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Tell Secretary Alex Azar: We Need to Demand Equitable Gun Violence Research and Reform

Damien Jones, the equity and justice outreach specialist for the Climate and Energy Program at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.

It has been only six weeks since last I wrote about gun violence in America, following the Parkland shooting that took seventeen lives and impacted a nation. In that time there have been 22 more mass shootings, at least 10 of them at schools. The number of deaths by guns in 2018 is at 3,423, and we’re only 89 days into the year—that’s about 38 human lives lost per day. In that time, hundreds of thousands of people have voiced their outrage and concerns over our country’s inaction around gun violence, as we witnessed at last weekend’s March for Our Lives.

March for Our Lives, Washington, DC, March 24, 2018.

We even saw a small victory for federal research into gun violence, as Congress clarified the legislative language that effectively prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from pursuing such research. Now we need the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to carry this forward and direct his department’s scientists to get to work.

But, as we pause to celebrate the national attention that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students have garnered, we must recognize the racial disparities that exist both in gun violence related deaths and in the momentum to seek solutions. The truth remains that the fight has only just begun.

Solutions for gun reform must be inclusive

I’d like to take a moment to recognize all the people who have been advocating for gun reform for years. Namely, I’d like to acknowledge the black youth who have been at the forefront of this fight, with little to no recognition for being the heroes they are.

“Every day shootings are everyday problems,” said Trevon Bosley, whose older brother, Terrell, was fatally shot in Chicago over a decade ago. “It’s time for the nation to realize that gun violence is more than a Chicago problem or a Parkland problem but it’s an American problem. It’s time to care about all communities equally.”

“I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper,” said 11-year old Naomi Wadler.

“We are survivors not only of gun violence, but of silence. We are survivors of the erratic productions of poverty. But not only that. We are the survivors of unjust policies and practices upheld by our Senate,” said D’Angelo McDade, a high school senior from Chicago.

The youth who spoke at the March for Our Lives rally reiterated an important message to the audience: our solutions for gun reform need to be inclusive.

“We have to use our white privilege now to make sure that all of the people that have died as a result of [gun violence] and haven’t been covered the same can now be heard,” said David Hogg, student and survivor of the Parkland school shooting.

It was not lost on them that young black activists, including those belonging to the Black Lives Matter movement, who have long been organizing and mobilizing their communities to take action against gun violence, have been widely portrayed as domestic terrorists, black identity extremists (yes, really). While the (mostly white) students leading the #NeverAgain movement are heralded and named heroes, black youth are criminalized and seen as divisive, especially for pointing out existing inequities.

Social justice activists gather for a photo at the March for Our Lives with UCS Environmental Justice Advocate for the Climate and Energy program, Damien Jones. Two of the young men are graduates of Florida A&M University, a historically black university, and two are high school students from Jacksonville, Florida.

Science as a tool for justice (and public health)

Where does the scientific community fit into all this? I’m glad you asked. Women, low-income communities, people of color are all disproportionately affected by gun violence, and by proxy, they are impacted by the dearth of research around these issues—research that could lead to life-saving, science-based solutions. Let the words of the youth serve as a reminder for our federal scientists that, when they begin forming their research questions, they must be deliberate not only in including underrepresented groups, but by recognizing societal (and personal) biases against these communities when designing their research. The methods by which scientists collect, measure, and analyze data must be rooted in equity.

And while conducting research around gun violence is crucial, it is important to remember that science is only a means, not an end. CDC scientists are not to be put on pedestals as the saviors, nor should they be expected to hold the answers of the universe. But they have a role in this fight, just as the hundreds of thousands of marching activists do, just as our elected officials do. We can create effective policy solutions for this public health crisis. Let’s hold Secretary Azar to his word that the CDC will take on gun violence research immediately. We cannot afford further inaction.

Ted Eytan Damien Jones

Proposed Legislation Would Prevent Census Tampering

In anticipation of this week’s announced plans for the Commerce Department to add a citizenship question to the regular form on the 2020 Census, a group of legislators have proposed a bill designed to protect the scientific integrity of the Census from late additions.

“The 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act has unfortunately become a necessary safeguard against this administration’s clear desire to politicize and compromise the 2020 Census,” said Rep. Maloney. “This bill will protect the integrity of the census, our nation’s largest peacetime undertaking, by making sure that topics and questions included in the census are properly vetted and not added at the last minute—endangering the accuracy of the census, response rates, and cost to the taxpayer.”

The 2020 Census IDEA Act would:

  • Prohibit last-minute changes or additions to the census without proper research, studying, and testing;
  • Ensure that subjects, types of information, and questions that have not been submitted to Congress according to existing law are not included;
  • Require biannual reports on the U.S. Census Bureau’s operation plan, including the status of its research and testing, and require that this report be publicly available on the Bureau’s website;
  • Direct the U.S. Government Accountability Office to determine and report to Congress that the subjects, types of information, and questions on the decennial census have been researched, studied, and tested to the same degree as previous decennial census; and

Apply the provisions of this bill only to the decennial census, and not the mid-decade census or the American Community Survey.

This is not just a concern for demographers. Businesses rely on regional information about the age, income, education, family structure, occupations and commuting patterns of people that determine market segmentations. This sort of behavioral data, which is only captured once every 10 years, provides the best picture that we have about how American consumers live.

Former Census Director Dr. Kenneth Prewitt attended the announcement of the IDEA Act. Prewitt stated that he could not offer “any scientific reason to add a question at this late time to the census form, but I can assure you that this untested, last minute change will introduce great risk to the accuracy and cost to the people’s census.” He added that Thomas Jefferson, who, along with James Madison, initiated the first census, would be “turning over in his grave.” Scientists and citizens alike need to stay vigilant about the integrity of the Census, which is, after all, the story of who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming as a people.

Taking Action for Public Science: Re-Imagining Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

On a snowy February morning at the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines, students, farmers, community members, scientists, food system employees, and advocates gathered for a press conference and advocacy day. Their efforts came almost one year to the day after the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center, for 30 years the state’s pre-eminent institution for research, learning and practice on sustainable agriculture. Constituents from across the state and beyond had responded with grassroots organizing to reframe discussions about public agricultural science in Iowa. And now they were calling for a re-imagined Leopold Center to lead a bold new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future:

“Supporting a socially just, environmentally sound agricultural system goes beyond simply providing food, fiber, and fuels—it means revitalizing rural communities, and turning Iowa into a shining example of how a resilient, locally focused agricultural system can make a large difference in individual communities and throughout the world.”

—Kristine Neu, Iowa State University graduate student

Lawmakers founded the Leopold Center at Iowa State University through Iowa’s 1987 Groundwater Protection Act and in so doing created an institution that benefited farmers, students and community members through research and educational programs. Yet, in the spring of 2017, the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center.

Sustainable agriculture scientists and advocates sprang to action immediately, writing a petition decrying the cuts, garnering national attention and more than 600 signatures over the first weekend it was available. Alumni and allies drafted memos and collected data for reports to share with legislators, wrote press releases and editorials, and organized turn-out to the state budget hearing.

This grassroots advocacy succeeded in securing a veto that saved the Leopold Center in name only—its funding was redirected to a research center created in 2014 dedicated to “nutrient management.” State legislators claimed the Leopold Center’s work was “accomplished.” The public mourned its loss, and stories in the press read as eulogies rather than rallies for its rebuilding. But we saw an opportunity to push forward a new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future—one of regeneration and healing (Carter, Chennault, and Kruzic 2018).

Iowa’s agricultural history is one of extraction. Iowa State University sits on land occupied by white settlers following the Black Hawk “Purchase” of 1833, a forceful removal of the Sauk and Meskwaki people following the Black Hawk War. The extractive economy continues today, with Iowa second only to California in the value of agricultural goods and boasting more hogs (22.4 million) and chickens (60 million) than people (3 million). This production system comes at a cost to the health of Iowa’s soil, water, and human communities as the state is literally washing away at the rate of 20 tons of soil per acre and more each year, and nitrate loading from agricultural landscapes pollutes the drinking water (Naidenko, Cox and Bruzelius 2012; Rundquist and Cox 2018). Clearly, the Leopold Center’s work is far from over.

Science for Public Good grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists helped us create an advocacy video communicating our collective’s new vision for the Leopold Center and agriculture in Iowa. In partnership with farmers, students, emeritus faculty, community leaders, and members of the Iowa Farmers Union, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Lutheran Services of Iowa, and Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, we brainstormed, debated, revised, and shared new visions. The collective vision shared from these efforts celebrates diversity and prioritizes care, which are necessary components of agrifood systems change in Iowa and beyond. We launched this vision through a series of op-eds at the Des Moines press conference in February 2018, and used it to rally supporters to attend the Leopold Center’s advisory board meeting in March 2018.

These are hard times for public science and scientists studying ecological and social changes. Our refusal to mourn and eulogize the Leopold Center’s loss—and our work to envision and work toward a boldly re-imagined agriculture in Iowa instead—reframed a debate while envisioning new paths forward. The Leopold Center’s future remains uncertain, yet we know the challenges our agrifood system faces will require the kind of collaboration, creativity, innovation, and transparency reflected in our collective vision. A re-imagined Leopold Center must transform what has become a monoculture of ideas with a polyculture of thought, experience, scientific approach, and innovative agricultural practices. A monoculture is weak and vulnerable; it fails to provide for the coming decades. We have adopted the prairie as our guide for the work ahead—deep roots, diverse, hardy through times of drought, and resilient through times of change.

Angie Carter is an environmental sociologist and assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. She earned her PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology at Iowa State University. Twitter: @angielcarter

Ahna Kruzic is a community organizer turned communicator from rural southern Iowa. Ahna is Pesticide Action Network North America’s Communications Director and is based out of Berkeley, CA. Ahna is also a Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy Fellow, and holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology from Iowa State University. Twitter: @ahnakruzic

Carrie Chennault is a doctoral candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and a graduate research assistant with the Local Foods and SNAP-Education programs at ISU Extension & 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.

Experts Warn: Census is Under Attack

Photo: National Archives

Last night, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross released a notification that the 2020 Census would include a citizenship question on the regular form, which goes to every household in the United States. This was prompted by a December request from the Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice, which they claimed was necessary for enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

Conducting the Decennial Census is literally one of the first responsibilities of our government. Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that, for the purposes of apportioning electoral districts to the U.S. House of Representatives, “the whole number of persons for each state” be counted, including children, all foreign-born residents, and for much of the country’s history, slaves.

As soon as the request was made, several former Census Directors voiced their concern.  Steve Murdock, who directed the Census under George W. Bush, stated that he was “fearful that it would reduce participation of Hispanics, particularly those who are undocumented,” and the most recent Director, Kenneth Prewitt, similarly warned that the addition of the question could have “huge, unpredictable consequences,” given “an atmosphere of mistrust of government and the media, deep anxieties among immigrant groups and inadequate testing of Census Bureau procedures.”

