Trump administration this month unveiled its long-anticipated plans to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A key provision would allow the government to disregard the effects of climate change in species protection and factor in the economic losses of protection to industry.

It is perhaps the worst possible time to take climate change out of the equation for and allow industry a seat at the table when in so many cases, industrial activities pushed species to the brink of extinction. You hardly need a critically endangered creature to tell you why weakening the ESA is foolish.

Puffins congregate on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine

Puffins will suffer on a national and international level. As Maine’s Atlantic puffins deal with unprecedented fluctuations of temperature, the species is being battered in Europe by the multiple whammies of climate change, overfishing, pollution and invasive plants, and ground predators such as rats, mink and cats. 

Listed in 2012 as a bird of Least Concern on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN), the Atlantic puffin today is listed as Vulnerable. In the Pacific, the Tufted Puffin is undergoing a parallel struggle.

In 2014, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to have that puffin species listed as endangered in California, Oregon, and Washington as its numbers had crashed from 30,000 to 4,000 over the last 30 years. That petition is under review as the agency found “substantial” evidence warranting action.

Similar action may ultimately be warranted necessary far to the north, as a team of scientists, including several from the very federal agencies Trump repeatedly attempts to cut science funding from − including Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration − reported this spring that a mass Tufted Puffin starvation and die-off two years ago in Alaska likely was triggered by warming waters forcing fish out of range.

The study said the die-off, one of many from 2014 to 2018, suggests “broad-scale ecosystem change,” with total puffin mortality in the thousands and representing “a significant portion of Bering Sea colonies.”

For most people taking a stroll on a beach, seabirds appear to be abundant. Science says this becoming a tragic illusion. Bird Life International says 28 percent of species are globally threatened, more than any other group of birds. A major study this past winter by researchers from France, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Canada found that competition with commercial fishing has slashed the world’s seabird population by 70 percent since 1950.

And a new study published this month by researchers from the UK, US, and Argentina found that nearly half of the world’s seabirds are threatened by either invasive species, fishing by catch, and climate change, and 20 percent are being hit by all three.

A top example is the endangered African Penguin. A bird that once numbering numbered 3 million to 4 million in the 1800s, is down to its last 25,000 pairs in South Africa and Namibia with overfishing, climate change dispersing the remaining fish, pollution, and habitat destruction.

As part of an effort to stave off extinction, researchers and the South African government are seeing some initial benefits of strict fishing bans near penguin habitat of their preferred prey, anchovies and sardines. Conservationists are also borrowing from Project Puffin by trying to lure penguins to new habitats with decoys.

Eastern Egg Rock Research Crew L to R: Kathryn Devers, Nadia Swanson, Sarah Guitart, Angel Mendez, Michael Rickershauser

The success of decoy efforts remains to be seen, but researcher Christina Hagen said, “We definitely fooled some of the tourists.” What is for certain is that the fate of seabirds are heavily in the hands of humans.

Back on Egg Rock, Guitart said, “I don’t know if we’re doing much to fight climate change out here, but if the fish data is useful, we can say we played a small part.”

Swanson added, “I really wish people could understand that we’re already at the point that even if we take action now, our baseline, like the fish the puffins eat, is not going to return to what it was 30 and 40 years ago.”

 

 

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EPA Administrator Wheeler Worsens Particulate Pollution Review Process

Photo: USDA

In April, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler rejected the recommendations of his hand-picked science advisors on the particulate matter and ozone standard updates. Now, we again see him choose to meet a political deadline at the expense of a scientifically sound process. The bottom line is that Administrator Wheeler has made a small, inadequate, and unprecedented addition to what is still a very broken process of updating our National Ambient Air Quality Standard for particulate matter.

A path of destruction

Let’s recap. The Clean Air Act-mandated process for updating the National Ambient Air Quality Standards has a long history of relying on independent science advice to set health-based standards. This process has worked remarkably well across administrations and across pollutants. But under the Trump administration, science advice has been slashed at the EPA and across the government.

On air pollution standards specifically, last October, the administrator appointed a new Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) led by an industry consultant and nixed the particulate matter review panel—a group of experts that boosted the span of expertise CASAC and the EPA had access to in their review. The 10 to 20 person pollutant review panels have for decades augmented the seven member CASAC’s expertise, helping to review the EPA’s science assessment of the health and welfare effects of particulate matter, ozone and other ambient air pollutants. Since then, the process has only gotten further away from what was historically a reliable and productive science-based process of setting health-based air pollution standards. The administration has expedited the review timeline, refused to listen to its own advisers, and shortchanged CASAC and the public’s ability to review the science and policy assessments that provide the body of evidence on which air pollution standards are set. All of these moves caught up with the administrator at the recent CASAC meeting where the science advisors acknowledged they didn’t have the expertise to conduct the particulate matter review.

Window dressing on an irreparably broken process

So what’s a former-coal-lobbyist-turned-EPA-Administrator to do? Save face. The EPA has put out a call for consultants to inform the particulate matter and ozone standard updates through a highly controlled interaction with CASAC. This “phone a friend” approach is laughably insufficient for what now amounts to a huge need for independent and interactive science advice. Here are a few reasons the move is inadequate and ill-advised:

1. Concealing a once open and interactive scientific discussion. These consultants are fundamentally different than a review panel. The particulate matter review panel participated in public meetings with the CASAC to discuss the science and process. They worked toward consensus opinions. Members of the public could give comments, listen the scientific issues discussed, and hear any differing opinions among panelists. By contrast, in Wheeler’s process the consultants will operate individually and in the dark. They won’t have a public meeting. They won’t discuss scientific issues with each other or with CASAC. Instead, the CASAC Chair will communicate with them on an individual basis. Even if the administration were to choose knowledgeable independent scientists to serve as consultants (which is a big if, given their recent advisory committee picks), they wouldn’t have to actually consult them at all. Even if they did, CASAC wouldn’t be able to engage with them in real-time, and the public might not see it until after the fact.

2. A Highly Controlled Process. Administrator Wheeler is exerting significantly more control and executive authority over this process than is typical for EPA’s engagement of outside experts on ambient air pollutant reviews. He is cutting EPA career staff out of the process and blocking public input. By contrast, for pollutant review panels, EPA career staff would compile, vet, and seek public comment on a list of qualified nominees for a pollutant review panel. Career staff would then be involved in choosing the final panelists. For Wheeler’s call for consultants, there will be no public comment period and the administrator will simply choose his favorites rather than engaging the expertise of EPA career staff in selecting consultants.

Once chosen, the consultants will also be tightly controlled. They won’t be able to offer opinions, ask questions, or make recommendations on anything beyond what narrow questions they might be asked by the CASAC Chair and they don’t have a chance to engage with the full CASAC panel or EPA staff. This is a far cry from the robust science and policy discussion that members of pollutant review panels would have with CASAC and EPA staff during past review processes.

3. Too little, too late. This is far too late in the process to start getting only piecemeal science advice on the particulate matter standards. To start, the EPA already missed the boat on getting independent advice on the Integrated Science Assessment, the primary scientific document on which further assessments—and ultimately the decision on the standard—is made. (In his recent letter, Administrator Wheeler declined to allow CASAC to review a second draft of the science assessment.) Even if you had an incredible list of consultants and they were fully utilized by the committee, EPA staff scientist wouldn’t have time to go back and incorporate feedback into the science assessment and other documents based on the administration’s timeline of completing the particulate matter standard update by 2020.

4. Science is sidelined, and the public loses. An unfortunate consequence of Administrator Wheeler’s refusal to allow independent science advice to inform ambient air pollution standards is the public conversation we lose. Typically in pollutant standard reviews, the public gets the chance to hear about the state of the science—what do we know? Where are edges of our scientific understanding? What can we conclude about air pollutants’ impact on health? And where do we need more research? These are questions that scientific experts can disagree about and the ambient pollutant review process offers a rare opportunity for the public to get a glimpse of those discussions.

As in any pollutant review, there are important science policy questions we should be discussing. Can we attribute adverse health impacts to ultrafine particles? What happens at low levels of fine particulate matter? Do we still see adverse health effects? What does the latest scientific literature tell us about whether the current standards adequately protect public health? But we don’t get to have those conversations among a robust group of scientific experts because Administrator Wheeler has chosen instead to outsource agency science advice to a few one-on-one conversations between the CASAC Chair and consultants hand-picked by the Administrator without public participation.

Adding insult to injury

We must not accept this move as problem-solving or even helpful. The administrator should have re-convened the particulate matter review panel when it was abundantly clear the EPA needed it at the end of 2018. This kludged and illegitimate process will make it difficult to arrive at a science-based outcome for the particulate standards. From now on, whatever science and policy decisions CASAC and the administration make, they are doing it with one hand tied behind their back. The administration has doubled down on avoiding independent science advice rather than choosing to serve EPA’s mission of protecting public health. When it comes to his broken process, the Administrator has just added insult to injury.

Photo: USDA

On Mental Health and Guns, Experts Ordered Not to Contradict President Trump’s Lies

As people searched for answers around the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services prevented its scientists from posting relevant research about guns, violence, and mental health on social media. According to the Washington Post, which broke the story, the orders came in the wake of the president’s incorrect suggestion that mental illness leads to mass shootings.

The president’s remarks harm our ability to address gun violence by misplacing the blame. But they also needlessly marginalize people with mental illness, making it less likely that they will seek help and more likely that they will be viewed with suspicion. The evidence shows that a minority of mass shooters have diagnosed mental illness. Instead, they are more likely to have “a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms,” reports the Post.

But the public relations people at HHS didn’t think it was their job to help you learn more about the causes of mass violence. They didn’t care about increasing stigma for people with mental illness. They thought it was more important to protect the president’s untruths.

In other words, as we experience hundreds of multiple-victim shootings per year, and as many thousands take their own lives, it was more important to the public affairs folks for President Trump to save face than for scientists to tell us what they know. And the CDC and National Institutes of Health can’t tell you about what the science says about health.

“There is this climate of concern whether you can make a statement based on facts,” a NIH employee told the Post. “I see people struggling with how to interpret it. What are we allowed to do?”

If there’s ever a time to clarify these expectations, it is now. The Scientific Integrity Act before Congress would provide federal experts with legal protections for sharing facts with the American people.

When I testified before Congress about this important legislation, I spoke about how federal government scientists do not feel empowered to share their expertise publicly. This is simply one more data point to show that when scientists are muzzled, our health and safety suffer.

By now, federal government scientists know that when the president lies, they should keep their mouths shut. They face ever-increasing restrictions on their ability to speak with reporters and share scientific information with the public.

We should be able to hear what research shows about gun violence and homegrown terrorist attacks. Only then can we have an informed discussion about how to stop them. Profound gun violence research restrictions already leave us in the dark. And censoring scientists from sharing what we do know makes it even worse.