The question has not been asked on the full Census since 1950. However, it is regularly asked on the American Community Survey, which samples the U.S. population and provides accurate aggregate data on citizenship. Concerns about non-response bias emerged early on when preliminary field tests from Census interviewers came back with reports that immigrant populations were exceedingly concerned about their safety and the confidentiality of the data. A significant undercount would have massive repercussions on the quality of data that commerce, policy advocates and the government relies on.

Just this week, a large number of the nation’s leading social scientists and users of Census data, joined by the Union of Concerned Scientists, sent a letter to Secretary Ross, explaining the importance of maintaining the scientific integrity of the nation’s most valuable data resource.

The response to last night’s announcement was swift and negative. Political science professor and director of the US Elections Project Michael McDonald put it bluntly: “The decision to add a citizenship question is obviously about political power. Trump is counting on noncitizens to refuse to answer the census, thus affecting apportionment of congressional seats to states and block grant formulas of federal money to states and localities.”

Vanita Gupta, President of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and former head of the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice, responded that the Department of Justice has effectively enforced the Voting Rights Act using citizenship estimates from the American Community Survey. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, now head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, responded that “The attacks on the census process go beyond politics—they represent a major assault on representative American democracy” and that “Donald Trump and his Attorney General are rooting decisions in ideology, instead of expertise.”

As of this morning, Holder’s group and California Secretary of State Xavier Becerra have filed lawsuits against the Department of Commerce to stop the addition of the question. New York will also lead a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government. “Including a citizenship question on the 2020 census is not just a bad idea,” stated Becerra, “it is illegal.”

 

The New Government Omnibus Spending Bill Shows that Science Advocacy Matters

After a long wait, late last night, Congress posted a spending agreement for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year. For the most part, we achieved significant victories, especially given the challenging political environment, in repelling proposals that would have directly undermined the role of science in public health and environmental policymaking.

Among the highlights:

Proposed Actual Eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents and issues recommendations to protect the public Chemical Safety Board is fully funded Prohibit science-based Endangered Species Act protections for the lesser prairie chicken and wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region No new prohibitions were included Legislatively weaken the most recent science-based ground-level ozone pollution standard The ozone standard was left intact Exempt clean water protections from scientific, public, and legal scrutiny The EPA will be required to follow the normal process as it works to withdraw the Clean Water Rule. Eliminate EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) which evaluates the health impacts of toxic chemicals and produces vital scientific assessments for federal, state, international, and community groups to help assess risks due to exposure IRIS remains fully funded and a part of EPA’s research division, the Office of Research and Development Slash EPA’s budget up to 30%, including significant reductions for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, Office of Research and Development, and enforcement programs None of these programs received any cuts Significantly cut other science agency budgets, including NASA, NOAA, USDA, and the Department of Energy None of the agencies received reduced overall funding, and some agencies saw modest, and in some cases significant, increases. You made this possible

UCS, along with our coalition partners, has been working for the better part of the last year to ensure that the final spending agreement protects the budgets of federal science agencies and excludes any anti-science “poison pill” riders, or policy provisions that have no business being in spending bills. But we are only a few people.

We needed the support of Science Network members, Science watchdogs, and Science Champions across the country to make this possible by bringing home the local impacts of the harmful proposals. Together, we were able to thwart all the harmful policies, cuts, and program eliminations listed above.

We even made some small strides forward. For example, Congress clarified that CDC scientists can conduct gun violence research—something they have effectively been prohibited from doing for more than 20 years. Separately, Congress will now be required to post Congressional Research Service reports (reports on policy issues that are completed by Congress’s research arm) on the Internet. This will mean better public access to nonpartisan, taxpayer-funded research and ensure transparency, something UCS has long been advocating for.

With support from UCS, scientists and science advocates explained to their elected officials and local press how these dangerous cuts and anti-science riders would negatively impact their state through sign-on letters and a steady drumbeat of meetings and conversations with local staff. Furthermore, they worked hand in hand to ensure their representatives in Congress understood that science-based public protections are a priority in the federal budget. Supporters took action more than 47,500 times through emails, letters, social media, meetings, op-eds, and phone calls expressing their strong opposition to any final spending deal that cut federal funding of science agencies and/or included harmful anti-science poison pill riders.

In the current environment, we don’t often get great news from Washington. We have frequently seen the EPA and other science agencies roll back or weaken science-based safeguards, or Congress try their best to weaken evidence-based decision-making. Last night, however, our allies in Congress protected the federal science budget, fought off some of the worst anti-science proposals that were on the table, and made additional policy improvements because you persuaded them that these issues should be top priorities.

We need to keep pushing

While this funding agreement is a good first step, the battle continues. It is still unconscionable that Congress was unable to include protections for Dreamers but include some funding for a border wall. And there were some other anti-science poison pill riders that snuck through, including continuing a prohibition on protecting the imperiled sage grouse and continuing to legislate science by declaring that biomass is inherently carbon-neutral (it isn’t).

But we have another opportunity to fight just around the corner. Congress will soon begin work on funding for the 2019 fiscal year, and you can be sure many of these same issues will find their way into negotiations.

We know that politicians want to go down the road of least pain. When constituents speak up for science, lawmakers do listen. The squeaky wheel does get the grease.

That’s why it’s critical to make your voice heard and keep a steady drumbeat going. Lawmakers will return to their districts next week to begin a two-week in-district work period. Take that opportunity to engage with your representatives and senators and tell them what you liked about this spending agreement and what you want to see continue, or improved upon, in the next funding deal. Let’s keep the momentum going by continuing to call, email, write letters, and tweet your elected officials!

Scott Pruitt Will Restrict the EPA’s Use of Legitimate Science

The EPA is reportedly on the verge of restricting the science that EPA can use in decision-making and I’m livid.

This is a move that serves no purpose other than to prevent the EPA from carrying out its mission of protecting public health and the environment. If Pruitt’s proposal looks anything like House Science Committee Chairman’s HONEST Act or its predecessor the Secret Science Act, we know it will be nonsensical and dangerous for our nation’s ability to use science to protect people. Those bills required that all raw data, models, code, and other materials from scientific studies be made available to the public before the EPA could use it and it had sweeping scope over EPA actions, covering “risk, exposure, or hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance.”

Here are the top ways EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Trojan horse “transparency” proposal is fundamentally flawed:

It fundamentally misrepresents how science works

You might not need a refresher on how science works, but it’s clear that Administrator Pruitt does. Here’s a quick run-down: In order to be published in a scientific journal, research must pass through peer-review where two or three experts familiar with that field will critique the scientific merits of the study. When a study has passed peer review, we know it has met a standard set by scientists in that field. Federal agencies like the EPA then use that peer-reviewed science in order to issue science-based rules.

Nowhere in this process do decisionmakers need to see raw data that went into studies in order to trust scientific evidence. Scientists conducting the peer review don’t even typically see the raw data of studies. They do not need to. They can look at the methods, design, and results in order to assess the quality of the science. The peer review process—conducted by those with scientific expertise—provides the necessary scrutiny here; the scrutiny of Congress would insert politics into what should be a scientific discussion.

It solves a problem that doesn’t exist

Let’s be clear. The decision-making process at the EPA is already exhaustingly transparent. There are thousands of pages of documents and hours of phone calls and meetings of scientific experts discussing technical details of those documents—and the public has full access to these discussions! I know. I’ve listened to hours and hours of meetings and read hundreds of pages of documents. I would never say that a problem at the EPA is a lack of access to the details of agency decision-making.

For example, the EPA claims that “EPA has primarily relied on two 1990s studies linking fine particulate pollution to premature death. Neither studies have made their data public, but EPA used their findings to justify sweeping air quality regulations.”

This is ludicrous. On the contrary, the latest Integrated Science Assessment for particulate matter (i.e. the summary of the scientific basis for the latest air pollution protections from soot), cites more than 800 studies—including the two studies referenced, which were peer-reviewed and have since been re-assessed to further confirm their scientific validity.

Further, the EPA already painstakingly collects scientific data and other details from the studies that it relies on to make policy decisions. I know because they asked me for it. The EPA’s 2015 decision on a revised ambient ozone standard relied on many studies of ozone pollution and its relationship with health outcomes, including work that I did as a doctoral student at Georgia Tech looking at exposure measurement in ambient air pollutants.

Even though I had conducted the study several years earlier as a graduate student, EPA scientists tracked me down and got me to dig through my files and find the original data that supported the figures and conclusions of my study so I could share it with the agency. If that isn’t dedication to scientific integrity in science-based policy, I don’t know what is.

It wastes taxpayer dollars and adds red tape

Ironically, the bill is directly at odds with the Trump administration’s stated desire to create a more efficient government. It adds unnecessary and burdensome redundancy to the process of keeping clean our air, water, and land. Pruitt is adding red tape to the federal government, not reducing it.

It is also wasting taxpayer dollars. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost the EPA an additional $250 million per year to comply with Chairman Smith’s HONEST Act. But the administration wasn’t even honest about that.  It was revealed that EPA leadership claimed the move would pose no additional burden, burying the comments of EPA staff, who asserted the tremendous cost of implementation and also noted that the bill would threaten EPA expertise, jeopardize personal and confidential business information, and “significantly impede EPA’s ability to protect the health and the environment of Americans.” The greater scientific community backed up this assertion. A letter signed by 23 scientific societies and academic institutions also raised concerns the bill would “constrain the EPA from making a proposal based on the best available science.”

Pruitt is taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook

This was never an honest proposal. Pruitt’s move is just another tactic dreamed up to attack science behind public health protections. In fact, it was first noted in internal documents from the tobacco industry. In a 1996 memo out of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, industry consultant (and later part of the Trump administration’s landing team at EPA), Chris Horner, laid out the “secret science” strategy as a way to fend off tobacco regulations as the science increasingly showed the harms of secondhand smoke.  The goal, he wrote, was “to construct explicit procedural hurdles the agency must follow in issuing scientific reports.” This has never been about transparency in science-based decision-making.

It’s dangerous

Administrator Pruitt claims to be worried about “secret science” at EPA, but in reality, he’s squashing the science that protects Americans from air, water, and land pollution. When the EPA can’t rely on scientific evidence to make decisions about public health protections, we are all left in the dark.

This post originally appeared in Scientific American.

Pseudoscience on Trial: The Spectacular Fall of President Trump’s Voter Fraud Thesis

On January 3, 2017, President Trump claimed that there was “substantial evidence” of voter fraud in the 2016 election, enough to have denied him a popular vote victory. The substance of this now infamous claim, that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud, was examined closely in the just-concluded trial of Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, current gubernatorial candidate, and co-chair of the Electoral “Integrity” Commission that the president established, then abruptly dissolved when it faced legal accountability.

The Kansas trial that just concluded concerned a 2013 law initiated by Kobach that required prospective voters to provide proof-of-citizenship documents. Over the course of the two-week trial, Kobach presented all available evidence of the extent of voter fraud in an effort to justify the law, which has prevented as many as 33,000 eligible Kansas residents from registering to vote.

The voter fraud thesis fell apart in truly spectacular fashion under examination, and could very well result in the overturning of the law, the denial of one witness as an “expert” in future testimony, and even a finding that Mr. Kobach be held in contempt of court. To understand how things could have possibly gone so badly for Mr. Kobach, consider some the highlights of the trial, wherein the “science” used to claim that voter fraud is rampant dissolves before our eyes, much like the Kobach Commission:

  1. Hans Von Spakovsky, a fellow member of the Kobach Commission, had to acknowledge early on that his research on voter fraud has not been subjected to peer review, and further acknowledged that all of his inferences about voter fraud in Kansas were based on a spreadsheet provided by Mr. Kobach.
  2. Regarding the frequent comment that known accounts of voter fraud are “just the tip of the iceberg,” lead counsel for plaintiffs Dale Ho asked “You don’t have any estimate of the size of the iceberg, is that right Mr. Von Spakovsky?” Von Spakovsky: “That’s correct.”
  3. Cross-examination also revealed that Von Spakovsky’s submitted court report contained incomplete information that made it possible for him to inflate estimates of non-citizen registration. Subsequently, plaintiffs asked Judge Julie Robinson to make a finding that Von Spakovsky is not an objective expert, having offered incomplete and misleading testimony.
  4. Professor Jesse Richman, who did co-author a peer-reviewed publication in Electoral Studies on non-citizen voting, took the stand and stated that “Trump and others have been misreading our research and exaggerating our results to make claims we don’t think our research supports.” (Note: Subsequent analyses of the Richman et. al. research has shown that response error accounts for nearly all of their estimated frequency of non-citizen voting. That’s how peer-review and science works.)
  5. During Richman’s testimony that up to 18,000 non-citizens have registered or tried to register to vote in Kansas, he acknowledged that one of the methods he used was to flag “foreign-sounding” names. When asked if he would flag the name “Carlos Murguia” Richman said yes. When informed of the fact that Carlos Murguia is a Kansas-born federal judge who sits in that courthouse, Richman said that he was not aware.
  6. It gets better. Pat McFerron, a “pollster” hired by Kobach to survey public opinion about the difficulty of meeting the law’s requirements and support for the law, had to acknowledge under cross-examination that claiming that the law was based on “evidence of non-citizens registering to vote” introduced bias to survey respondents.
  7. Further, when asked to rate the difficulty of getting necessary documents to register, respondents were told that this was required by law. When Richman was then asked if he understood the effects of social desirability bias in question wording, he could not provide an answer. Remember, this is the survey expert.
  8. Actual pollster and professor of political science Matthew Barreto summarized many of the other problems associated with McFerron’s methodology to Judge Robinson, including the fact that if you want to know how hard it is for unregistered people to register, you need a representative sample of people who are not already registered.
  9. On cross-examination, Barreto also explained to the defense that you should not use the number of registered voters from one year and the eligible population from another year if you want to accurately estimate registration rates. The judge, referring to Kobach’s estimates, explained “I can tell you if that’s the methodology, I’m giving that number absolutely no weight. That’s ridiculous.”
  10. In the end, Kobach could only show that his analysis of Sedgwick County revealed 18 non-citizens who had registered to vote, five of whom had voted, over a 20-year period.

The last day of the trial addressed one question, whether Mr. Kobach failed to comply with a 2016 order issued by Judge Robinson to fully register thousands of voters who had registered through the DMV but not provided proof of citizenship. When Judge Robinson discovered that Kobach had failed to ensure that these voters received the same postcard about their registration status, her frustration was clear: “I honored and trusted what you told me, Mr. Kobach. If you tell me you’ve done something, I trust that. That’s why lawyers are licensed.”

Mr. Kobach may try to keep the voter fraud myth alive through appeal, but the pseudo-scientific claims that voter fraud is rampant have been thoroughly discredited.

 

 

WIN: Congress Cracks Open Door for Gun Violence Research to Resume

Just three days before the March for Our Lives, Congress has opened the door for federal research into gun violence to resume. In a spending bill to provide funding for the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year, Congress has clarified that the CDC is able to pursue research to help stop gun violence.

Legislative language in place since 1996 has effectively prevented CDC and NIH researchers from exploring questions that would help us make more informed decisions about ways to reduce gun-related suicides, domestic abuse, and yes, mass murder (see the National Academies’ list of research priorities here). CDC scientists and public health advocates have been pleading for years for the ban to be lifted. The original sponsor of the amendment, the late Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, also fought the ban in recent years.

After the Parkland killings, both Republicans and Democrats publicly recognized the need to lift the research ban. In particular, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the department will be “proactive” on gun violence research.

He will need to be. After the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama directed the CDC and NIH to resume research through an executive order. Yet with the Dickey Amendment still in place, nothing happened.

Although the Dickey Amendment will remain in place, we are now a step closer to lifting the federal ban on gun research as lawmakers have acknowledged that federal scientists can and should investigate this public health crisis. Congress’ next move is to provide dedicated funding for this research. In the meantime, Secretary Azar should ensure that the next CDC director commits fully and expediently to developing and implementing a research agenda that helps our country address gun violence.

Setting everything aside—the failure to provide a solution for Dreamers, the fact that most members of Congress won’t have time to read the bill before voting on it, and the inclusion of a select few anti-science poison pill riders—at least there’s something to celebrate.

Rep. Lamar Smith Misunderstands Science

Photo: Ryan J. Reilly

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) states that as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology he seeks facts about climate change, and that his Committee follows “the scientific method.” These are welcome and vitally important positions for a powerful Congressman to take on a topic of such vital national interest. It is essential that scientific evidence be the foundation for legislative action about climate change.

Unfortunately, in his article Mr. Smith does not seek facts or apply the scientific method. Instead, he makes claims that are contrary to established facts, and provides no evidence or analysis to support his assertions as the scientific method requires.

For example, Smith claims “United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed that they have “low confidence” in climate change contributing to extreme weather.” Actually, the IPCC stated that “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

Smith notes that “U.S. wildland fires are decreasing in frequency,” which is a trend under investigation using the scientific method of proposing and testing alternate hypotheses. For example, the decrease could represent an impact of a change in climate, but it could easily be the result of successful fire prevention strategies. But Mr. Smith does not consider alternate hypotheses as the scientific method requires. Instead, he concludes that reduced fire frequency proves climate change does not increase the frequency of such extreme events.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smith completely ignores the data demonstrating the total acres burned in wildfires is going up, which is the fact that constitutes the major threat to people around the world. The most recent assessment for the US states, “The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.” Ignoring data is a luxury that only politicians can indulge in, as any scientist who does won’t get manuscripts through peer review.

This is reminiscent of when Mr. Smith accused NOAA scientists of “altering the data,” calling their published scientific analyses of atmospheric temperatures “skewed and biased,” a claim made with no accompanying analysis or evidence. In fact, NOAA scientists were using the scientific method to identify the bias that exists in temperature measuring instruments and making their data more accurate by taking this bias into account. We all apply this same process when we compare the results of different bathroom scales, time pieces, meat thermometers, or fuel gauges in cars. This is an example of Mr. Smith practicing intimidation, not science, as noted by the American Meteorological Society.

Smith claims in his article that he is called a “climate denier” because he “questions assertions,” which again demonstrates a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The reason Mr. Smith is called a “climate denier” is because he questions scientific conclusions without providing an alternate explanation for existing observations. A true skeptic would propose an alternative, testable hypothesis for observations.

For example, our release of greenhouse gases has raised the average temperature of the ocean by a little over half a degree Fahrenheit, which represents an amount of energy (1023 joules) that is 10 billion times the amount of energy (1013 joules) released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A true skeptic of global warming must propose an alternative explanation for how all of this energy has accumulated if greenhouse gases are not responsible. Skeptics have suggested changes in the sun’s energy output as an alternate explanation, but it is now well established that the sun’s energy output has actually been declining over the last few decades. In fact, the brightness of the Sun is at a record low right now.  True skeptics would also propose an explanation for why greenhouse gases are not causing the earth to heat up, given that we know these gases trap heat.

Mr. Smith cannot offer such explanations because they do not exist. Instead, as we see from the examples above, he attempts to misrepresent or ignore existing evidence. This is deeply unfortunate given Mr. Smith’s position in Congress. Those who seek nonpartisan, evidence-based policies to address the impacts of climate change must demand that their representatives based their positions on facts supported by the scientific method.

While Smith states that “climate alarmists just won’t let the facts get in the way of their science fiction,” analyzing his own claims demonstrate that the fiction is being propagated by Mr. Smith.

 

Andrew Gunther is executive director of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, and a board member at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has published research in the field of ecotoxicology and has extensive experience in applying science to the development of air, water, and endangered species policy. Dr. Gunther served as the assistant chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Program from 1991 to 2002, and is currently the executive coordinator of the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium.

EPA Quietly Moves to Allow More Toxic Air Pollution that Causes Cancer

Photo: Steve Garvie

A recent move by the EPA puts communities across the country at risk. By rolling back a key policy that protects people against cancer-causing air pollutants, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is exposing us all to more toxic air.

For the past twenty years, strict controls on toxic air pollutants emitted by large industrial sources have resulted in significant societal benefits. Industrial sources such as power plants and petrochemical facilities emitting large quantities of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs for short) have been regulated by the EPA as “major sources” of these pollutants and required to apply Maximum Achievable Control Technology (or MACT), the gold standard for reducing emissions of toxics like benzene or perchloroethylene. HAPs are in a different category than greenhouse gases and other non-toxic air pollutants, as they are known to cause cancer and birth defects, as well as have detrimental environmental effects.

In 1995, HAPs were considered by EPA so detrimental to human and environmental health that once a source pollutes beyond a designated threshold, it must always apply MACT, even if at any point in time the source demonstrates it has the potential to emit below the threshold. This is what is known as the “once in, always in” (OIAI) policy. As reported by UCS before, effective implementation of MACT is projected to reduce industrial toxic pollutants by about 1.7 million tons, keeping our air free of these dangerous substances. MACT has been effective because it required major sources emitting at least 10 tons per year (tpy) of any one toxic pollutant, or 25 tpy of any combination of toxic pollutants, to forever apply the maximum achievable control technologies and processes to reduce those emissions. This would guarantee less exposure to toxic pollutants that are known to result in higher rates of cancer.

But the EPA has recently changed the rules that protect the public from major sources of toxic pollutants. Scott Pruitt’s EPA reversed the OIAI policy, allowing sources to petition the EPA to be reclassified from a federally-regulated major source to a state-regulated area source and in the process allow the source to get rid of the MACT requirement to reduce emissions.