We are under attack by people in our own country. Our president has become like so many other politicians in his unwillingness to acknowledge what is behind the carnage. And now, federal agency scientists are expected to fall in line and walk in lock step. This is not how we stop people from dying.

 

Amazon Deforestation and Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s Attack on Science

Science is always a potential threat to authoritarian rulers, because it uncovers truths that contradict their lies.

Recently we’ve seen a dramatic example of this conflict in Brazil, where the director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has been fired by the country’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, for releasing data showing a substantial increase in Amazon deforestation.

INPE has been providing the world with measurements of deforestation, based on detailed analysis of satellite photos, for more than 30 years, and has become the standard source for this information. It’s INPE’s data that demonstrated how Brazil dramatically diminished its Amazon deforestation starting in about 2007, reducing it by over 2/3 in half a dozen years and keeping it low for the following decade.

This accomplishment was not only an important contribution to the global fight against climate change as well as a point of pride for all Brazilians. It also had a clear material reward, earning the country over a billion dollars in pay-for-performance rewards for reducing emissions, through Brazil’s climate agreement with Norway.

Yet for President Bolsonaro, INPE’s stellar scientific reputation and contributions to the fight against climate change mean nothing. Case in point: INPE’s most recent data from June and July showed a substantial rise in deforestation, clearly contradicting Bolsonaro’s  assertions about the impacts of his Amazon policies. So he fired physicist Ricardo Galvão, INPE’s director, and put a military crony in his place.

There is no doubt that measuring deforestation from space, and interpreting the results, is a complex task. For the Amazon, there are several approaches used by different institutions, such as INPE, the Brazilian non-profit group IPAM, the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch, and the European Community’s Joint Research Centre.

Because the Amazon forest is so large, some of these organizations use sampling methods and analyses by expert image interpreters, while others rely on computer algorithms and “big-data” approaches. There are monthly data but also annual totals which include corrections for some of the deforestation masked in the monthly photos by wet-season cloud cover.

Interpretation of the reasons for changes in the numbers is complicated, too, because many factors affect deforestation. These include land protection, particular by Indigenous Peoples in their reserves; the strength of enforcement of Brazil’s Forest Code and related laws and regulations; the prices of commodities such as beef and soybeans, which are the main drivers of Amazon deforestation; the cattle and soy agreements with private companies which have made commitments not to buy their products from deforested land; the pay-for-performance agreement with Norway, and more.

But President Bolsonaro’s attack on INPE has nothing to do with any of this complexity. Rather, he has simply claimed that Galvão and his colleagues are lying, perhaps at the behest of an NGO. If scientific data contradict the President’s views, the science must be false.

This attack should not be surprising. Indeed, President Bolsonaro, since taking office less than a year ago, has consistently worked to weaken the forces that produced Brazil’s great success in reducing deforestation.

His racist statements about Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples and attempts to take away their land; his undercutting of the public prosecutors who enforce the Forest Code and the cattle and soy agreements; his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s and promoted large-scale Amazon development; and his alliance with the ruralista bloc of large ranchers and soybean farmers in Congress, all push the Amazon in the same direction: towards more deforestation. Science is just the latest of the obstacles in his way.

For those of us in the U.S., the parallels with our own country are all too obvious. Indeed, Bolsonaro revels in the title that he has been given by the Brazilian media: “the Trump of the Tropics.” The pattern is very familiar to us: a boastful leader attacks successful progressive environmental policies. He doesn’t hesitate to attack those who achieved that success, and the scientific data that shows the success, and the scientists whose work provided that data. Truth itself becomes the enemy.

This fight for the integrity of science is vital to our climate future, but the attack on INPE shows that it matters to us in another critical way. The battle, quite simply, is between truth and lies, and on a scale much broader than just Brazil or the U.S. There should be no doubt which side the world’s scientists are on.

 

Doug Boucher is a consultant to UCS on global deforestation and reforestation, land use and climate change.  Before his retirement, Dr. Boucher was the director of UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, which worked with governments, businesses, and consumers to reduce tropical deforestation and the global warming pollution associated with land use.

Prior to joining UCS, Dr. Boucher was a biology professor at Hood College, the University of Quebec, and McGill University. As a professor, he conducted research and taught courses in Latin America, where he first traveled as a member of the Peace Corps in 1971. He has written numerous articles and essays on a wide range of biological, ecological, and other science-related topics in English, French and Spanish.

Dr. Boucher earned a B.A. in ecology and history from Yale University (1971) and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan (1979). He has published over 100 articles in scientific journals and books, particularly on ecology, climate and natural resource issues. He continues to be active in research, focusing on climate change, forest succession, land use and agriculture.

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

 

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

The Scientific Integrity Act and the Importance of Storytelling in Science Communication

My job regularly requires explaining complex science and policy topics to the media, public, and decisionmakers. So I took over the Union of Concerned Scientists’ twitter account (#GretchenTakeover) to share my top tips for talking about science in decisionmaking, examples of effective science communication, and suggestions for how to advocate for the Scientific Integrity Act.  Here are the key takeaways.

Scientific Integrity matters to my daily life and yours

I started the Twitter takeover by sharing ways that scientific integrity has affected my life – and affects all of us every day. Here were the main points:

  • We need to protect the government employees who are charged with using science to protect us–from weather forecasts, to infectious disease monitoring, to food safety inspections. I did this snarky #ThankAGovScientist post one time.
  • My 11th grade chemistry teacher helped me see the value of scientific integrity. “Where would science be if we changed data?” she asked me. I wrote more about that in a Teen Vogue piece here.
  • Remember, behind the headlines of terrible news on science policy, there is an army of federal scientists trying to just do their jobs. The experiences of former government scientists like Joel Clement and Maria Caffrey give a window to that.
  • I constantly remind myself that science only benefits our health and safety if we protect its role in policy decisions. We can’t be silent while science is used for harm and inequities are perpetuated. That’s why we need to support the Scientific Integrity Act.
Misuse of science harms the public

But unfortunately, science isn’t always used in the public interest. Political and financial forces often misuse or ignore scientific evidence to the public’s detriment. Here are some of the sources showing just how big of a problem this is across agencies, across issue areas, and over time:

  • Compared to past administrations, we are seeing more and more sidelining of the role of science in decisionmaking. (Academic citation here).
  • In fact, we’ve tracked more than 100 attacks on science in our tracker here.
  • Political leaders have taken a wrecking ball to federal science, killing science advice, burying critical reports, interfering in research and blocking scientists from talking to journalists—a path of destruction.
  • These attacks on science will harm public health and the environment, especially for communities already burdened with more pollution, safety risks, and other stressors. This move increasing hazardous air pollution is one example.
  • The Trump administration ignored EPA scientists in failing to ban the harmful pesticide chlorpyrifos. Sadly this is but one of dozens of examples of political leaders’ misuse of science that threatens public health and safety.
  • The Department of the Interior has seen new levels of undue political interference. Scientific reports squashed, political appointees reviewing grants, and neglect of science showing health and environmental concerns.
  • Government scientists cited political influence as a barrier to science-based decisionmaking on our 2018 survey. This was true even under past administrations. Clearly, scientific integrity must be strengthened.
The Scientific Integrity Act is a solution, but it needs your support

To protect the role of science in federal decisionmaking we must strengthen scientific integrity, and the Scientific Integrity Act would do just that. To advance in Congress, the Scientific Integrity Act must be prioritized by members of Congress. They are looking to you (their constituents) to tell them what to focus on.

  • The Scientific Integrity Act helps protect government science and the scientists charged with protecting us. Recent attacks on government science show that we need this now more than ever. But we need Congress to prioritize it.
  • Led by Senator Brian Schatz and Representative Paul Tonko, the bill would help ensure government science is working to protect public health and safety, for years to come. We need all members of Congress on board.
  • The bill gives government scientists the right to share their research publicly, ensures that government communication of science is accurate, and protects science in policy decisions from political interference.
  • As my colleague Michael Halpern testified to Congress, the bill is good for science and good for policy. “This bill promotes good government. It enhances accountability. It prevents corruption.”
  • These benefits aren’t just speculative. My colleague Jacob Carter wrote here about many attacks on public health and safety that might have been prevented under the bill.
  • To get the bill to move in Congress, we need people like you telling your Congressional representatives you want science protected. Call. Write. Tweet. It all helps!
  • Scientists and science supporters have already made a huge difference: Thanks to thousands of calls, emails, tweets and postcards, plus efforts on the Hill, there are now 199 co-sponsors for the #ScientificIntegrityAct—a rare feat for any bill!
  • But we need all members in Congress on board, and now is the perfect time to step it up: Your representative is home during the month of August –and you need to let them know science matters to people in your district.
Tell your Members of Congress to advance the Scientific Integrity Act

Here’s how you can help ensure your members of Congress do what they can do strengthen federal scientific integrity: Use social media to get their attention!

  • If they support the Scientific Integrity Act, tell them to help it advance out of committee and onto the House floor. If they don’t support yet, encourage them to. Explain why it matters to you, your life, and your district.
  • How to craft a good message:
    • Take things from the top. Use short sentences. Meet people where they are. Don’t assume people already understand scientific topics. Better to repeat concepts than to lose people off the bat.
    • Make it personal. As a scientist, I’m tempted to lead with science and facts but when talking to decisionmakers, a personal anecdote can be more impactful and memorable.
    • Engage your decisionmakers directly and respectfully. Don’t forget to tag their social media handle. They or their staff scan Twitter regularly to see what people are saying about them (“@ them”).
    • Make it specific. This is a complex, far-reaching bill, and you don’t need to cover every implication in your message. Find one that resonates for you. Use this post to brainstorm what will most resonate.
  • Here are some more tips for using social media for science advocacy. We need you to speak up now more than ever.
  • Hear from UCS communications experts about using social media effectively for advocacy on this webinar.
  • More broadly, check out the advocacy resources that the UCS Science Network has on science communication, science advocacy and science policy on a range of issues.
  • If you want decisionmakers to pay attention, give them a person, an image, a story to remember. They can find facts elsewhere, but they want to know how policy affects YOU and what you care about.
  • Last summer, I gave a public comment on a rule that will restrict EPA’s use of science to make public health decisions—with my newborn in tow! These attacks on government science are about so much more than science.
  • Scientific integrity is about ensuring the future is better than the present, for our kids and for other people’s children. My colleague Jacob Carter talked about scientific integrity’s impact on his Arkansas community.
  • Follow your policymakers’ accounts on social media to see what they talk about, and make your message relevant to what most interests them. And take advantage of moments like hearings or breaking news when they might be more focused on science topic.

Bottom line: Science serves the public good but only if we protect its role and insist that it is used effectively in public decisions. Our public health and safety depends on it.