While the rule change may appear obscure, it could have large national-scale detrimental impacts on public health.  For example, most states adopt another federal air pollution safeguard—the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), but without major source pollution protections, HAPs may not be regulated as stringently because there may be no MACT requirement. In other words, industrial facilities can avoid having to control pollution like they did as a major source. Under the new policy, Pruitt’s EPA threatens public health by regulating a petrochemical facility as it would a laundromat.

Area sources are still required to control HAP emissions but if done by means other than MACT, those reductions will not be as effective and toxic emissions could increase. Reporting and monitoring requirements are also different for area sources, which raises some questions: How would the EPA or the public know if an area source has increased HAP emissions over the major source thresholds? Thus, when, if ever, would such sources be required to go back to the major source classification?  The new policy guidance is silent on these questions, and answers are critical to continued protection of public health. Worst of all, the EPA has changed the policy without any scientific analysis–let alone public input–to assess what the impacts to public health may be.  As is typical in this administration’s EPA, no proof of their claims of better protecting public health has been offered.

As of 2016, there are nearly 2,800 major sources of toxic air pollution subject to MACT.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is conducting analysis to assess the potential emissions increase from allowing major sources to backslide into area sources. We are digging into the numbers to help communities nationwide speak up about this dangerous change in the rules. For now, one thing is certain: this move doesn’t serve EPA’s mission of protecting public health and the environment. In the following weeks we will report on the findings of our analysis and provide estimates of potential backslide emissions increase from a policy change that evidently benefits businesses at the expense of public health.

A Shout-Out to Government Scientists: Have You Completed the UCS Federal Scientists Survey?

“I can’t afford to make any wrong moves,” a PhD scientist and career federal worker recently confided to us, adding grimly, “they are watching us closely.” Normally cheerful and extroverted, she now often appears tired and frazzled. She is not alone—not by a long shot. As federal science and technology (S&T) budgets are being squeezed, and key programs and offices are being zeroed out altogether, federal government employees are becoming fearful of losing their jobs, which are becoming increasingly stressful.

The degree to which the White House has depended on S&T advice to form policy has varied widely from administration to administration, but not until now has a US President broadly cast aside science itself as irrelevant, even inconvenient, to public policymaking. The anti-science, pro-deregulation posture of the Trump Administration is creating an environment where federal scientists and engineers—especially those working in areas antithetical to White House ideologies—are having to endure a variety of insults to their professional integrity. Arbitrary transfers to undesired positions; overt censorship; gag orders; disappearing transparency; prohibitions on open communication with the public and the press; and politically-motivated micromanagement and hypercritical scrutiny: all of these send the clear message that the work they do as civil servants striving for the public good is no longer valued. Being a career scientist makes one persona non grata when science itself has a bad name in the White House, and science-based policymaking is being openly ignored across the entire Executive Branch.

Imagine devoting one’s career to better understanding Earth’s complex climate and weather systems, and to communicating climate change causes and risks to Congress and the public, only to be told that the use of the word ‘climate’ itself is taboo, and to reconfigure work products away from climate change, or else! The “else” could mean suffering reprisals or being canned altogether. Picture being a young, ambitious PhD scientist with a job at a research laboratory where a keen interest in understanding how climate change is affecting our bays and estuaries can be freely pursued. Then imagine accepting an invitation to present your research at a conference, only to suddenly be ordered to bow out. This actually happened last fall to three EPA research lab scientists studying the health of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island: each was to give a talk on the deleterious effects of climate change on the Bay, and each was abruptly forced to cancel. Investigative reporting quickly revealed that John Konkus, a political appointee in EPA’s public affairs office, had placed a Friday afternoon phone call to the Narragansett EPA lab director ordering him to prohibit the three scientists from speaking at Monday’s conference.

Federal S&T workers in other areas of focus are experiencing similar instances of suppression. Much of our evidence at the moment is anecdotal. That is why the Union of Concerned Scientists is currently surveying 63,000 government scientists on the status of scientific integrity—this will help the gaps in data and information. The survey will open until March 26.

Reactions in the federal workforce have been mixed. Many are leaving their posts in droves—most often quietly, even after years of service. Others are quitting in protest and choosing a “noisy exit”—by naming names, and publicly calling out wrongdoing they’ve witnessed. EPA Region 10 veteran Michael Cox was so put off by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that he took early retirement last year from his position as climate change advisor. In a scathing departure letter, Cox let Administrator Pruitt know that EPA staff were “becoming increasingly alarmed about the direction of EPA” and cited Pruitt’s blatant denial of established climate science, his frequent demonizing of the agency, his decision to bring in political appointees hostile to the EPA, and his failure to grasp the role of EPA’s ten regional offices.

A courageous few blow the whistle: they retain legal counsel specializing in whistleblower protection, and boldly speak truth to power by criticizing actions that are unethical, immoral, or illegal. A legal complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, accompanied by a hard-hitting Washington Post op-ed by federal whistleblower Joel Clement, offers a case in point. A top climate advisor at the Department of Interior publicly alarmed at the effect of climate change on Alaskan native populations, Clement was transferred by Secretary Zinke to an office that counts oil and gas royalties.

The vast majority of federal scientists choose to remain in their current positions, out of admirable dedication and economic necessity, and become “quiet copers” who play it safe, keep a low profile, and engage in self-censorship as a survival strategy. In the current environment, where the chilling effect has reached sub-zero temperatures, blowing the whistle can feel scary and futile. The sad fact is that most employees who witness workplace wrongdoing stay silent, out of fear of reprisal, fear that speaking out will fail to solve the problem, or both.

We believe becoming fully informed of one’s legal rights to report wrongdoing can be an effective antidote against these fears and encourage all federal employees to familiarize themselves with these rights. To this end, GAP has developed a new resource, Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, for federal employees reluctant to stay silent in the face of serious abuses of public trust.

Science-based policymaking is a hallmark of American tradition and a linchpin of good governance. We hope all 63,000 federal scientists who received UCS’s 2018 Federal Scientist Survey will respond by answering the questions carefully and candidly, so that we can better identify and address threats to scientific integrity.

 

Dana Gold is an attorney and currently serves as the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) Director of Education, implementing public education initiatives and partnering with diverse stakeholders in collaborative efforts to foster awareness of the essential role whistleblowers play in promoting government and corporate accountability. In addition to her work with GAP, where she focused for many years representing dozens of whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons complex, Dana co-founded and directed the Center on Corporations, Law & Society at Seattle University School of Law, and served as a Network Fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics focusing on whistleblowing and institutional corruption.

Anne Polansky, Senior Climate Policy Analyst for GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch program, has over 30 years of experience in science-based public policymaking in the areas of climate change, renewable energy, and sustainability. She has held management positions with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; and the Solar Energy Industries Association; and has provided specialized consulting services for a variety of non-profit organizations. Anne holds a MS degree in environmental chemistry and engineering from Clemson University and a BS degree from Vanderbilt University.

 

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.

Two Major Climate Change Lawsuits Move Forward

Photo: North Charleston/Flickr (CC BY-SA)

A major front in the climate change debate has moved to the courtroom, as I’ve previously discussed.  Last week, plaintiffs in two separate cases won significant procedural victories—one against major fossil fuel companies, and a second against the Trump administration. Here are the latest developments and their implications.

Bay Area vs. Big Oil

In this suit, The People of the State of California v. BP et al.,  the cities of San Francisco and Oakland sued five major oil companies (BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and Shell), charging that these companies created a public nuisance by extracting and selling oil, coal, and gas while misleading the public about the harms that these products cause.

The two cities filed in state court and under state law. This was an important strategic choice, as the US Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California) had dismissed prior cases brought in federal court, holding that congress enacted the Clean Air Act to comprehensively address the emission of greenhouse gases, and that therefore there was no role for federal lawsuits of this kind.

Citing the precedent of these earlier rulings, the defendant oil companies transferred the cities’ cases to federal court, and argued that the cities’ claims were preempted by federal law. In response, the cities claimed that they had a right to file in state court and that their claims under state law were not preempted by federal law, and they asked the judge to send the cases back to state court.

A federal district court judge issued a decision that neither side argued for. The court decided in the oil companies’ favor that the case was properly in federal court, reasoning—with some logic—that global warming is an international problem, that state courts might apply inconsistent standards if allowed to adjudicate these cases, and that only the federal court could apply a uniform standard.

But, the court went on to find that the two earlier cases which had dismissed federal court suits did not apply to this case. The court found that while the Clean Air Act addresses the ­emissions from fossil fuel combustion, the San Francisco/Oakland case was not about emissions of pollutants, but rather an alleged scheme to sell a product through deception. The court reasoned—again with some logic—that the Clean Air Act offered no remedy for that conduct, and therefore did not preempt this lawsuit.

This part of the ruling was a major win for the plaintiffs, as it seems to take away the key defense of preemption that the oil companies seemed to be counting on.

On top of this, the court also ordered the parties to participate in a five-hour “climate science” tutorial for the court, to be held on March 21. The judge ordered the parties to “trace the history of scientific study of climate change, beginning with scientific inquiry into the formation and melting of the ice ages, periods of historic cooling and warming, smog, ozone, nuclear winter, volcanoes and global warming.” And further, to inform the court of “the best science now available on global warming, glacier melt, sea rise and coastal flooding.”

This is fascinating and highly unusual. As anyone who has seen a trial on television or in the movies knows, courts don’t conduct tutorials; they oversee trials, in which lawyers present the testimony of witnesses under oath and each side gets to examine and cross examine. The sheer novelty of this procedure is a good sign for the plaintiffs. Why would the judge invest time and energy to learn about climate science unless he thought the plaintiffs’ legal claims might rest on a durable foundation? Also, the fact that the court asked for a climate science timeline suggests the court is honing in on some key questions: what did the fossil fuel companies know about climate change, when did they know it, and how did their public statements square with the scientific consensus at the time?

All eyes will be on this climate science tutorial, which will presumably be open to the public. To my knowledge, this is the first time climate science will be presented to a court in this fashion, and it offers an excellent opportunity to highlight the longstanding and well-supported scientific consensus.

It is too early to confidently predict what lies ahead but, on the basis of the judge’s initial opinion, one can say this: the courtroom door is open now on these issues as it never has been before.

Kids sue to protect themselves and future generations

In this case, Juliana v. the United States, a group of kids are suing the Trump administration for failing to protect them against the harms of climate change. I wrote about the novelty of this case last fall, and its early success when a federal district court judge in Oregon ordered the case to trial, rejecting all the Trump administration’s procedural defenses.

Since that time, the Trump administration asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal to dismiss the case. This was an unusual move because, ordinarily, a party to a lawsuit cannot appeal until the trial court has issued a final judgment. In this case, however, the district court had not done so. Predictably, the court of appeals ruled that the appeal was therefore premature, and sent the case back to the district court.