The Trump Administration Dismantles Endangered Species Protections as Sixth Mass Extinction Crisis Looms

American pika (Ochotona princeps) Photo: Shanthanu Bhardwaj/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, the Trump administration released a final rule dismantling the role of science in informing protections for endangered and threatened wildlife. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the protections it has afforded to threatened and endangered species have been based on the best available science and commercial data. Today, science will take a backseat as the new rule will sideline scientific evidence and emphasize considerations of economic costs in decisions to list species and/or the habitat they depend on under ESA. This new rule will result in less protection for America’s threatened wildlife and a higher likelihood of losing species forever as Earth’s sixth mass extinction occurs. 

The rule is part of a larger strategy by the Trump administration to sideline science from decisionmaking processes, especially for endangered species. The Trump administration has cherry-picked scientific evidence to make a case to delist the gray wolf across the country, rolled back conservation plans for the sage grouse, and suppressed publication of research conducted by federal scientists demonstrating three pesticides alone jeopardize the continued existence of more than 1200 endangered or threatened species. And this barely scratches the surface of attacks on endangered species protections. 

The rule released today overhauls the entire process by which species are considered for listing under the ESA. Here are some ways in which the rule will force science to take a backseat in listing decisions. 

Inserting economic considerations

As my former colleague Charise Johnson wrote when this rule was proposed, “The proposal adds economic considerations in the process for deciding if a species is in fact threatened or endangered, instead of making it a purely scientific decision.” As written, listing decisions under the ESA are required by law to be made solely based on the best available scientific and commercial data. The bipartisan agreement on this language when the ESA was written into law is there for a very good reason – economic considerations are irrelevant when determining whether a species warrants protection scientifically.  

Neglecting climate change considerations

The new rule redefines “foreseeable future” in a way that will prevent federal experts from considering the future effects of climate change on species populations. This is detrimental for species that are strongly affected by climate change such as the American pika. The American pika is so sensitive to increases in heat that its Western population has been dwindling already—the population of the species will likely decrease under future hotter conditions. Under the new rule, scientists will not be able to consider the pika’s population under future climate change scenarios, even if such conditions are a threat to the long-term survival of the species. 

Hopefully the American pika will move up in elevation where temperatures are cooler. If we expected this to happen, then the government could designate those areas as critical habitat. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s new rule makes it almost impossible to designate habitat that is not inhabited now but likely will be in the future due to climate change. 

Under the new rule, it is difficult to imagine the continued existence of species expected to be strongly affected by climate change. 

Allowing “take” of threatened species

The new rule also will sideline scientific evidence that some threatened species’ populations are not healthy enough to be used as a resource or hunted. Threatened species have received protections from being “taken” under the ESA for 40 years, but the new rule upends these protections unless the FWS writes a special rule to provide such protection for a species. Even if the science shows that a threatened species’ population is not healthy enough such that we can fish or hunt those species, if FWS doesn’t have the resources to write a rule, or if special interests prevent such a special rule from being written, then it is more likely that “take” of a threatened species will drive it closer to extinction. For example, scientists have pointed out that the population of the gray wolf would likely decline due to illegal poaching if it lost its ESA protections. 

Once they’re gone, they’re gone

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again—once a species is gone, it’s gone forever. We don’t get another chance to have that species in the world. Such losses may have large effects on ecosystems and on us. We depend on biodiversity, many times unknowingly. That is why it is so critically important to protect our most threatened and endangered species. 

The ESA was passed in 1973 unanimously. The Senate voted 92-0 in favor of the bill, and the House voted in favor of the Senate’s version of the bill 390-12. The majority of people in the US agree that we need to protect endangered and threatened wildlife. The majority of public comments (more than 800,000) were in opposition to the rule altering listing decisions under the ESA. And the ESA works—it is the landmark legislation that brought the emblematic bald eagle back from the brink of extinction. 

If there is so much agreement that the ESA works, and the public agrees that the ESA is good and needed, why is the Trump administration doing an end run around this legislation? Well, the new rule could certainly help open up protected lands to development of fossil fuels. But who could imagine the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, who is a former fossil fuel lobbyist, and who would oversee many of these listing decisions, wanting that? 

Photo: Shanthanu Bhardwaj/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Maunakea and the Need to Indigenize Astronomy

Photo: pedrik/Flickr

I am told by Hawaiians that Maunakea is sacred. I am not sure I understand what that means, I am not Hawaiian, I am an outsider.

What I know about Maunakea is really only two things. The first is that Maunakea is one of the best sites for astronomy observing in the world, thanks to its height and the mostly stable weather on the mountain. That is why astronomers have proposed that the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) be built there. With this telescope, we can expect new discoveries about planets orbiting other stars and whether these planets might host life as we understand it. We might learn about the first stars ever born and peer deeper into the Universe’s history than ever before. I am an astronomer and I will benefit from Canada’s participation in the TMT.

The second thing I know is that Maunakea is Hawaiian territory and we, astronomy, do not have consent for TMT on Maunakea. I think this has been clear for more than a decade through court cases and protests, but the idea of consent came to a head on July 18, 2019 when Elders were arrested by police for trying to protect the mountain. This was a violent moment, but not a new moment. Elders have been arrested for protesting the Alton Gas project in Nova Scotia, Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia and as we all know, Standing Rock. All of these situations and more are instances where Indigenous peoples were telling settlers/colonizers that they do not have consent. TMT does not have consent to be on Maunakea. I understand this as an Mi’kmaw First Nation person myself and seeing those arrests on Maunakea from thousands of kilometers away was wrong.

I know these two things and both concepts appear to be in conflict. But not to me. TMT does not have consent and that should be the end of the story. As a scientist, Indigenous rights are infinitely more important than whatever research benefit I might obtain from TMT on Maunakea. For me to do otherwise is to do unethical science and to harm Indigenous peoples. I only wish my colleagues could see this.

Even after weeks of protest, TMT is still looming over Maunakea, and colleagues are making many arguments justifying TMT over Hawaiian rights. Some are saying this is science versus religion, or that TMT is an economic boon to Hawaiians or that science is more important, or that polls say Hawaiians support TMT. None of these arguments matter or are relevant. Saying science versus religion is a Eurocentric (Western) way of diminishing Hawaiian culture and history and attempts to define the sacredness of Maunakea in Eurocentric way. It is irrelevant. Maunakea is Hawaiian and we do not have consent. Our ethical duty is to respect even if we don’t understand. When astronomers/scientists note that TMT should be built because it is an economic boon to Hawaiians, it is also irrelevant. Maunakea is Hawaiian territory and Hawaiians will decide what is or isn’t an economic boon. When scientists cite polls saying Hawaiians  support TMT so it should be built, they are saying that they get to decide what is or isn’t consent. But, Maunakea is Hawaiian and we do not have consent. No matter what frivolous argument astronomers make, (Eurocentric) astronomy does not have rights to Maunakea. Maunakea is Hawaiian territory and it is time we in science and astronomy respect that ahead of our own ambitions.

While I see this “debate” in a simple way, I think the debate exists because of how we do astronomy.  Astronomy in the USA, Canada, etc. is built from a Eurocentric perspective and erases Indigenous knowledges and peoples. Just think about a constellation in the sky made of a grouping of stars. Who defined that constellation, was it European or from somewhere else? It was probably a constellation defined by a group of European scientists about a century ago based on historical use of Greek/Roman constellations and less likely a Hawaiian constellation or an Inuit constellation or any Indigenous constellation.  We have not learned to respect and embrace Indigenous knowledges into astronomy. We have never truly listened to Hawaiians and Indigenous peoples. Maybe if we as scientists had a meaningful understanding of Hawaiian astronomy and perspectives, we could have avoided the situation we are in now.

Instead of erasing Indigenous knowledges, what if we braided Indigenous knowledges and Eurocentric astronomy? The Mi’kmaq Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall presented the term “Two-Eyed Seeing” as a methodology to view natural phenomena through two perspectives: one Eurocentric, one Indigenous. Bringing the two perspectives together allows us to understand natural phenomena better and in more detail. We as scientists would learn to see our relation to the natural phenomena we observe and to the land on which we live and work. Perhaps methods like this would help scientists and astronomers better understand Hawaii and Indigenous peoples worldwide. We have a lot to learn.

 

Hilding Neilson is a non-tenure stream assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation from Newfoundland and Labrador. He is an interdisciplinary scientist and educator working to blend Indigenous knowledges into astronomy curriculum with the goal of Indigenizing astronomy in Canada.  His research also focuses on probing the physics of stars from those like our Sun to the biggest, most massive stars and how we use these stars as laboratories to better understand our Universe from cosmology to extrasolar planets.

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

Photo: pedrik/Flickr

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, Says the EPA to Southwest Alaska

Photo: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Follow/Flickr

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has once again washed its hands of its responsibility to protect the health and safety of our waterways. On Tuesday, the agency helped clear a path towards the development of Pebble Mine, a proposed mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska that if built will become the largest open-pit copper and gold mine in the United States. The EPA has abdicated their authority to veto the project if the mine proves dangerous to the rivers, streams, and other water bodies in the region.

The EPA forfeited their veto power by refusing to send an official letter that contained the following language, as required under a 1992 agreement, that Pebble Mine “will have substantial and unacceptable impacts to an Aquatic Resource of National Importance.”

Substantial and unacceptable impact

Let’s review the evidence-based reasons showing that, without a doubt, Pebble Mine would have a substantial and unacceptable impact on the aquatic systems of Bristol Bay.

Hardrock mining, like mining for copper and gold, is an industry that is prone to polluting waterways with toxic substances such as arsenic and lead. It is estimated that 40 percent of the watersheds in the western United States are contaminated by pollution from hard rock mines. The proposed Pebble Mine is expected to process 180,000 tons of ore a day and be operational for 20 years. The mine would include laying a 187-mile-long natural pipeline, constructing an 84-mile-long private transportation route that crosses over 200 streams (including Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s biggest lake), and would encompass the building of dams that would block critical salmon habitat. The mine would be situated in a seismically active region at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, it would reach a depth of 0.77 mile (in comparison, the Grand Canyon’s maximum depth is 1 mile), and is estimated generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste.

In 2014, a three-year scientific assessment was conducted by scientists at the EPA’s Pacific Northwest region to study the potential environmental impact of Pebble Mine. The researchers concluded that the mine would result in the loss of 1,200 to 4,900 acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds. In the lowest impact scenario, 5 miles of salmon-filled streams and 19 miles of tributaries would be lost; in the highest impact scenario, 22 miles of salmon-filled streams and 72 miles of tributaries would be destroyed by mining activities.

Salmon populations are sensitive to toxic runoff from mines and exposure can result in death, reduced growth and reproduction, and an inability to relocate their natal streams (salmon need to return to the spot where they themselves hatched in order to deposit their eggs). And since salmon are one of the keystone species of the region – they provide food for 137 species and 25 percent of the nitrogen needs of riverside vegetation come from salmon carcasses – industrial mining activities have the ability to severely threaten not only the current population of salmon, but the entire ecosystem of Bristol Bay.

The EPA has bowed to industry pressure and the people hate it

The EPA has flipped multiple times on the issue over the years. This is due in part to an intense and multipronged strategy by the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of the company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, that is attempting to build the mine. The Pebble Limited Partnership has spent $11 million on lobbying since 2011 ($4 million of that since the inauguration of President Trump), painted EPA’s efforts to scientifically assess the environmental impact as “biased,” and attempted to demonize the agency for considering protective actions under the Clean Water Act. Most recently, they have turned to a former friend in Congress, Lamar Smith, to advance their agenda, and finish what he started as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Unsurprisingly, EPA’s actions go against the will of the American people, especially the Alaskan people. Since 2012, polling has shown that Alaskans have consistently been opposed to Pebble mine. Also since 2012, over 2.5 million comments have been submitted to EPA asking for protection of Bristol Bay from the potential risks posed by Pebble Mine. The US Army Corps held hearings in April 2019 in Bristol Bay communities and 80% of public testimony was in opposition of the mine.

The worst impacts will be on Native communities

Native Alaskans have fished the salmon in Bristol Bay for at least 4,000 years and even today the salmon represent a major source of subsistence for Native groups. While a few tribal groups have granted permission for Pebble Mine to be built, the vast majority of tribal groups, particularly those directly impacted by the mine, are vehemently opposed. These Native groups have been fighting Pebble Mine for years using the 2014 EPA report and other scientific data to make their case. But it comes down to this – Pebble Mine is likely to rob Native Alaskans not only of their way of life, but it could endanger their entire food supply.

When we surveyed federal scientists last year, some of the scientists wrote us comments related to this topic.

  • “I have seen the concern of the people of Bristol Bay as the Agency changes positions on the Pebble Mine,” said one EPA scientist.
  • “Agency decisions have resulted in collapse of salmonid populations which [significantly] affects the diet and income of low income, Native American populations,” said a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist.
  • “I am concerned that opening up the Arctic for oil and gas exploration will have disproportionately negative impacts on Native Alaskan communities and their hunting and subsistence activities,” said a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) scientist.
If you love to eat salmon, this could affect you

Bristol Bay is the home of the world’s largest Chinook salmon run and it accounts for half of the wild sockeye salmon that is sold worldwide. This results in $1.5 billion in economic activity and is responsible for 14,000 Alaskan fishing jobs. According to the EPA’s 2014 scientific assessment, “Bristol Bay is remarkable as one of the last places on Earth with such bountiful and sustainable harvests of wild salmon. One of the main factors leading to the success of this fishery is the fact that its aquatic habitats are untouched and pristine, unlike the waters that support many other fisheries.”

The EPA’s decision to run away from its responsibilities goes against the scientific evidence and the will of the people. Unlike other decisions made by this EPA, there is no way to reset the damage that could be done to this region. Instead, Alaskan communities, including its Native population, will have to live with the consequences of this decision forever.

Photo: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Follow/Flickr

Tackling Health Disparities in St. Louis

Many factors cause disparities in who has access to healthcare, as well as the quality of the care they receive. Health disparities facing St. Louis are not unique to the city but are intensified by two primary factors: division between the city and county, and extreme racial segregation. Having two separate governments operating in the same municipal area means that multiple initiatives may be formed to tackle the same problems, but never communicate or share resources. While some services – such as the sewer district and certain medical centers – are shared, many more function independently,  necessitating that organizations communicate and comply with two sets of legislatures and regulations.

To learn more about and address the specific issues facing St. Louis, Washington University ProSPER worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a panel with public health experts, community leaders, and county officials. Speakers included Angela Brown, acting CEO of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission, Dr. Bettina Drake, Associate Director of Community Outreach and Engagement at the Siteman Cancer Center, Jessica Holmes, Principal Strategist for Alignment, Innovation, and Growth for the St. Louis Integrated Health Network, Dr. Will Ross, Associate Dean of Diversity at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Dr. Spring Schmidt, the current Acting Director of the St. Louis County Public Health Department.

The impact of racial segregation on health outcomes

St. Louis City has been ranked as the 10th most segregated city in the United States while the metropolitan area is the 6th most segregated. An example of this is the Delmar Divide. North of Delmar Boulevard the population is more than 98% African American, while south of Delmar, the population is more than 70% white. Additionally, south of Delmar Boulevard the median income increases by $30,000, the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees by 60%, and the median home value by $250,000. This is not the only location in St. Louis where such a stark contrast can be seen, and these socioeconomic disparities have significant impacts on the health of residents.

Evidence of this segregation is reflected in cancer rate differences and outcomes in north St. Louis. Eight zip codes close to Coldwater Creek were found to have higher rates of breast cancer and leukemia and these rates were highest among African American women. Furthermore, African American women were more likely to be diagnosed with later stages of breast cancer and have a mortality rate 10% higher than the total population. These women were more likely to delay diagnosis and treatment due to cost, which results in greater numbers of late-stage diagnoses and higher mortality.

Challenges to equitable access

To address this and other issues, the Missouri Department of Social Services in partnership with the St. Louis Regional Health Commission have funded Gateway to Better Health, a pilot program to “provide uninsured adults a bridge in care until they are able to enroll in health insurance coverage options available through the Affordable Care Act.” The program was implemented in 2012 and serves as a means of providing healthcare access to over 60,000 residents. Although the program helps many in the St. Louis area, the panelists agreed that it is a stop-gap measure incapable of adequately addressing the needs of the region.

These needs may grow in the near future due to funding cuts to the Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital Program (DSH). This program provides funds to hospitals that provide care to a large number of uninsured and Medicaid insured individuals to offset the corresponding costs. DSH is federally funded and expected to be cut by $4 billion this year and an additional $8 billion over the next five years, justified in part by the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act. Missouri hospitals expected to lose over $157 million in funding last year alone which could have a devastating impact on the amount of services they are able to provide to low-income and un- or underinsured individuals. As Missouri is one of 13 states that has not accepted the Medicaid expansion, it will be disproportionately affected by these budget cuts.

Hope for progress & action to reduce disparities

While there are many challenges to fixing health care disparities in the St. Louis region, some progress is being made. The St. Louis Integrated Health Commission is working to bring together resources in the county, city, and from private organizations and reduce some of the inefficiencies and missed populations caused by lack of communication. There has also been an increase in the use of community health workers, community members who may not have medical training but are a key resource in helping people navigate the healthcare system, especially for the specific needs of at-risk populations. More research is being done to address racial disparities in healthcare access and outcomes. There is still a long way to go and many problems to resolve, but we can all do our part to support the organizations and people on the front lines of these issues and by contacting our legislatures about fixing some of the systemic issues that drive health disparities. Having public conversations about the issues and hurdles we face is one step toward addressing disparities within the system and supporting the initiatives and healthcare workers who are working toward health equity.

 

Max Lyon is a graduate student at the Washington University of St Louis School of Medicine. He is also a member of Washington University ProSPER (Promoting Science Policy, Education, and Research), a graduate student organization that helps students explore issues in science policy, advocacy, communication, and outreach.

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

Misinterpreting Scientific Integrity Data in House Oversight Hearing

Former DOI climate change scientist, Joel Clement, testifies on scientific integrity to the HNR committee on Thursday, July 25th, 2019. Photo: House.gov

Last week, the House Natural Resource Committee held a hearing on scientific integrity and attacks on science at the Department of Interior (DOI). In his opening statement, ranking member Rob Bishop from Utah showed the Committee a graph and offered it as evidence that under the Trump administration, scientific integrity complaints are at their lowest since data collection began at the DOI. ​As is often the case, the graph alone does not tell the full story, and Congressman Bishop ought to want to understand why the numbers appear to be so low.

  1. Federal scientists are afraid of filing scientific integrity complaints. How do I know this? Because I measured data on this very issue in 2018. In a survey of federal scientists that I led in 2018, I found that 800 scientists said they would not feel comfortable coming forward with a scientific integrity violation. That is far too many scientists who feel like they cannot report interference in their work – the ideal number, of course, being zero. Many members at the hearing criticized scientists for a lack of transparency in their raw research data, so we invite these members to take a look at the raw frequency results from my survey for item 36 here. These data are from the very federal scientists in agencies when the survey was conducted.
  2. More scientific integrity issues have been discussed publicly than have been documented at DOI. We know that more scientific integrity issues have happened at DOI than what has been formally filed because of freedom of information act requests and investigative journalism. At UCS, we keep a running tally of all these publicly reported scientific integrity issues on our attacks on science page. For example, DOI’s list of closed scientific integrity cases records two filed complaints in 2018, we documented eight scientific integrity issues from information that has been disclosed publicly. This is just another signal that scientists are not filing scientific integrity violations even if they are occurring.
  3. Scientist whistleblowers have publicly stated the hesitancy in filing scientific integrity complaints due to fear of retaliation from the Trump administration. One of the witnesses at the HNR hearing, Dr. Maria Caffrey, discussed a personal and painful story of her fight to retain climate change language in a report she drafted for the National Park Service. In her testimony, she recalled colleagues begging her not to come forward with her allegation of a scientific integrity violation. One colleague noted their fear that Dr. Caffrey coming forward could result in their reassignment, which would make it difficult for them to provide for their children. Dr. Caffrey did, indeed, lose her job for speaking out about the truth. And we have seen others publicly reprimanded for discussing scientific work or reassigned.

These are examples of the very real repercussions that our federal scientists may risk in simply trying to do their jobs – informing their agencies and the public about what the science says. Imagine the impact on the federal workforce writ large as they witness what can and has happened to their colleagues.

If you were a federal scientist working under the Trump administration, would you be willing to come forward with a scientific integrity complaint? Or even talk publicly about the science related to issues considered politically contentious or at odds with the administration’s political/ideological preferences? This culture of fear would probably have you think very long and hard about doing so if it meant losing your job and the ability to provide for your family.

Currently it’s all stick and no carrot when it comes to the work of scientists under the Trump administration, which the data clearly shows. Congressman Bishop did not take these other data into consideration when coming to his conclusion that scientific integrity is not a big problem at DOI under the Trump administration. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding will cost federal scientists, and the public who depend on their work, a lot of heartache.

EPA Might Be Using Its Advisors To Do Away With Protective Science Guidelines

EPA office building with agency flag

At the last EPA Science Advisory Board meeting in June, the EPA SAB was asked to partake in a consultation process in review of the EPA’s planned changes to its cancer and noncancer risk assessment guidelines. These guidelines are used by the agency to help it figure out whether chemicals pose an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment. Those types of determinations are then used in regulatory policy.

The difference between a consultation and a peer review is described on the SAB’s website: consultations are designed to give early advice to the EPA on a technical product, for which there should also be a more thorough peer review from the SAB. This is typically the order of operations at the EPA.