(Full disclosure: UCS joined a friend of the court brief on this issue, ably authored by EarthJustice attorneys).

The case was originally set for trial in February, 2018, but the Trump administration’s appeal delayed that. Presumably, the next step will be for the court to set another trial date.

This is not good news for the Trump administration. At a minimum, a trial on this will be a public relations nightmare in which an appealing group of kids, represented by experienced attorneys, will have the opportunity to question Trump administration officials in open court. They will no doubt ask questions that the administration will find extremely difficult to answer, such as: Why has the Trump administration sought to withdraw from the Paris agreement, rolled back regulations to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and promoted subsidies for coal? Does the Trump administration not accept climate science? Does it not care about the harm of runaway climate change?

Further down the line, if the plaintiffs are successful in district court and if the court of appeals or the supreme court affirms the ruling (all very big “ifs,” of course), the Trump administration faces the prospect of being forced under court order to develop and implement a plan to address climate change.

Chickens coming home to roost

These lawsuits and the apparent judicial receptiveness to them—at least so far—are not accidental. Courts are heavily influenced by historic context, and judges are no doubt well aware of the pressing urgency of climate change and the failure of the federal government to address it. With no solution in sight, it is not surprising that courts are increasingly willing to hear cases urging a strong judicial role.

Is it ideal that courts, rather than our elected representatives, would decide these issues? Of course not. Maybe it is time for those who have opposed having our elected leaders take action on climate to consider this question–would they prefer the courts to do that job?

This Sunshine Week, How “Draining the Swamp” and Open Government are Faring in the Trump Era

Photo: bigwavephoto/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

We are more than one year into President Trump’s administration, and if you’ve been following the news, you know all too well that the whole “draining the swamp” initiative was only ever lip service at best. Despite issuing an executive order on ethics in his first week of office, President Trump has managed to appoint a slew of former lobbyists or industry staff to positions dealing directly with issues that affect their former employers’ bottom lines.

Failing to abide by his own ethics order while not making financial disclosures public is effectively undermining the very system that is built to eliminate corruption in our government and protect our democracy. While industry awaits its chance to profit from regulatory rollbacks, the rest of us are missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits. Corporate capture of the government cripples its ability to carry out protective laws and puts lives at risk, especially those living in communities of color and low-income communities that are more exposed to threats.

Here’s a quick roundup of some of the more egregious administration nominations and appointments—people with serious conflicts of interest that should disqualify them from service or at least change the nature of their service.

The Environmental Protection Agency

There have been a whole bunch of cringeworthy ethics violations happening at the EPA lately, including Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first-class flight penchant and the fact that John Konkus has continued to do public relations work for unnamed private clients while serving as the deputy associate administrator of the Office of Public Affairs and signing off on all grant applications and awards.

For now, let’s simply focus on the revolving door at the agency. Earlier this month, the EPA announced that a former Dow Chemical Company attorney, Peter Wright, was the nominee for administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). Not only would Wright be leading the cleanup of Dow Superfund sites, but OLEM also oversees implementation of the Risk Management Plan. Dow Chemical Company is listed as the parent company for 23 registered RMP facilities, 17 deregistered facilities, and more than 100 Superfund sites. One of the main functions of OLEM is to hold companies accountable for polluting peoples’ water, land, and air. Yet, once again the Trump administration has selected an individual who has long represented the interests of industry to lead an office tasked with protecting the public from further harm.

As we’ve already seen with former American Chemistry Council lobbyist Nancy Beck and former legal counsel of American Petroleum Institute William Wehrum, these conflicted appointees are actively working to reverse science-based policy decisions in favor of industry-approved deregulatory measures. And seeing as the EPA general counsel has not adequately prevented EPA appointees from participating in policy discussions pertaining to their previous employers’ work, it is likely that the same will be true for Wright. Peter Wright will be yet another example of the fox guarding the henhouse, meaning that the people who have been fighting for decades for information on chemical facilities in their neighborhoods or the cleanup of dioxin in a local river will not get the justice they deserve.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Kailee Tkacz, a lobbyist for the Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of corn byproducts like corn syrup and other sweeteners, came on board to advise the agency on the Dietary Guidelines process in advance of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. She had been working at the trade association up until July 2017 and received an ethics waiver to work on the Dietary Guidelines in August 2017, meaning she has gone right into the government from the industry to work on an issue that she previously lobbied on. This is a direct and significant conflict of interest—and one that could have major impacts on health recommendations for the American diet.

Department of Interior

There’s a whole mess of oil and gas industry allegiance going on at the Department of the Interior, surely aided by the fact that David Bernhardt, Secretary Zinke’s deputy, had a long list of former clients in that sector, including Noble Energy Inc. and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Another appointee to keep an eye on is Todd Wynn, who is serving as the Director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at DOI and was the former director of the Koch-funded American Legislative Council (ALEC’s) Energy Environmental and Agriculture Task Force. During his time there, the task force introduced a collection of model bills opposing EPA and DOI environmental protections like the coal ash rule, the fracking disclosure rule, and the stream protection rule. Now he can push for these same destructive policy changes from the inside.

Department of Health and Human Services

Current HHS secretary Alex Azar was a lobbyist and president of Eli Lilly up until 2017. He is now leading a government department that regulates pharmaceutical companies like his former employer. As my colleague Derrick Jackson wrote earlier this year, “There is no evidence to remotely suggest that Azar, the first pharmaceutical executive ever to head HHS…will miraculously transform from drug company CEO into the people’s champion on drug prices.”

The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned earlier this year because she had so many financial conflicts of interest that she was actually unable to do her job. In fact, Fitzgerald had purchased thousands of dollars worth of shares in drug companies Merck & Co. and Bayer as well as a tobacco company, Japan Tobacco, shortly after joining the CDC. According to her meeting schedule, she still participated in meetings on the opioid crisis, hurricane response efforts, cancer and obesity, stroke prevention, polio, Zika, and Ebola between August 1 and October 27 despite owning stock in companies that make HIV medications, an Ebola vaccine, and Zika research. While it is unclear if she was an active participant in those meetings or had remained silent, her mere presence at such meetings would have represented a conflict.

How is the Office of Government Ethics allowing appointees to get away with rampant conflicts of interest?

A ProPublica database of financial disclosure forms reveals that 187 political appointees are former lobbyists, many of whom are working on issues that they previously lobbied on representing industry or other organizations. This is exactly what Trump’s executive order is supposed to protect against. So what’s going on that’s allowing this to happen?

The Ethics in Government Act was passed in 1978 in response to the Watergate scandal, as part of an effort to deter conflicts of interest and increase public trust in government, and created the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). It requires that all political appointees and high-level government officials disclose their financial holdings and make them public. Confidential disclosures are also required from other federal employees and special government employees.

Trump’s executive order requiring ethics commitments by executive branch appointees actually removed some of the ethics rules put in place by President Obama. Obama’s 2009 order prevented individuals from entering the administration who were registered lobbyists in the preceding year, while Trump’s order allows lobbyists to enter the administration as long as they don’t work on an issue they lobbied on in the past two years. President Trump’s order also shortened the two-year exit ban to one year for all appointees except cabinet-level, which would effectively allow officials to lobby former agencies just one year after leaving the administration, considered a short cooling-off period. Trump’s order allows ethics waivers for certain unavoidable conflicts, but removes the requirement to disclose those waivers by publishing them in the federal register. Overall, his ethics requirements leave room for shadow lobbying, which is the ability for former appointees to take jobs with industries they were in charge of regulating and then informally lobby the administration.

It is expected that if there is an appearance of conflict of interest, an appointee would recuse themselves from all matters having to do with his or her previous employer. However, as previously noted, that has not consistently been happening at agencies. Further, according to the OGE, ethics waivers are only supposed to be used when there is no other option for the position whose resume is less conflicted. Agencies are abusing the use of these waivers. An Associated Press investigation found that the White House has granted at least 24 ethics waivers to appointees at the White House and the executive agencies.

One of those waivers was filed for Jeffrey Sands in October 2017, formerly a registered lobbyist at Syngenta and now the senior agricultural advisor at the EPA. His waiver allows him “to work personally and substantially on all agriculture issues, including those which previously lobbied.” The implications of Sands having the ear of Pruitt on discussions ranging from pesticide registrations, to worker protection standards, to conservation programs are troubling and don’t bode well for public health and safety.

The OGE is not an enforcement agency, so it does not have power to challenge or investigate ethics complaints—it helps agencies to follow the rules and vet appointees. The clear conflicts of interest of the President and his appointees, combined with the lack of transparency that has thus far been characteristic of the administration, have created large vulnerabilities for science-based policy in this administration.

Shining light on the administration’s ethical quandaries

As the administration has been trying its best to keep information from the public, there are many organizations and journalists who have been standing up for our right to know and holding the government accountable for its blunders. ProPublica released, Trump Town,  a fantastic searchable database of financial disclosure forms and ethics waivers for thousands of political appointees. Sunlight Foundation is tracking President Trump’s business and personal dealings that may represent conflicts of interest. Public Citizen has conducted research into President Trump’s conflicts as well as those of government appointees. The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service have been tracking the nomination and appointment process across the government. And Project on Government Oversight released a report last week tracking the erosion of openness occurring under the Trump Administration. We all must work together to demand transparency and honesty from this administration and to call out violations to the straightforward rules governing government ethics. Our democracy relies on it.

If you’re in DC and want to hear more from me about the state of environmental transparency, register to attend this Sunshine Week event Tuesday, March 13 hosted by UCS, Sunlight Foundation, and the Project on Government Oversight.

 

Photo: bigwavephoto/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia) iStock.com/DNY59 Flickr/USDA

Five Things We’ve Learned from Surveys of Government Scientists

Photo: Dex Image/Corbis

This month the Union of Concerned Scientists is surveying government scientists—about 63,000 of them from 16 federal agencies, to be exact. Since these scientists get emails from me requesting their time and perspectives, I want to discuss the value of the scientific integrity surveys we’ve been conducting here for many years. Since 2005, thousands of scientists have responded to UCS surveys and that information has led to concrete changes at federal agencies. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve gained from surveying government scientists.

1. Scaling the problem

Under the George W. Bush Administration reports began to surface that science was being sidelined at government agencies. Some in the scientific community were concerned but it wasn’t clear how extensive the problem was. Were these isolated cases or something more?  Starting in 2005, UCS began surveying federal scientists to gauge the scale of the problem. Over the next few years, we learned that indeed the problems weren’t isolated: Scientists across agencies and across issue areas reported scientific integrity issues. For example, 1,028 scientists (60% of respondents) from a survey of climate researchers at seven agencies and a separate survey of EPA researchers reported that they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference in their work over the previous five years. The findings were able to show the world that there were scientific integrity issues across the government, not just on a few hot-button issues.

We are once again in a time when reports of scientific integrity problems are trickling out of federal agencies. How widespread are such issues? The current survey will shed some light.