The EPA has been vague about its planned timeline and process for these risk assessment guidelines. The guidelines were last updated in 2005 after a rigorous process that took over a decade of internal and external peer reviews and opportunities for comment. But given this administration’s dismal track record in sticking to established processes and issuing science-based policies and technical documents, there is reason to be concerned about what these initial deliberations will feed into. Former EPA SAB members agree that this ad hoc exercise for such a complex issue is “silly.”

Process breach: Departure from consensus at SAB is a big red flag

The EPA has already broken with precedent on several process matters for its advisory committees. Just last week, a GAO report found that the EPA ditched its establish procedure in order to hand-pick science advisors. Along with that change, EPA has deemed EPA funding a conflict of interest that disqualifies service on advisory committees, which has significantly skewed the panel toward members with ties to industry.

Now, the agency is activating those members to publish scientific opinions individually rather than going through a formal review process marked by deliberations that lead to consensus. A majority of the individuals who commented on EPA’s charge (11 out of 16) have been appointed by the Trump Administration, and almost all (15 out of 16) have either former or current relationships with industry through employment (as a direct employee or consultant) or funding. Now that these viewpoints are out there, the agency can cherry-pick from these statements to support changes to its guidelines that could mean less health-protective risk assessments of hazardous chemicals. While it is possible that the EPA could be planning to ask the SAB for a more thorough peer review, failure to do so would be a dramatic deviation from normal process.

The importance of building scientific consensus

The EPA told E&E News that “the typical consensus process, which can take many months, was not deemed as necessary at this point in our effort.” Building consensus is a big part of what peer review panels, like SAB, do. Why is consensus so important? Advisory committees like SAB are composed of individuals who bring different expertise and viewpoints to the table and might come to different scientific conclusions when asked the same questions. Having a space where these experts can discuss, debate, and weigh the best available science as it relates to specific questions is crucial.

During the creation of consensus reports, the chair of the SAB works to identify areas of agreement and encourage dialogue where there is disagreement. The final consensus advisory report is a robust piece of work incorporating all of the lines of discussion and collaboration to reach a consensus, with the opportunity to note areas where there was dissent. These types of reports are a staple of advisory committees and are most useful for policymakers who are interested in the weight of the evidence. But Administrator Wheeler has made it clear that he doesn’t understand the scientific process and cares little for policies supported by evidence, so it’s hard to believe that he values consensus.

Another attack on established science

This is not the first attempt by this administration to mess with the science and assessment of hazardous pollutants, especially targeting the linear non-threshold model. The agency’s restricted science rule questioned the use of this model, it is being targeted by CASAC chair Tony Cox in the ongoing assessment of particulate matter, and now it is being challenged in EPA’s risks assessment guidelines. But historically, a broad range of models have been considered in risk assessment, and the body of evidence from animal and human studies has increasingly tended toward linear dose-response models and away from models that assume a threshold below which substances are safe. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2009 published a report concluding the need for such a focus and directing EPA to implement this approach. The current science on ambient air pollution exposure and health effects, for example, confirms such an approach, with little evidence for non-linearity found in concentration-response relationships for ambient particulate matter and ground-level ozone concentrations.

Concerningly, scientifically unjustified weight given to non-linear models to assess relationships between these pollutants and health in EPA policy decisions is likely to disproportionately affect the sensitive populations that EPA is charged with protecting. For ozone and particulate matter, for example, evidence suggests that health effects (including mortality, cardiovascular effects, and respiratory effects) below the current NAAQS are more pronounced for the elderly, children, low-income individuals, and African Americans. As a result, setting ambient air quality standards based on models that assume no effect or lower effects of pollutants at lower concentrations is likely to disproportionately harm these sensitive populations. Making changes to the risk assessment guidelines that do not offer a protective approach threaten to exacerbate existing inequities in people’s exposure to harmful pollutants.

Changes to established science procedure warrant rigorous, transparent review

As I told SAB at its June meeting, “…the SAB should have access to not just the proposed guidelines but the scientific justification for updating them and the committee should be given the time and platform to meaningfully contribute throughout the development process which should include peer review by the National Academy of Sciences and opportunities for public comment, as have occurred when EPA risk assessment guidelines were changed previously. Changing risk assessment guidelines on the tight timeline proposed here is functionally challenging and scientifically questionable.” The EPA should not treat this consultation as an acceptable replacement for a full peer review of changes to the guidelines and should ensure that consensus reviews continue to be employed by the agency so that advisory outputs are scientifically rigorous, objective, and independent.

 

Why the PFAS Industry Should Ditch the Disformation Playbook and “Do the Right Thing”

The House Oversight and Reform Committee, Subcommittee on the Environment held a hearing this week titled, The Devil They Knew: PFAS Contamination and the Need for Corporate Accountability. The testimony of three people whose lives have been upended by exposure to PFAS chemicals was powerful and heart wrenching. DuPont and 3M should have been in the room. But seeing as they have been absent from communities except when legally compelled to be, they were not there to hear about the vast human cost they have caused by their suppression of science, stymieing of regulation, and foot-dragging on cleanup efforts.

The voices we heard had one thing in common: a company had polluted their water for decades and by the time they found out about it, the damage had already been done. Take Bucky Bailey, whose mom worked at DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, WV, and found out after giving birth to Bucky that PFAS exposure impacted his development in the womb. Take Emily Donovan from Brunswick County, NC, who found out in 2017 that DuPont/Chemours had been dumping the replacement PFAS, GenX, into the Cape Fear River since 1980 and listed off the many family members, friends, and neighbors that have developed health issues at young ages. Take Sandy Wynn-Stelt from Belmont, MI, who in 25 years of living in her home was never notified by the nearby tannery that it had used and dumped PFAS-containing Scotchgard onto nearby land for years and lost her husband to an aggressive form of cancer in 2016.

Some companies, when faced with knowledge and hard decisions about the dangers of their own products, turn to deceit and disinformation in order to keep conducting business as usual. Instead of shining a light on the science and notifying the public about known risks, PFAS manufacturers and users turned to page one of the Disinformation Playbook. Throughout the hearing, even though there were no industry representatives present as witnesses, the way in which that playbook has played out in communities was conspicuous.

The Disinformation Playbook in full effect
  • The Fake: During the second panel, Dr. Jamie Dewitt, a scientist at East Carolina University who has been researching PFAS for 15 years, said that initially in her research she had trouble finding health studies on the class of PFAS chemicals. In her testimony, she refers to a 1978 study on immunotoxicity of PFOA that was not published and was only brought to the EPA’s attention in 2000 (more info on that in this paper). Decades later, we now know that 3M and DuPont knew about the human health risks associated with exposure to PFOA and PFOS as early as the 1950s. Instead of making these studies publicly available, they buried that evidence, and we are all paying the price of that decision.
  • The Diversion: During questioning, Wynn-Stelt suggested to members of Congress not to get trapped in “analysis paralysis” when it comes to PFAS: If we see a link, we should act on it. That is exactly what the chemical industry does not want to hear. One of the industry’s favorite tactics is to play up uncertainty about a product’s harms in order to delay regulation. We have seen this play out with PFAS, where you won’t hear DuPont, 3M, or the American Chemistry Council explicitly say that the science is settled that PFAS are safe or unsafe. Instead, they will continue to point to the need for more research to remove every ounce of uncertainty even though in science there’s often not absolute certainty. The minority witness from the Lewis Brisbois law firm stuck to those talking points in her testimony, mentioning that: “States, federal agencies, and the scientific community are working vigorously to address PFAS issues against a backdrop of limited scientific knowledge, complexity, economic realities, and competing public health priorities.” States like Alaska, California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Vermont have enacted or are working toward strong, enforceable standards based on the best available science—what’s EPA’s excuse?
Stop lying. Start fixing the problem.

At one point in the hearing, Representative Kildee from Michigan, who has been a champion of PFAS legislative solutions, asked all of the victims of PFAS contamination how their communities have changed since finding out about their tainted drinking water. Emily Donovan from North Carolina has noticed disturbing changes, like her local Parent Teacher Organization now asking for bottled water donations instead of baked goods, and she is now worried about her kids becoming dehydrated because they are afraid to drink water if it’s not bottled.

It is unacceptable that safe, accessible, and affordable water, which is a human right, is not a certainty in some communities. Not only that, but as Rep. Debbie Dingell brought up at the hearing, not all communities can afford the tax hikes required to do weekly or biweekly water testing for PFAS contamination and, as a result, don’t have the same access to vital water quality information that higher-income communities have. This is an environmental injustice. The companies that created this mess should be paying for water utilities to test for and filter out these chemicals, and to remove contamination from the source. One way of broaching this issue is by ensuring that PFAS are regulated as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The House version of the NDAA that passed two weeks ago contains this amendment. We need this provision to make its way into the final version that ends up on the president’s desk.

Along with federal regulation, we need a commitment from the EPA and DOD that it will enforce these regulations. EPA’s enforcement numbers are at an all-time low, and now Peter Wright, a former Dow Chemical Company attorney with over 100 potential conflicts of interest just within the Superfund program at the Office of Land and Emergency Management, will be in charge of holding polluters responsible. This administration is failing our environment and public health in an effort to acquiesce to industry’s wishes. Wouldn’t it be great if industry led the way, owned up to its misdeeds, and offered to pay for its mess instead of placing that heavy economic burden on chemically-burdened families across the country? That’s what Bucky Bailey, Emily Donovan, Sandy Wynn-Stelt and so many other strong voices are calling for. The power of the people is growing, states are listening, and whether industry likes it or not, we are going to make them pay.

As a reminder of why industry needs to pay, agencies need to act, and Congress needs to do continued oversight, we should think about the next generation that will be continuing to deal with these forever chemicals. Wynn-Stelt pointed to the 22 children under the age of 13 in her community, calling on Congress to protect them. One little boy has levels of PFAS of over 500,000 ppt in his blood—over 7,000x the EPA’s health advisory. As a result of this exposure, his parents found that the vaccines he got as an infant were not effective—a well-studied immunological impact of PFAS exposure. We need action on PFAS, not lies and stonewalling, to protect this child and and give him and his peers the healthy future they deserve.

What I Will Say to the House Committee on Natural Resources about Attacks on Science

I will be testifying tomorrow (Thursday, July 25) before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources concerning attacks on science in the Trump Administration and scientific integrity at the Department of Interior. It is a great opportunity to highlight for members of Congress the important role that independent science plays in public policy. And in the current Administration, how fragile that role is.

When I speak about attacks on science I am referring to cases where scientific information is censored, manipulated, or the scientists themselves are subject to intimidation so that they are less likely to share their work. Unfortunately, this has happened well over 100 times in this Administration. In other words, the policies of this Administration have too often sidelined the science that should be a critical component of deciding how to best protect the interests of the American public. As a consequence, we all pay a price in health, safety, and the quality of our environment or the use/misuse of public resources.

Attacks on science

Here are some examples of attacks on science at the Department of Interior that I will bring forward in my Congressional testimony:

  • In October 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reversed their long-standing requirement that a proposed city-sized development in southeastern Arizona needed a comprehensive biological assessment to evaluate the potential impacts to endangered species in the area. The FWS official in charge of this process recently said that the only reason he reversed his decision was because he was pressured by a high-level political appointee at the Department of the Interior (DOI). The FWS reversal led the development, Villages at Vigneto, to receive a permit to build by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
  • The Department of Interior (DOI) failed to consider and excluded from public view 18 memos from staff scientists who had raised scientific and environmental concerns about proposed oil and gas operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. These documents were excluded from the DOI’s draft environmental assessment and were not released during Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by advocacy groups.
  • In an effort to censor science around adaptation to climate change, and in direct contrast to instructions from Congress, the Trump administration defunded Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), causing 16 of the 22 LCCs to be eliminated or placed on indefinite hiatus. LCCs are governmental research centers located across the US that integrate science-based information on climate change and other stressors to better conserve and protect natural and cultural resources.
  • A proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was found to be full of errors regarding wolf conservation and taxonomy. One member of the scientific panel asked to review the proposal said it seemed as if the proposal was written by cherry-picking evidence that would support de-listing.
  • In 2017, scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) completed a comprehensive analysis of the potential dangers three widely used pesticides may present to hundreds of endangered species. Two of the pesticides, chlorpyrifos and malathion, were deemed by the scientists to “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish, and other animals and plants. However, before the scientists could publish their report in November 2017, top officials from the Department of Interior (DOI), including then deputy administrator of the DOI, David Bernhardt, intervened. The DOI officials blocked the release of the report.
  • In a two-year period, the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) gave offshore oil drillers 1,679 waivers to regulations that tested the safety of equipment, rather than collect critical safety data. More than a third of the waivers were for engineering testing procedures for blowout preventors, the device that failed to seal off BP’s well when it erupted in 2010 and killed 11 workers during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  • Two National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) studies were halted mid-course for the first time in NASEM’s 150-year history. One was requested by Appalachian states to better understand the impact on drinking water of mountaintop removal mining. The other was investigating how to improve safety of offshore oil and gas development as recommended by a National Commission after the Gulf oil spill.
  • Department of Interior officials removed climate change references from the press release of a USGS study on California coastline infrastructure and sea level rise.
  • DOI blocked Bureau of Land Management archeologists and USGS scientists from attending prominent research conferences in their fields.
  • Fish and Wildlife Services rushed a scientific assessment of the American burying beetle, reportedly to avoid disrupting agribusiness. Two biologists left the project, feeling like they were being forced to do shoddy science.
  • The superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park was summoned to Washington to be personally reprimanded by Secretary Zinke after the Park’s official Twitter account posted about climate change.
  • Government scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) warned that the use of seismic surveys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could further threaten the polar bear population. Officials of the Trump administration appear to ignore or censor this information from consideration as the process of opening up the refuge to oil exploration continues.

In addition, there are broader scale attacks on science that impact Interior and other agencies. These include:

  • Restricting the science that agencies can consider to only those studies where all raw data and computer code is publicly available, precluding using information that appropriately should be kept confidential (e.g. health records, endangered species location information). This restriction on science is supposedly to improve transparency, but that is a false justification. Making information publicly available is laudable but rarely is it necessary to make raw data available for a study to be understandable and carefully scrutinized. I review dozens of papers for academic journals and do not review the raw data. But requiring raw data disclosure restricts the ability of agencies to use the best information. And in particular it prevents the use of population-level studies that can be vitally important to address public health, safety and environmental threats across the Department’s bureaus of Indian Affairs, Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife.
  • Reducing by fiat the number of expert advisory panels agencies rely on, and favoring regulated industry interests over independent experts on those panels. President Trump recently issued an Executive Order cutting the number of agency advisory panels by one-third. This would not save much money since most committees are pro bono, and it would remove a critical avenue for peer review and scientific advice for absolutely no benefit other than to sideline science.
  • Altering the consideration of costs and benefits to downplay public benefits, thereby calling into question the appropriateness of certain regulations, and misusing the very concept of cost-benefit analysis.
  • Arbitrarily restricting the length and timeframe for NEPA analyses regardless of the amount of scientific information needed, as well as circumventing the NEPA process, depriving the public of the consideration of options and the information that supports different policy alternatives.
The Scientific Integrity Act

The Scientific Integrity Act introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (NY), and co-sponsored by over 200 members of the House, is good government legislation. It is agnostic on matters of policy; rather, it aims to ensure that policies are fully informed by science. The legislation contains many of the best practices that have been identified for the development and maintenance of a thriving federal scientific enterprise.

Putting such legislation in place is vital because current policies, including the Department of Interior’s Scientific Integrity Policy, do not have the force and effect of law. They can be and are being ignored all too often, as the examples above show.

The legislation prohibits any employee from manipulating or misrepresenting scientific findings. On issues from endangered species to toxic chemical contamination to worker safety, political appointees have personally made changes to scientific documents (or ordered that changes be made) in order to justify action or lack of action on public health and environmental threats.

The legislation helps ensure that government communication of science is accurate by giving scientists the right of last review over materials that rely primarily on their research. It also gives scientists the right to correct official materials that misrepresent their work. This provision makes it less likely that federal agencies will put out inaccurate information, either intentionally or inadvertently.

The legislation ensures that scientists can carry out their research—and share it with the public—without fear of political pressure or retaliation. It enables scientists to talk about their research in public, with reporters, in scientific journals, and at scientific conferences. The bill empowers federal scientists to share their personal opinions as informed experts, but only in an individual capacity, not as government representatives. This is essential due to the amount of censorship and self-censorship that has been documented on issues from climate change to food safety.

The legislation requires agencies to devote resources to designate scientific integrity officers and provide federal employees with appropriate training to help prevent misconduct. Some agencies have developed policies that have no enforcement mechanisms, rendering them virtually meaningless.

The legislation would not empower scientists to speak for their agency on policy matters. It would not enable scientists to circumvent the agency leadership with regard to policy decisions. It would be clearly applied to expressing views with regard to their scientific expertise.

Concluding remarks

Not all attacks on science are matters of scientific integrity. Policy decisions that fail to consider scientific evidence are just that, and harm our nation. Science identifies threats to public health or environmental concerns and also is critical for evaluating how different policies might serve the public interest. Public policy is all about serving the public. The government should act on our behalf, not that of any industry or special interest. If activities on public lands precludes use of that land for any other member of the public, we should know the consequences. And decision makers should be clear about how and why a given decision was made. If the science is censored, the implications for the public don’t go away; they are just hidden.

Allowing scientists to be free from censorship, manipulation of their results, or intimidation would go a long way toward improving the decision-making process. And it would strengthen the ability of government to truly serve the public interest.

The United States has a strong and vibrant science community. That community is part of the strength of our democracy. But when science is sidelined from public policy or scientific integrity is compromised, public health, safety, and our environment is undermined. Simply put, we cannot make good policy in the public interest unless we fairly consider the weight of scientific information fully.

Every American community needs strong public protections built on reliable and honest evidence to address the environmental and public health challenges they face. But federal agencies can’t do their critical work to serve the public if they are used as pawns in political games. You can help by telling your representatives that scientific integrity protections are part of good government, and both parties should support that.

You Won’t Hear President Trump Boast About These Records

Photo: Avius Quovis/CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

President Trump recently boasted about his amazing environmental record, which others have shown to be, in fact, not great. What records has President Trump achieved? I did some research to find out. Here is a list of records that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and others have found using, you know, actual real data.

Enforcement of Environmental Regulations is Historically Low

  • Civil enforcement cases at the EPA during President Trump’s first two years of holding office declined to 1,838, the lowest number since 1982.
  • Civil penalties for pollution violations declined to $69 million in FY 2018—the lowest they have been since 1987 after adjusting for inflation.

The Number of Environmental Assessments Is at a Record Low

  • In its first two years, the Trump administration prepared 237 environmental impact statements. That is the fewest conducted dating back to the George H.W. Bush administration, which conducted 311 reviews in its first two years.

President Trump Has Shrunk the Amount of Protected Lands More than Any Other President

  • The size of Bears Ears National Monument was reduced by 85%—a loss of 1.1 million acres—and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was cut by half. The process by which the decision to reduce the protected lands of Bears Ears was compromised from the start. Senior officials at the Department of Interior had a meeting with a uranium firm likely to discuss shrinking Bears Ears before a formal review was conducted.

Under the Trump Administration, Workplace Deaths and Injuries Soar While Enforcement of Worker Safety Rules Declines.

  • OSHA now has the lowest number of safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history. The drop in number is not a budget issue, as OSHA’s budget has stayed the same and then increased under the Trump administration. Rather, the Trump administration has failed to fill vacancies as inspectors have left the agency.

The Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science are at a Record High, Especially at the EPA

  • The Trump administration has attacked science morethan the prior two presidential administrations, according to our measures. Other observers have also documented the extent of these attacks.

The Trump Administration has a Historically Low Number of Appointed Scientific Leadership Positions

  • President Trump has failed to appoint 35 scientific leadership positions at his 2.5 year mark, whereas both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations had filled these positions before this time in their presidencies.

President Trump’s Cabinet Turnover is Highest Dating Back 100 years

  • In his first 14 months on the job, President Trump had more Cabinet turnover than 16 of his predecessors had in their first two years.

Morale Among Scientific Experts is at a Historic Low, According to Survey Data

  • Comparisons among surveys conducted by UCS dating back to 2005 show that morale is ranked by more scientific experts as extremely poor or poor under the Trump administration at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, and at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

EPA Workforce Numbers are Lowest Since Reagan Administration

  • During the first 18 months of the Trump administration, 1,600 workers left the EPA, but the administration only hired an additional 400 staff. EPA’s budget has remained stable, yet an uptick in the agency’s workforce has yet to be seen.

Televised White House Briefings are Lowest in Recorded History

  • In 2018, the White House held a record low 60 briefings. These briefings also have been shorter and more contentious than those held by past administrations.

President Trump’s White House has Called for Unprecedented Budgets Cuts in Science Funding

  • President Trump has consistently asked for deep cuts to science funding. Chief among the exorbitant cuts includes an unprecedented 31% drop in the EPA’s funding proposed for the 2020 fiscal year.

Another thing that is very real about these records: their resultant harms to people. By stripping away scientists and their work from decisionmaking processes, we end up with ineffectual policies that do not protect public health or our environment. In chipping away at transparency, the public is less informed about the government’s work and how they are, or are not, working to safeguard people. And through protecting the interests of fossil fuel companies instead of tribal groups, the cultural heritage of our country is under siege. Unfortunately, these are the real records, and they don’t paint as pretty a picture as the one our president does.