This month, government scientists from 16 agencies are asked to fill out a scientific integrity survey that will provide vital information about how science and scientists are faring in our government today. Photo: US FWS

2. Scientist notice problems long before the public does.

Government scientists are our ears to the ground when it comes to how evidence-based decision making is working at agencies—or not. They are the people working in the trenches every day. They see how their science is used, misused, or ignored by others in the agency. As a result, they identify problems within agencies long before they are on the public’s radar.

In recent weeks, news has blown up around the fact that the CDC is essentially banned from researching gun violence. This is something CDC scientists have been telling us for years. As my colleague Charise Johnson recently noted, in a 2015 UCS survey of CDC scientists, several respondents noted the restrictions put on their research that limited their ability to ask questions and get policy-relevant answers on gun violence. And we are now all facing the consequences.

This kind of information is vital for us all to have. The sooner we know where problems and vulnerabilities are around scientific integrity at agencies, the sooner we can work to address them.

3. New and improved scientific Integrity policies

Not only do scientists identify problems early, they also have solutions! The many surveys UCS conducted under the Bush and Obama administrations provided critical input into recommendations for how scientific integrity could be improved at federal agencies. Many of those recommendations, carried forward by UCS to agency decisionmakers, were put directly into agency policies.

Now, some 28 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies in place and many have stronger media and social media policies. These policies benefited greatly from the input of federal scientists on survey responses. Many told us about the kinds of guidance, leadership, and policies needed to ensure that scientific integrity could be preserved in their agencies. And the government scientific enterprise is now better for it.

4. Leadership at agencies is crucial.

Beyond policies, we’ve also learned from federal scientists that strong agency leadership is crucial. Specifically, agency heads that value scientific integrity and “walk the walk” when it comes to supporting science at their agency, will fare better. Agencies where scientists don’t see their leaders making scientific integrity a priority are likely to have more challenges when it comes to ensuring science is effectively used in in decision making. As one CDC scientist poignantly noted in 2015, scientific integrity “starts with leadership and filters down through the ranks. The less concerned the CDC director is, the less concerned other[s] are.”

5. Culture change takes time

Another truth scientists have taught us in survey responses is the challenge of culture change.  It can take more than policies to change long-term or deeply vested conditions at agencies that inhibit scientific integrity. For example, in 2015 a Fish and Wildlife Service scientist told us, “We are aware of and trained in whistle blowing and such, but few would actually feel confident in coming forward on an issue.”

This is why it is so important that we listen to and understand the challenges that agencies face if we want to improve their ability to fulfill their science-based missions.

#ThankAGovScientist, their words are valuable

We know all of this and we are able to work on improving policies and practices at agencies because of countless scientists who have selflessly spent their time and energy to thoughtfully fill out a survey. Thank you, federal scientists, for the great work that you do every day for the people of this country and the world.

If you received the survey in your inbox, please consider filling it out! If you have questions, feel free to comment below or in the contact information provided in the email. A 2018 government scientists survey FAQ document is here: www.ucsusa.org/2018survey.

Proposed Budget Cuts to NASA’s Earth Science Division Are Damaging for All of Us

Photo: NASA

I think it is safe to say that no other part of our government inspires as much excitement among the American public as NASA does. Kids across the country dress up as NASA astronauts each Halloween and families plan vacations to visit NASA space flight centers. We all look in awe at the images NASA satellites generate of our own home, Planet Earth.

That said, most of us don’t get quite as excited by NASA’s budget. I’m going to dedicate the next few moments to exploring why NASA’s budget is super cool and super important. In particular, I’m going to focus on the important work that NASA is doing to make our life here on Earth safer and more prosperous, and review what the Trump administration has in store for NASA’s Earth Science work.

The bottom line is, despite the fact that Congress recently passed a bill to increase NASA’s spending levels, NASA’s Earth Science Division is still facing cuts.

NASA’s not just for rocket scientists

NASA’s Earth Science Division provides decision makers, our armed forces, the private sector, and citizens with critical information on how our Earth works and the state of our planet—information that can be used to assess risks, protect American lives and infrastructure, and identify opportunities for our nation. For example:

  • According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, over the last decade extreme weather events and wildfires cost the federal government more than $350 billion. More importantly, these kinds of events have led to enormous losses of life across the country. In an effort to help the nation avoid the losses and costs associated with these kinds of events, scientists in NASA’s Earth Science Division are currently working to improve wildfire forecasts as well as our understanding of how hurricanes form.
  • NASA Earth scientists also produce weekly indicators of groundwater and soil moisture drought that are fed into the National Drought Monitor. These scientists produce the drought indicators using a combination of land-based water storage data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, other observations, and computer models.
  • Landsat—a joint program between NASA’s Earth Science Division and USGS—provides the longest-running record of Earth’s land from space to date. The sensor provides information that is used by a wide variety of sectors—from forest management to public health to water resource management. 
NASA’s 2019 Earth Science portfolio by the numbers

Hopefully by now it is clear that NASA’s Earth Science work is really important for Americans. Unfortunately, for the 2019 fiscal year (FY19), the president has proposed cutting NASA’s Earth Science Division budget by 6.5% relative to 2017 enacted levels (Table 3). The proposal seeks to reduce funds available for Earth science research, missions, and technology.

Stepping back for a moment, the administration has actually proposed increasing NASA’s overall budget in FY19. In light of the above-mentioned bill that increases NASA’s spending cap, the administration added $300 million to their initial proposal of $19.9 billion for NASA’s FY19 budget. This is an increase from FY17’s operational budget of $19.7 billion. The administration proposed that these additional funds be largely directed to the their space Exploration campaign, as well as to NASA facilities and aeronautics basic research.

None of the additional funds would be used to restore NASA’s Earth Science budget to at least its current level in the president’s proposal.

Table 1. NASA’s Earth Science Division budget figures (in millions of US Dollars) for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17), the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19), and the percent change (%).

What would get cut?

Following the President’s FY18 budget, the administration has again proposed terminating four Earth Science missions: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity (CLARREO) Pathfinder mission. (For more information on these missions, please visit my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel’s excellent review.)

The president has also proposed terminating the Carbon Monitoring System, the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), and the following measures:

  • The proposal recommends a reduction to NASA’s Earth Science Technology program. This program develops and funds a wide range of new technologies that push the envelope in terms of how we can observe and measure our Earth. For example, the Earth Science Technology Office is using cube satellites as a lower cost/lower risk way to test technologies in space that can then be scaled up.
  • NASA’s Earth Science Research program is advancing our understanding of how the Earth works—from improving predictions of extreme events to furthering understanding of how our home planet responds to human and natural changes. The program also analyzes data collected by NASA’s satellites and other airborne missions. For example, NASA’s Earth Science Research program is working to develop new methods to diagnose severe storms in real time using the Lightning Mapper Sensor.

Given the increased risks we are facing here on Earth as a result of human-caused changes in our planet, and the opportunities available to our public and private sector from Earth monitoring data, this is not the moment to reduce spending levels in NASA’s Earth Science Division.

The Earth observations and innovations that come out of NASA’s Earth Science Division lead to better forecasts and predictions of extreme weather, information on land use that is vital for resource managers and public health officials, and more. These new technologies and insights are then operationalized at NOAA, which makes this information matter for people’s daily lives (NOAA’s own budget is facing dramatic reductions).

Instead, NASA’s Earth Science Division should be equipped with the funds it needs to carry out this critical work so that our nation can remain at the cutting edge and thrive.

Building Relationships to Promote Science-Based Decision Making

In an era when “fake news” has become a common phrase, it is more important than ever to make sure our policymakers are making decisions based on the best available information.

As graduate students associated with the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, we knew that there was a role for us to play. We all study issues related to climate change, but with no experience interacting with the policy side how could we connect our research with decision-makers? That’s where the Union of Concerned Scientists came in.

Training participants role-play meeting with their state legislators to discuss climate policy.

As graduate students, we study specific projects within narrow bands of climate science, but the general knowledge of climate that we have gained throughout the pursuit of our degrees puts us in a unique position. In the eyes of policymakers, we can serve as important resources.

With this perspective on our status as graduate students, we felt inspired and compelled to improve our understanding of the climate policy framework as well as to promote connections between graduate students and policymakers. We reached out to Emily Heffling, UCS western states campaign coordinator, to partner with us to create a UW workshop focused on training graduate students and postdocs studying climate in building these important relationships with the policy world. With resources from UCS, we facilitated an event that brought in multiple speakers to address these questions of how climate policy works in Washington State and how we as students can plug into this system.

Following the training, we arranged meetings with our local legislators: one State Senator and four members of the Washington House of Representatives, including the Speaker. It turns out it can be a little nerve-wracking to meet in person with a legislator! As part of the training, participants got to practice face-to-face interactions with policymakers through role-play scenarios. This training experience was easily translated into the actual meetings, helping students to feel more at ease. Students had clear expectations for the meeting and knew how to structure the encounter to use the legislators’ precious time most productively.

Representative Nicole Macri (left) meets with graduate students (left to right) Michael Diamond (Atmospheric Sciences), Megan Duffy (Oceanography), and Kaylie McTiernan (Mechanical Engineering and Marine and Environmental Affairs) and postdoctoral research associate Johanna Goldman.

Across the five meetings that came out of this event, we pushed past our comfort zones and connected with the people who are in positions to make impactful changes. We learned about the work our elected officials are already doing to pursue climate policy. We described how our climate research and affiliated resources are available to better inform their decisions. One graduate student, Kaylie McTiernan, who attended a meeting with Representative Nicole Macri (43rd Legislative District) reflected on her meeting saying, “the graduate student science advocacy training prepared us to meet with Representative Macri. We are grateful for her time and for learning about the newly formed Climate Caucus of the WA State Democrats, the work towards creating a carbon tax, and some of the most pressing current issues.” In another meeting, Senator Jamie Pedersen (43rd Legislative District) was curious to learn about how policy changes on the state level impact the global issue of climate change. We connected him to the resources at UW that specialize in such questions.

Students also brought up issues that were not on legislators’ radars, such as how global warming will change the timing and quantity of water availability as snow-dominated areas in the Cascades become rain-dominated. Water resources have been on the Washington State political agenda because of a court ruling affecting current water permitting practices, but the longer-term implications of climate change had been largely absent from the discussion.

Overall, the experience of working with UCS to facilitate this workshop, connect graduate students to the policy landscape, and build relationships with local legislators was incredibly rewarding. We learned a lot about how state climate policy is developed and implemented and gained a better understanding of how graduate students can leverage our unique position and resources to advocate for a more climate-progressive state shaped by well-informed policymakers.

 

Taryn Black is a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on documenting changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet and determining the processes driving these changes.