Our Children Deserve Better: Trump’s EPA Refuses to Ban Brain-Damaging Pesticide. Again

While many of us were buoyed this past weekend by the 50th anniversary of our nation’s moon landing, the Trump administration gave the U.S. chemical industry another reason to celebrate. This time at the expense of children’s health.

The Dow company was the prime beneficiary of this latest gift from the EPA. On Thursday, July 18, the agency announced that it will not ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a dangerous pesticide, on our nation’s food crops (see here, here, here).  That’s right, the EPA said it was OK to spray this brain-damaging chemical on the array of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and cereal crops that we and our children consume on a daily basis.

With this decision, the EPA continues to sideline science, put public health at risk, and roll back public safeguards in favor of private interests. (And this right after another case in point: the EPA’s new “no surprises” inspection policy. Don’t get me started on this one.)

The science is clear. Chlorpyrifos is a significant public health threat

Pregnant women and their fetuses, young children, farm workers, and their communities are particularly at risk Numerous studies (see for example, here and here) have linked chlorpyrifos to brain damage and abnormal neurological development in children, including learning disabilities, reduced IQ, and behavioral problems.

Known commercially as Lorsban and Dursban, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos for household use in 2000.  In 2007, the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned the EPA to cancel the product registration for chlorpyrifos and ban all uses.  In 2015, the Obama administration announced it would ban its use in agriculture given the scientific evidence and the assessment of the EPA’s own scientists.

Enter the Trump Administration and Scott Pruitt, who in 2017 reversed this decision. In June 2017, EarthJustice filed objections to this reversal on behalf of 12 public interest groups and 7 states. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, noting grave risks to children’s health and calling on the EPA to take the product off the market. In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave the EPA 90 days to make a decision.

And last week EPA Administrator Wheeler did just that.  The agency denied all objections and refused to ban chlorpyrifos, while also promising an expedited review of the products’ pesticide registration – sometime before the 2022 statutory deadline. Even if the Trump administration’s EPA actually expedites the review and considers the trove of existing scientific evidence, that’s kicking the can years down the road.  And our nation’s kids, farm workers, and rural families will bear the burden of this abject federal failure to protect our health.

Dow Chemical (and its pesticide spin-off company Corteva Agriscience) may be popping corks, but some states are having none of itHawaii was the first state to ban chlorpyrifos; California has announced that it will do the same; New York recently approved legislation to ban it by December 1, 2021; and New Jersey and Maryland are also considering statewide bans.

In issuing its final order, the EPA had the temerity (OK, gall might be the better word) to say that there’s still a lot of scientific uncertainty. Only in an alternative universe (or one blinded by anti-regulatory zeal) would an agency say that we need more animal studies when epidemiologic studies have clearly demonstrated serious health effects on humans.  I note also that in its order, the agency renews its call for access to raw data from epidemiologic studies; you can see our take on that issue here and here.

Vigilance, accountability, and action needed

The effort to ban chlorpyrifos might be stalled, but it’s not over. Our children deserve better. Let your elected representatives know that the EPA is taking us backwards. They should hold the agency accountable. And we will be watching to ensure that they do.

Public domain

What I’ll Tell Congress at Today’s Hearing on Politics and Science

At 10am this morning, two subcommittees of the House Science Committee will hold a hearing called “Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies,” which will examine political interference in science and legislation to help fix the problem. I am honored to be one of the witnesses invited to appear. Below, you can read my five-minute oral testimony as prepared for delivery, and if you want the good stuff, you can read my written testimony at this link.

You can also watch the hearing, live or archived, on the committee’s website. Follow along on Twitter using hashtags #ScientificIntegrityAct and #sciencenotsilence.

This is the first time in a long while that Congress has devoted significant time to bringing attention to attacks on science and ways to stop them. I’m quite excited to be up on Capitol Hill to share UCS’s work and perspectives with these elected officials. And even though I’m the one speaking, there with me, either in person or in spirit, will be a fantastic team of UCS researchers, advocates, and organizers–and an incredible group of UCS supporters–who document political interference in science and keep the issue in the public eye.

Anyway, on to the show…

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Testimony for Mr. Michael Halpern
Deputy Director, Center for Science and Democracy
Union of Concerned Scientists
House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Joint Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight and Subcommittee on Research & Technology Hearing

Good morning, and thank you Chairwoman Stevens, Chairwoman Sherrill, Ranking Member Baird, and Ranking Member Norman for holding this hearing. I am Michael Halpern, and I am the Deputy Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I have spent the last fifteen years working at the intersection of science and policy, standing up for scientists and their work.

I’m thrilled to be here to talk about political interference in the work of federal government scientists, and steps to prevent that kind of misconduct. I hope that today will serve as an example to all that there can be a bipartisan commitment to promoting responsible conduct in federal scientific agencies regarding the development and communication of scientific information.

Federal government experts provide data and analysis that helps us stop the Zika virus. They help neighborhoods deal with public health risks posed by nearby chemical plants. They help journalists and policymakers understand bioterrorism threats.

There is not Democratic science. There is not Republican science. There’s just science. Decision-makers and the public want to hear directly from the experts, and they deserve that access.

Yet too often, policymakers want to keep these scientists on a leash—or worse, change scientific practices or outcomes to support predetermined policy positions. Political appointees suppress scientific reports on chemical toxicity, order staff to soften conclusions on worker safety problems, unethically change testing protocols on lead exposure, and misrepresent scientists’ work on reproductive health.

In such a closed culture, scientists keep their heads down, and we are robbed of their expertise. This keeps valuable information from the public, and makes it easier for politicians to avoid accountability for poor public health and environmental protection decisions.

The consequences are real. During the George W. Bush administration, government experts were ordered to change their testing procedures to suggest that children’s lunch boxes with lead in them were safe. The Obama EPA watered down and changed an agency scientific assessment about the impact of fracking and drinking water in a way that misled the public. And in the Trump administration, assessments of PFAS chemicals were held up, scientists have been muzzled on climate change, and experts report high levels of censorship and self-censorship across issues.

For the last twenty years, journalism associations complained consistently about access to federal government experts and asked for improvements. They were stonewalled then, and it’s only getting worse.

Recently, the US Geological Survey began requiring scientists to ask for permission before speaking with a reporter. USGS isn’t a regulatory agency. It doesn’t do policy. Yet the desire to control the message is still present.

Most federal agencies have developed scientific integrity policies over the past decade. But agencies vary widely in their ability and willingness to enforce these policies. At a majority of agencies, there’s little training and few enforcement mechanisms. Without being in statute, the scientific integrity policies can improve agencies around the edges, but lack authority and enforceability. Policies can be curtailed or eliminated at any moment.

Ultimately, we can’t depend on agencies to police themselves without additional direction and support. It’s time to codify scientific integrity standards. The Scientific Integrity Act creates transparency and accountability through clarity. The legislation would give scientists who work for government agencies the right to share their research with the public, ensure that government communication of science is accurate, and protect science in policy decisions from political interference. The bill empowers federal employees to share their opinions as informed experts in a personal capacity. And the bill prohibits any employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings.

Now we aren’t talking about being policy prescriptive. The bill is agnostic on the weight that science should be given in a policy decision. The legislation is designed to ensure that science fully informs the decisions that we make.

It isn’t just the science community that is advocating for the Scientific Integrity Act. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight, the National Partnership for Women and Families, SEIU—all have signaled their support. This bill promotes good government. It enhances accountability. It prevents corruption.

We have learned a lot in the past ten years about what works to protect scientific integrity and what doesn’t. I look forward to exploring these issues in more detail later in this hearing and thank you again for the opportunity to testify.

Attacks on Public Health and Safety that the Scientific Integrity Act Could Have Prevented

Photo: Chris Quintana/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

In March, Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (hereafter referred to as the “SI Act”). The legislation is a step forward to protecting federal agency scientists and their work from political interference.

Attacks on science come from both sides of the political aisle and have for many years. If enacted, this legislation could prevent future attacks on science and protect the health and safety of people across America who depend on science-informed policies.

The SI Act protects public health

The SI Act would codify and bolster scientific integrity policies already in place at science-based federal agencies. This is a great idea because there have been inconsistencies between agencies in terms of how robust policies are. The SI Act requires an agency’s scientific integrity policy to ensure that no individual at a science-based federal agency will “suppress, alter, interfere, or otherwise impede the timely release and communication of scientific or technical findings.”

Suppression and alteration of scientific reports for political purposes has long been a problem at federal agencies. Examples include altered biological opinions on endangered species at the Department of Interior and White House reports on climate change. The SI Act might have prevented issues like the recent case of suppressed science within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which produced a risk assessment report on the potential health hazards of formaldehyde in 2017, but the report and its findings are being suppressed. Formaldehyde is a common chemical found throughout the home. Formaldehyde in household materials can vaporize, and when such fumes are inhaled over the long term this can lead to increased cancer risk.

Risk assessment reports produced by EPA’s IRIS often serve as the underpinning of public protections that keep people from being exposed to dangerous chemicals at unsafe levels. But federal agencies cannot put protections in place if the science is suppressed. By suppressing this report, the Trump administration is increasing the risks of certain types of cancer associated with exposure to formaldehyde in the general population.

The suppression of this risk assessment report would be considered a violation of scientific integrity under the SI Act. Classifying the suppression of this report as a violation of scientific integrity could help Congress and officials at federal agencies take steps to release the formaldehyde report, spurring development of a science-based policy to regulate this chemical and protect any further damage to public health.

The SI Act grants fundamental rights to scientists

The SI Act also grants key rights to federal scientists across all science-based agencies. Such protections are crucial for ensuring scientists feel empowered that their scientific work is protected and that they are able to speak up when it isn’t.

Federal agencies release information about scientific reports and publications, but sometimes do not allow scientists who conducted the work to review the information before being communicated externally. The SI Act would allow scientists “the opportunity to review” public statements for “technical accuracy.” The SI Act also provides scientists with the right to correct any inaccuracies in publications jointly with the agency in external communications.

Administrations have communicated information that is not scientifically accurate previously. For example, under the Obama administration, the EPA produced a report about the risks to drinking water presented by hydraulic fracturing. In an executive summary, the agency wrote that the scientists of the report did not find “widespread systemic impacts” of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. However, this was not in line with the scientific evidence reported. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), its primary federal science advisory board, determined the EPA did not provide quantitative evidence to support its claim that hydraulic fracturing did not have widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water. Following this report, the EPA deleted the language from the executive summary.

Under the SI Act, the scientists involved would have been able to review report materials before they were released publicly. This might have prevented the release of misleading scientific information from the agency and saved the agency the time and resources of convening the SAB to deliberate whether the agency’s language was in line with the scientific evidence.

The SI Act protects workers from harm

Another provision of the SI Act says agency policies must ensure that “scientific conclusions are not made based on political considerations.” There have been several times when science has been sidelined, resulting in policies that are not effective at protecting the public from harm, that undo reproductive health measures, or that put our environment’s health at risk. One such example is the lack of consideration of science in allowing the poultry business to increase worker line speeds, which will likely increase poultry worker injuries.

Poultry workers are at high risk for on-the-job injury. As described by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Workers employed in the poultry industry face many serious hazards, including high noise levels, dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals such as ammonia, used as a refrigerant, and peracetic acid used to kill bacteria.”

This is why a policy was put in place in 2014 establishing a maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute. This speed was not arbitrary; it was based on evidence that increased line speeds result in increased worker injury. However, in February 2018, some poultry processing plants received waivers to increase line speeds up to 175 birds per minute.

The science is clear: an increase in line speeds will increase worker injury. Therefore, the decision to increase line speeds was not based on science or the public’s input, it was based on political considerations. The SI Act would create conditions such that decisions that are clearly based on politics and not science could be considered a violation of scientific integrity. In the case here, that could have resulted in increased safety for poultry workers and the general population, who may now be at increased risk of food borne illnesses.

The SI Act protects reproductive health

The provision of the SI Act that ensures that “scientific conclusions are not made based on political considerations” may also have prevented science from being sidelined on reproductive health decisions.

In the case of emergency contraception, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) attempts to move forward on a drug which science had shown to be safe were undermined during the Obama administration. Critically, the FDA is legally bound to only consider evidence when making drug approval decisions.

While Obama’s FDA commissioner and science advisors supported an application to make an over-the-counter emergency contraception drug available to young women, the Secretary of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA, stating concerns about potential health effects of the drug on 10- and 11-year-old girls. Obama publicly supported this rejection despite scientific evidence showing that the drug did not have negative health effects on young women. In April 2013, a judge ordered the FDA to make emergency contraception available to women of all ages, arguing that the Secretary’s action was “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent.”

The SI Act may have created conditions such that the administration’s move to challenge a science-based decision would have been considered a violation of scientific integrity. It’s possible that this might have allowed young women access to safe emergency contraception earlier.

The SI Act fights censorship

The SI Act would allow scientists to speak more openly and freely about their work to the public, in conferences, and through scientific peer-reviewed journals—for example, climate change scientists in the federal government could explain to the public and policymakers what their research shows.

The SI Act has a number of provisions that would allow scientists to make their work more transparent to the public and prevent censorship of scientific information. Censorship and alteration of scientific materials on publicly contentious topics has continued to happen, especially around climate change work. We also know that it is critical that scientists be allowed to discuss their work publicly with the media, especially during emergencies or natural disasters when the public may require information from a scientific expert.  A number of the SI Act provisions “promote and maximize the communication and open exchange of data and findings to other agencies, policymakers, and the public…” The SI Act prohibits conduct of an individual to “intimidate or coerce an individual to alter or censor, or retaliate against an individual for failure to alter or censor, scientific or technical findings.”

Recently, climate change scientists and their work have been particularly targeted. Political appointees have refused to fund grants that mention “climate change,” federal scientists have been reprimanded for publicly discussing the effects of climate change, and even the phrase “climate change” has been banished from government documents.

The negative impacts of climate change are already affecting the US now, and these negative effects will be amplified in the future. Therefore, it is critical that our government supports, conducts, and communicates its climate change research and policies. This is important for the US public and the world.

Having transparency on this government work, as well as other scientific concepts, would allow policymakers and the public alike to better understand if an administration’s policy actions are in line with science. If not, the SI Act would create conditions that allow an administration to be held accountable when science is sidelined.

The SI Act is a step forward for science

There are countless other examples of attacks on science from the Trump administration. In fact, we’ve documented over 100 attacks on science to-date. Many of these and the harms they have caused to the American people could have been prevented by legislation such as the SI Act. While we cannot go back in time, we can ensure that the future is brighter for our brothers and sisters in this country by encouraging our decisionmakers to pass this common-sense legislation. Science is still our best system of knowledge gathering – it just makes sense that our best knowledge informs policies that protect the public and our environment from harm.

Want to protect federal scientists and their work? Take action now to encourage your decisionmaker to ensure that science remains at the forefront of policy decisions.

Drilling Down on the Attempted Takedown of the Government’s Advisory Committees

Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

The House Science committee will be holding a hearing tomorrow to talk about the status of the government’s advisory committees, which is extremely timely considering the Trump administration is attempting to get rid of them altogether.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a brand new report on the subject and will be testifying about the details of its study on how EPA’s advisory committees have been faring under the Trump administration. Spoiler alert: EPA has been skirting its own protocols to alter membership on SAB and CASAC. GAO found that in addition to ignoring staff recommendations and making appointment decisions in a black box, EPA failed to ensure that all committee members were in compliance with federal ethics rules. This assessment tracks closely with findings from our 2018 report looking at the first year of the Trump administration, which found many advisory committees were being disbanded, neglected, or the composition altered dramatically after the start of President Trump’s first term. While it covers a few discrete process issues, the GAO report fails to go into the implications of the agency’s directive to ban EPA-funded scientists from serving on its advisory committees or how its dissolution of subcommittees, like CASAC’s particulate matter panel, has meant the inability of the agency to do its statutorily mandated work.

The stakes have gotten a lot higher now that, according to the Executive Order issued last month, all federal agencies (with some exceptions) will have to select one-third of their advisory committees to cut by the end of September. I’ve already explained why this order is absurd, but if agencies do go through with this exercise, here are some of the impacts we foresee.

Agencies will have to make impossible choices

Using the government’s public data on advisory committees, we took a look at all of the advisory committees across the government and exempted those that are not likely to be covered by the order, including committees that are formed by presidential order or statutorily required, formed by independent regulatory agencies, those at agencies with fewer than three committees, those that are merit-based or grant review committees, and those that deal with product safety (which we applied to drugs, food, and other consumer products). Once those exemptions were applied, we ended up with 311 committees that are at risk of being cut, 88 of which are scientific  and technical advisory committees. Those facing the biggest cuts are the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior, and Department of Defense.

According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service analysis, agency-authorized committees and national policy issue advisory boards are more likely than the other committees to have a higher rate of recommendation implementation. The same is true for those advisory committees that are authorized by agency authority, over statutory authority. It’s not a coincidence that the most influential advisory committees are those that are the first to feel the heat from this administration. It’s abundantly clear that President Trump doesn’t want smart people and facts informing government decisionmaking.

Not only will axing committees hurt federal agencies’ ability to protect public health and the environment, but it will be forcing agencies like the Department of Homeland Security cut out expert advice on issues that help keep our entire country safe from safety threats. The department of homeland security has 6 advisory committees that are candidates for being cut which means that two will need to be removed. That means sacrificing two of the following important advisory threads: preparing and responding to disruptions that can damage infrastructure (from natural disasters to cyber risks), network resilience and telecommunications integrity for disaster response, general homeland security advice (which includes recommendations on how to best care for individuals in custody at the U.S. border), scientific and technical advice to strengthen U.S. security and resiliency, and the safety of water transportation of large amounts of hazardous materials. All of these DHS committees met in 2019 and help the agency meet its mission so why must any of them be removed? Why would we forego more expert input on such important issues when there’s no persuasive reason to?

The same impossible choices exist at every agency. There are scores of committees at risk that provide the government with vital advice. Here are just a few:

  • At the Department of Commerce, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee has met to advise the Secretary of Commerce on issues related to the census since 1994. Among committee members are statisticians, demographers, computer scientists, economists, and policy experts who provide scientific expertise to the secretary on the proper deployment of the census, including recently recommending that the bureau has “continued vigilance about all potential sources of reduced quality in population counts and household characterizations” that would occur as a result of the notorious attempt to include a citizenship question.
  • The EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee is a policy advisory committee formed in 1997 which advises the agency on regulations related to children’s health. Over the years its recommendations have been incredibly consequential resulting in administrators conducting specific studies on environmental exposures of children, revising risk assessment procedures for children working in agriculture, and adopting standardized levels for indoor asthma allergens for childcare environments and federally funded homes. Its most recent agenda in May 2019 took on issues ranging from PFAS, TSCA implementation, to the federal lead action plan. We should all take great comfort in knowing that there’s a group of qualified experts making sure that the EPA is adequately considering children’s health as it designs policies that stand to impact generations to come.
  • The Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helps to inform and influence national policies that may impact infant mortality and health outcomes from women, children, and families. As our infant mortality rate continues to be the highest of any wealthy country and racial disparities in mortality continue to increase, the need for experts informing the Secretary’s decisions related to maternal health care and the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid for the health of women and infants is vital. But then again, so are all of the HHS’ committees dedicated to public health.

For this analysis, we only looked at discretionary committees (established by agencies and former presidents) because they will be considered in the first wave of cuts, but President Trump’s executive order also threatens those established by statute, so the threat to our government’s external advice infrastructure is gigantic. The order sets a ceiling of 350 total advisory committees across the government, but there’s every indication that this administration wouldn’t stop until it has eliminated the entire federal advisory committee network. With an administration that doesn’t even listen to its own experts and no network of external advisors to check its work, our government will be flying blind and we’ll all suffer the consequences. I’m looking forward to the hearing on this critical topic tomorrow and want to encourage Congress to continue oversight on this administration’s efforts to dismantle its own expert advisory system. This valuable resource, and the tens of thousands of experts who are a part of it, needs to be protected to ensure informed decisions with the public’s best interest in mind.

Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Groups Urge Support of Scientific Integrity Act as Congressional Hearing Looms

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

On the eve of a congressional hearing about preventing attacks on science, more than 60 organizations sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to co-sponsor and advance the Scientific Integrity Act. I’ve written previously about how the legislation would empower federal agency scientists to speak publicly about their work and protect federal science in policy decisions from inappropriate political influence and interference. What’s exciting to me isn’t the number of groups, but the diversity of interests that they represent. 

It’s not just scientists who are supporting the Scientific Integrity Act. The list of organizations includes government accountability groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, women’s health organizations such as the National Partnership for Women & Families, and unions such as SEIU.

The letter describes the potential impact of the legislation:

Our nation relies on scientific integrity to maintain the role of best available science in policymaking. This research is critical to improving air and water quality, protecting workers, safeguarding public health and safety, advancing reproductive health, defending civil rights, preserving biodiversity, and responding to threats posed by diseases and extreme weather events. We urge you to sign on as co-sponsors of S. 775 or H.R. 1709 to take this important step toward ensuring that our government uses science and evidence to best protect our public health and well-being.

The House Science Committee will consider the legislation in a hearing this coming Wednesday, and I will be testifying about the importance of strong scientific integrity protections. This is the first hearing in years to examine real solutions to attacks on science, so I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’ll have a more detailed examination of the legislation along with links to my testimony early Wednesday morning on this blog.

 

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

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