Michael Diamond is a PhD student in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. He studies how smoke particles from agricultural fires in southern Africa influence cloud properties over the southeast Atlantic Ocean to better understand the interactions between clouds and pollution, which is one of the largest sources of scientific uncertainty in how much human activities are altering Earth’s climate.

Emma Kahle is a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. She studies ice core records from Antarctica to learn about past temperature changes and to better understand interactions between different climate processes.

 

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.

Scott Pruitt, Superfund, and Communities: A Burning Desire to Remediate the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site

Photo: wohnal/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

There is a smoldering fire raging below the surface of the West Lake landfill, located in the St. Louis, Missouri suburb community of Bridgeton, where tons of radioactive material remain. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program web page describes how “In 1973, around 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate from the Manhattan Project, a World War II nuclear bomb development program, was mixed with approximately 38,000 tons of soil and used to cover trash being dumped during daily operations.” The site was listed as part of EPA’s National Priorities List in 1990.

The EPA ordered a cleanup of the site on February 1 with a release of the agency’s proposed plan for remedial activities. The partial remediation proposed would remove 67% of radioactive materials at a maximum depth of 16 feet. EPA will then install what they call a low permeability engineered cover that the agency says will “limit radon releases, protect groundwater, and be effective for at least 200 to 1,000 years.”

Nearby communities weigh in on remediation plan

There also is a fire raging in the hearts of the communities that live near this Superfund site who say they want it cleaned up now. Some residents are happy to simply have a cleanup plan proposed since the site was listed 27 years ago. Others are saying that the proposed plan isn’t good enough and should aim to remove as much radiation as possible. Some nearby residents have filed lawsuits with attempts for class action status seeking compensation for various damages they say negligent cleanup of West Lake has caused.

Local non-profit organizations, Just Moms STL and Missouri Coalition for the Environment, have expressed concerns about EPA’s proposed remediation plan. Both organizations support remedial alternative 7 in EPA’s proposed plan and reinforce requests for: 1) a voluntary relocation plan for residents living nearby, 2) off-site storage for excavated at an out-of-state licensed nuclear facility, and 3) the percentage of wastes removed to the “highest possible amount.” Dawn Chapman, a founder of Just Moms STL, said that the organization will “…stay here and watch and see it through,” referring to the ensuing years the cleanup will take. Additionally, a documentary, Atomic Homefront, recently aired on HBO chronicling the communities’ fight for a clean and safe environment (available free until March 18).

Pruitt’s priorities

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has claimed that cleaning up superfund sites is a priority for him. If Administrator Pruitt is serious about prioritizing Superfund clean-ups, then it is interesting that he hired Albert Kelly, a former banker who has been banned from the industry and has had no environmental policy experience, to lead those efforts. And while Administrator Pruitt commissioned a task force to address superfund clean-ups, he claimed that no records of deliberation among the task force existed bringing up issues of program transparency. Administrator Pruitt also has claimed to want to go “back to basics” of air and water pollution mitigation, but his actions have yet to follow. The EPA has been losing significant portions of its workforce, enforcement of air and water quality laws is down from previous administrations, and Administrator Pruitt has taken steps to undermine science-based air and water quality standards, like dismantling and dismissing EPA’s science advisory committees. West Lake is a prime example of the kind of site that should be prioritized for a clean-up, so let’s hope Administrator Pruitt keeps to his word.

Community input is needed

The Superfund program is guided by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). According to EPA’s website on CERCLA, the law does three things: 1) establishes prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites; 2) provides for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites; and 3) establishes a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified.

Also codified and emphasized in CERCLA is that EPA, which oversees the Superfund program, takes into consideration community input on proposed remediation activities to clean up hazardous sites. In fact, there is a whole section of CERCLA that describes the importance of public participation. The law reads:

Before adoption of any plan for remedial action to be undertaken by the President, by a State, or by any other person, under section 9604, 9606, 9620, or 9622 of this title, the President or State, as appropriate, shall take both of the following actions: 1) Publish a notice and brief analysis of the proposed plan and make such plan available to the public; 2) Provide a reasonable opportunity for submission of written and oral comments and an opportunity for a public meeting at or near the facility at issue regarding the proposed plan and regarding any proposed findings under section 9621(d)(4) of this title (relating to cleanup standards).

The EPA is currently taking comments on the proposed remediation plan for West Lake that will stay open until March 22, 2018. The EPA also is holding a public meeting to discuss the proposed remediation plan on March 6, 2018, 6-9pm CST at the District 9 Machinists Hall in Bridgeton, Missouri. Those living in communities near West Lake will have the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns about EPA’s proposed remediation plan (if you want to give testimony, contact Ben Washburn, community involvement coordinator, at 913-551-7364 or washburn.ben@epa.gov). These voices will be quintessential for determining how EPA will move forward in remediating the site. The agency should listen to these citizens who have endured 27 years living near some of the most hazardous chemicals known to mankind.

The Disturbing Facts of Gun Violence Research in the US

Photo: St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office/Wikimedia

Students in Florida and across the nation have had enough—enough carnage, enough tragedy, enough thoughts and prayers, and enough empty promises from adults who are supposed to protect them. They are taking on the issue of gun violence and demanding change.

These young people are a rising power. They are mobilizing, they are leading, and they are confronting lawmakers who for too long have lacked the courage to take meaningful action to stem the scourge of gun-related violence in our county. And science, data, and evidence are on their side.

Gun violence: data and research tell the story

Gun violence is more than a law enforcement problem. It is a major and well-recognized public health problem that threatens the health, safety, security, and welfare of our nation’s residents.  Mass shootings at schools, in workplaces, and in other public venues are the most visible and shocking manifestations of this problem; they understandably garner high levels of public outrage and attention when they occur. Yet the majority of gun-related deaths, injuries, and disabilities are lost in the mix. The daily toll that homicides, suicides, assaults, and unintentional shootings exact on people, families, and communities is too often hidden from view.

Morbidity and mortality data on gun-related violence in our country speak for themselves (good summary here). Data from five years of CDC statistics estimate that 96 Americans die every day from gun violence, with over 33,000 deaths per year. Nearly 79,000 other people are injured annually by guns. And guns account for more than two-thirds of US homicides.

Research studies (see here, here and, here) have found that:

  • Gun ownership increases the risk of completed suicides compared to all other means of suicide combined, i.e., by pills, cutting, jumping, even hanging.
  • Domestic violence increases in severity and deadliness when guns are present in the home.
  • Women are 16 times more likely to be killed by guns in the US than in any other developed nation.
  • Black people are more likely to be killed by guns than those who are white.
  • Gun violence is a leading cause of injury and death for our nation’s children and youth. The Gun Violence Archive, a clearinghouse of gun violence statistics, reports that in 2016 alone, 446 children (aged 0–12) and 2,072 teenagers were injured or killed in gun violence incidents.
A crisis of gun violence

Like other health disparities in the US, gun violence is not distributed evenly across our population. A recent analysis by The Guardian found that in 2015, half of America’s gun homicides were clustered in just 127 cities and towns, and within them, the highest numbers of gun homicides were further concentrated in certain neighborhood areas—areas marked by intense poverty, low levels of education, and racial segregation.

And lest we think that gun violence is primarily a problem of homicides in certain pockets of our cities, mass shootings—like the school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Sandy Hook, Connecticut—remind us that gun violence can strike anywhere and in any place.

Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America—an average of about one a week. The Parkland shooting marked the 18th school shooting in 2018 alone! From just January 1 to February 18, 2018, there were 30 mass shootings in the US. (The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as a single incident in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are “shot and/or killed” at “the same general time and location.”)

And then there’s the crisis of domestic violence–which does not discriminate by geography (rural, suburban, or urban), by race, or by socioeconomic status. By gender of victim is a whole other matter.

A 2016 analysis by the Associated Press of national and state law enforcement data and reported in The Guardian found that an average of at least 760 Americans are shot to death by current or former partners each year. Nearly 75 percent of the victims in these fatal domestic violence shootings are the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them.

EveryTown for Gun Safety, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence in America, reports in an average month, 50 American women are shot to death by intimate partners and many more are injured.

Other analyses have found a disturbing thread between domestic and family violence and mass shootings.

The US is number one – not in a good way

The United States has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership among high-income nations. It also has the highest rate of gun-related deaths among these countries. A recent study examined violent death rates for 2010 in 27 high-income countries that reported mortality data to the World Health Organization. The results, reported in the American Journal of Medicine, are startling.

Homicide rates in the US were seven times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher; a firearm suicide rate 8 times higher; and an unintentional firearm death rate that was 6.2 times higher. The overall firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10 times higher than in the other countries. Even more shocking: among all the countries, 90% of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States. (Read that again!)

Gun control research banned at the CDC

Gun violence is a significant and complex problem that demands multi-faceted solutions. There is a growing literature on gun violence. Some research contributes to the contentious debates about gun control—see, for example, this excellent multi-level and cross-sectional analysis of gun control versus gun violence as an artifact of US gun culture. Other research studies have examined the relationship of gun ownership/availability and homicides and suicides (see for example here and here). Some studies examine the effectiveness of community-based interventions.

But public health and medical professionals have bemoaned the dearth of critical research on firearm violence relative to the scope of the problem. Many point to the Dickey Amendment, an unrelated ideological provision added to a must-pass spending bill (also known as a “poison pill rider”), which stipulated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

This effectively banned gun control research done or funded by our nation’s public health agency, casting a pall over gun control research and limiting the engagement of a generation of public health researchers on an issue of major public health significance. Indeed, recent studies have documented the decline in both funding and publication of research related to gun violence (see here and here).

Academic researchers, public health and medical professionals, and gun violence prevention advocacy organizations have called for action, highlighting the need for research and scholarship to inform and guide evidence-based policies and interventions. The National Academy of Science/Institute of Medicine has identified priorities for research to reduce the threat of gun violence. Medical organizations and publication have called for a restoration of CDC funding (here, here).

It is peak nonsense to effectively cut our nation’s disease control and prevention agency’s ability to engage in research related to this major cause of morbidity and mortality in this country.

Here’s what you can do 

Clearly, there are significant gaps in research on gun violence. But make no mistake, the need for more research is no excuse for failing to act to curb gun violence in the United States.

As outlined above, the data tell us we have not done nearly enough to reduce the crisis of gun injury and death in this country, and there are common sense actions that could be taken today if elected leaders had the political will. But if we are to continue to address this public health scourge, Congress must remove the poison pill anti-science rider that prevents gun violence research at the CDC as they negotiate a final spending package to fund the federal government for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year.

Recently, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said that conducting gun violence research is a priority for his agency. This would a good first step. Now is our time to call our elected officials and encourage them to remove this rider from the appropriations bills and allow scientist and public health experts at the CDC and other agencies to do their job.

As our nation continues to debate solutions to this public health crisis, this is one small step that seems like a no-brainer common-sense solution. Join me and call your members of Congress and ask them to remove this rider and end the ban on gun violence research at the CDC.

How to Fix Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: Focus on the Right Values and Priorities

Photo: US Air Force/Kemberly Groue

With our nation’s roads, railways, water systems, and other public resources in a shameful state of disrepair, major new federal investment in infrastructure is long overdue. President Trump’s recently proposed infrastructure plan is deeply flawed, but it does draw congressional and public attention to this important issue.

In a recent post, I critiqued the president’s State of the Union address for failing when viewed through the lens of three core values: kindness and decency, respect for facts and expertise, and concern for future generations. Those same values can help us evaluate the Trump infrastructure plan, and envision the plan our nation really needs.

Photo: Des Moines Water Works

Just and equitable infrastructure priorities

A starting point for discussion is this: when public dollars are spent to update our infrastructure, they should be used to maximize social and economic return for the public.

The best returns are likely to come when targeting those communities most in need of infrastructure improvements—communities that are not able to pay for them through private funding or via their cash-starved local governments.

Unfortunately, the Trump plan heads in the opposite direction. In the plan’s proposed scoring system to rank competing projects, 70 percent of the score hinges on whether a project can leverage private or state/local funding, while only five percent is based on the economic and social returns on investment. This means, as a recent New York Times story highlights, that an access road to a luxury condominium development would score high, as a developer would invest in a project that raises the value of his property, but repairs of an existing roadway serving a static population would likely score low. As one professor observed, “instead of the public sector deciding on public needs and priorities, the projects that are most attractive to private investors will go to the head of the line.”

Allowing the private tail to wag the public dog should be an absolute non-starter. But what would an infrastructure plan look like if it were rooted in the public values of kindness and decency?

Such a plan would recognize that many communities today lack adequate modern necessities: clean water, sewer systems, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, storm drains, streetlights, schools, and libraries. Moreover, if the horror story of Flint, Michigan taught us anything, it is that disregard for the quality of infrastructure that serves the most vulnerable communities can have catastrophic consequences, such as lead levels in kids that may severely harm and limit them throughout their lives.

A truly public-spirited infrastructure plan would identify other similar disasters waiting to happen—and fix them before they do. It would also supply more of what many communities need most—affordable housing near public transit in urban areas, and modern amenities such as fast internet capabilities in rural areas, for example.

While the president’s priorities as stated in his plan are way off the mark, Congress can align the plan with the values of kindness, decency, and equity by passing a bill requiring that special weight be given to infrastructure projects that deliver basic necessities to underserved communities. Prioritizing such investments creates a moral underpinning to an overall infrastructure plan that can lend it both urgency and broad support.

As we look toward the future, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last and informed by climate-smart principles. Photo: US Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi/Wikimedia

Infrastructure informed by science and public input

We make our best personal long-term spending decisions when we gather facts carefully and listen to people we trust, including experts; this is true for government infrastructure investment decisions as well.

Unfortunately, rather than encouraging robust fact gathering, public input, and consideration of alternatives, the Trump infrastructure plan calls for a radical streamlining of the environmental review process that has been in place since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law requires that when federal agencies fund or issue permits for major projects, they consider the environmental impacts of the project and assess whether alternative options might better protect the environment, public health, and safety. NEPA mandates the preparation and issuance of an environmental impact statement, with opportunities for the public to weigh in at various stages of the decision-making process. And when agencies disregard this law, citizens have the right to take them to court.

While the NEPA process is often derided, it has a long history of success. In one of scores of well-documented examples, scientific and public input through the NEPA process helped protect the drinking water supply for millions of residents from Phoenix to Los Angeles by preventing a mining company’s highly contaminated uranium tailings from being left near the banks of the Colorado River, requiring instead that they be transported to a secure site. In this example, the NEPA process changed the agency’s mind—without it, it is likely that these contaminants would have been capped and left in place, as this was the agency’s initial “preferred alternative.”

Opponents of the federal environmental review process often discount successes such as this one, claiming that lengthy federal reviews hold up worthy projects. They have a point—in my own experience in state government, I saw the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm die in part because federal agencies took too long to weigh in, while opponents used the judicial system to delay construction. But there are many ways to coordinate and improve permitting that don’t sacrifice the obvious benefits of environmental review. Here, as in many other instances, President Trump proposes to use a wrecking ball when a scalpel would do.

Rather than eviscerate an open and thoughtful review process, a wise infrastructure plan would encourage our best scientists and experts to weigh in early so that the best decisions are made.

A particularly important area for scientific input is to make sure that new federal infrastructure investments will be able to withstand the future effects of climate change. It is simply imprudent to spend dollars now on projects that will be obsolete in the future, like building a new ramp for a bridge that will routinely flood due to sea level rise, or a roadway that will not be able to withstand anticipated heat waves, or water pipes that won’t carry enough water due to drought conditions. As several of my colleagues at UCS have explained, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last, and informed by climate-smart principles embedded up front in project selection and review. But that kind of careful debate and analysis can’t be accomplished if the Trump administration succeeds in eviscerating the environmental and public review process.

Photo: Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Infrastructure with an eye to the future

Wayne Gretsky is famous, not just for his prodigious hockey skills, but for his oft-quoted line “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” This applies not just to sports, but to infrastructure as well.

President Trump’s plan mainly shores up the infrastructure of the past, largely ignoring the investments we need to meet the most pressing challenge of our time—accelerating the transition to clean energy to prevent runaway climate change.

An infrastructure plan for the needs of tomorrow must include and prioritize: transmission lines that connect the country’s plentiful wind and solar energy to the population centers where it’s needed; a modern electric grid that is highly efficient and can accommodate more renewable energy; energy storage demonstration projects to jump-start this promising technology; and electric vehicle charging infrastructure that allows drivers of electric cars, trucks, and buses to more easily travel long distances.

Just as we need a massive federal investment to mitigate climate change, we also need infrastructure to protect us against the harms that will occur due to the climate change that is already locked in by global warming emissions that continue to linger in the atmosphere. A key lesson here is that preventative measures cost far less than rescues and cleanups when disasters hit. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that every dollar invested through federal grants to protect against storm surge and floods, fires, earthquakes and wind yields six dollars’ worth of benefits.

A forward-thinking plan should therefore prioritize items such as stormwater management and green infrastructure to minimize flood damage; urban tree planting programs to cope with heat waves; and the fortification of vulnerable national priorities such as water infrastructure, military installations, nuclear power plants, and electric utility lines.

Looking forward

We should welcome a national debate about our infrastructure needs. The president’s plan falls far short but, in this debate, we need to say what we stand for, not just what we oppose. Supporting a plan that is just and equitable, that encourages the input of scientists and the public, and that looks ahead to benefit future generations is a very good start.

Ciencia para un planeta sano para todos

Vivimos momentos de mucha incertidumbre entre nuestra comunidad. Nuestro mundo se ve amenazado por la intolerancia y el odio a los inmigrantes, el desmantelamiento de las protecciones federales a nuestra salud y del ambiente, la negación de la realidad del cambio climático, y más recientemente, por el triste fracaso de nuestros líderes en tomar acción para frenar la epidemia de violencia con armas de fuego que afecta al país.

Como científico climático y padre de familia sé cuán urgente es que toda la sociedad se movilice para frenar éstos preocupantes ataques a nuestra salud y bienestar, y no estoy sólo en ello: La comunidad de origen latinoamericano en EE.UU., también exige a nuestros líderes que protejan nuestra salud, bienestar, y medio ambiente, y al mismo tiempo, fortalezcan nuestra democracia.

El vínculo entre el bienestar humano y la democracia

La prosperidad económica en los Estados Unidos ha sido el resultado, en parte, del fuerte apego histórico del país con un quehacer científico rigoroso e independiente, o sea, libre de influencias político-partidistas o que busquen el interés personal por encima del bienestar social.

Por supuesto, dicha prosperidad no está ni ha estado repartida por igual entre la población: sabemos, por ejemplo, que las personas de color y con bajo ingreso viven más cerca de fuentes de contaminación industrial que otras poblaciones, y que muchas desigualdades en la concentración de contaminantes atmosféricos y en nivel socio-económico contribuyen a que muchas comunidades de origen latinoamericano se vean más afectadas por la contaminación del aire.  La ciencia también nos dice que las poblaciones más vulnerables al cambio climático—en EE.UU.  y alrededor del mundo—son personas de bajo ingreso y usualmente de color.

El derecho a condiciones de vida saludable como un medio ambiente limpio y sano está reconocido como fundamental para el pleno ejercicio de los derechos democráticos en los que está basada, en principio, una sociedad como la de los EE.UU. Pero durante las últimas décadas hemos visto cambios muy preocupantes en el manejo uso de la ciencia para la toma de decisiones y la implementación de políticas gubernamentales que garanticen un ambiente sano para todos.

Por ejemplo, las nominaciones de científicos expertos para ocupar puestos de alto rango en el gobierno o en juntas de asesoría científica se ven obstaculizadas por intereses anti-científicos. Los medios tradicionales y en línea, tanto como los poderes legislativos a nivel federal y estatal se ven saturados por campañas de desinformación que fingen utilizar la ciencia como fundamento para desmantelar los estatutos legales que nos protegen de alimentos con azúcar en exceso, peligrosas sustancias químicas en productos de consumo. La realidad del cambio climático—reconocida en casi todo el resto del planeta—es habitualmente ignorada por sectores influyentes de la clase política y empresarial norteamericana. La investigación científica nos ha confirmado los dañinos efectos del peligroso químico chlorpyrifos a la salud de los niños, especialmente entre los hijos de trabajadores del campo que viven o laboran en campos agrícolas–los cuales son en su mayoría hispanos. Sin embargo, la administración del president Trump hace caso omiso a lo que dicen los científicos de sus propias agencias, autorizan el uso de dichas sustancias peligrosas, y ponen en peligro la salud de nuestra gente.

¿Qué podemos hacer?

Todo esto ocurre en momentos en que la humanidad se enfrenta a graves problemas ambientales, económicos, de salud y seguridad en su historia.  Union of Concerned Scientists, muy consciente de los retos, ostenta una larga trayectoria en utilizar la ciencia para solucionar los problemas sociales y ecológicos más apremiantes. Pero no lo podemos hacer nosotros solos. Necesitamos de su voz como miembro de la comunidad latina en los EE.UU para poder avanzar hacia un futuro sano, seguro, y sostenible.

La devastación tras desastres recientes como el huracán María en Puerto Rico y Harvey en Texas evidencian el impacto desproporcionado al cambio climático que sufren los latinos y otras comunidades de color. La manera más efectiva de proteger a nuestras comunidades es garantizando que las políticas públicas sean diseñadas teniendo en cuenta la evidencia científica y con el objetivo de beneficiar a todas las personas y no sólo a unos pocos. Alce su voz y ayúdenos a exigir a nuestros líderes que busquen soluciones justas a la crisis ambiental y climática.

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