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Zinke Attends Pacific Islands Forum, Ignores Their Biggest Concern

Photo: Christopher Michel/CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JJ7V2741_(40325750).jpg

This week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke heads the United States delegation to the Pacific Islands Forum Leader’s Session on the Island of Nauru on September 4, 2018, an annual gathering of dozens of Pacific Island leaders and partners. In the Interior Department press release, Zinke noted that the Pacific Islands are strategically important and he wants to discuss trade and the rule of law. He did not indicate any interest in discussing the impacts of climate change in the Pacific Islands region – dramatic impacts that his own agency described in a publication earlier this year.

The US Geological Survey (USGS), the lead science agency within the US Department of the Interior, published a report in April with an ominous headline: “Many Low-Lying Atoll Islands Will Be Uninhabitable by Mid-21st Century.” The study concluded that due to rising sea levels, flooding, and salt-water intrusion into aquifers there will be no potable water on thousands of islands in the Pacific “no later than the middle of the 21st century,” rendering those islands uninhabitable. Thirty to forty years from today, entire island cultures may have to leave their homelands for good because we have burned too much fossil fuel.

In the meantime, they urgently need assistance to adapt to rising seas, build resilience, and develop the infrastructure that could save lives and livelihoods before and during relocation. Ironically, the Interior Department, the agency that released this study, stands in the way of the assistance these islands so desperately need.

The USGS study, a collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Hawaii, and other partners, was funded by the Department of Defense, an agency that has become increasingly concerned about the impacts of climate change upon national security. The research took place on an atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a country that was tragically irradiated by American nuclear weapons testing in the 1940s and 50s. A series of international agreements since those years have attempted to provide adequate restitution for the people of the Marshall Islands, with little success. The current agreement is a “Compact of Free Association” that was enacted into law by Congress in 1986 and has been periodically updated.

Under this Compact, the United States agreed to provide the Marshall Islands with security and defense as well as financial assistance. The Interior Department is the agency charged with overseeing the grant assistance and aid to meet a variety of needs, including health, education, infrastructure, and disaster preparedness.

This recent study from the Interior Department has dramatically raised the stakes for those badly-needed resources, particularly for addressing resilience and disaster preparedness. Until now, the Marshallese thought they had until the end of this century before their homeland could be uninhabitable. This report shows that they may have far less time to adapt, and they urgently need the American assistance that has been promised.

Unfortunately, Secretary Ryan Zinke’s agency has eliminated all climate change language from Interior’s strategic plan, censored press releases and deleted references to climate change on agency websites, promoted amateurish climate denial literature, and advanced an aggressive fossil fuel agenda despite its role in accelerating climate change. To make matters worse, the Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs, the person responsible for overseeing the Interior Department’s assistance to the Marshall Islands, is a protégé of Charles and David Koch, the oil billionaires best known for funding misinformation campaigns to undercut efforts to address climate change.

The political leaders at the agency have staked out a position contrary to established scientific evidence and in denial of the problem the Marshall Islanders face with every high tide.

The implications of this study go well beyond the Marshall Islands. While there are over a thousand low-lying islands in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, there are thousands more elsewhere in the Pacific and Indian oceans. As the report states, “These findings have relevance not only to populated atoll islands in the Marshall Islands, but also to those in the Caroline Islands, Cook Islands, Gilbert Islands, Line Islands, Society Islands, Spratly Islands, Maldives, Seychelles, and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.”

Climate change poses the very same threat to Alaska Native villages as permafrost melts beneath their feet and waves devour meters of land each year. For this reason, Alaska Natives and Marshall Islanders have frequently participated together on climate change panels—including one that I organized during the climate negotiations in Paris in 2015. In my view, bearing witness to their stories and the risks they face in these places is essential to understanding the true threat of climate change.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen firsthand that Secretary Zinke and the Trump Administration have chosen to turn a blind eye to these dangers. How much suffering and loss of life and property will snap these ideologues out of their fossil fuel fever dream?  At what point along the arc of disaster will they wake up to their responsibilities as public servants?

At least the scientists at Interior are on the job. The USGS paper released in April was an important addition to the scientific literature describing the real risks of climate change. “Such information is key to assess multiple hazards and prioritize efforts to reduce risk and increase the resiliency of atoll islands’ communities around the globe,” said lead author Curt Storlazzi of the USGS.

This is exactly what Interior must now do—assess risk and prioritize urgent resilience investments. To do so Secretary Ryan Zinke and his team must acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real, it’s dangerous, and it’s human-caused.  As the head of the U.S. delegation at the Pacific Islands Forum, Zinke must respect the lives and livelihoods of Pacific Islanders by promising to address climate change and its consequences head-on.

Photo: Christopher Michel/CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia)

We Need Better Data about What Is Killing American Prisoners. It’s Probably the Heat.

American Climate Prospectus

DC is in the middle of a swampy heat wave right now, with temperatures exceeding 90oF regularly. My peers and I can joke about getting drenched in sweat from the walk from the metro to school because we have an air-conditioned building to look forward to. Any heat-related discomfort is temporary for us. Prisoners in our country don’t have this luxury, and it may be killing more of them than we realize.

If you go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) website, you can download datasets showing the reasons inmates died over the last few years. As part of my studies, I accessed this data and found a shocking lack of resolution.

 

Photo credit: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Every death that isn’t due to an inmate killing themselves or another inmate is written off as “natural causes.” Further exploration of the BJS site or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sites yield a little more information about the burden of certain diseases like diabetes and heart disease, but overall there is not much public information or raw data about what is actually killing prisoners in America.

Recent studies into the effects of extreme heat exposure (which we can loosely define as constant exposure to heat exceeding 86 degrees F based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heat index) suggest there might be a sizable burden of heat-related illnesses. In order to dive deeper on this issue, I started to look at Texas specifically, due in part to the excellent journalism of groups like the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project. The writers on these teams have been tracking policy changes as well as the risk factors for susceptibility to heat, and bring up some excellent points.

First, there is some evidence that prisons make the incarcerated “age faster,” which is to say they have the health issues commonly associated with populations a decade or more older than them. This includes dampening the nervous system’s ability to regulate heat, which decreases the body’s ability to combat effects of extreme heat exposure. This issue, and the fact that there is an increasing population of prisoners older than 50, means that prisoners may be more susceptible to heat exposure than the general population.

Second, about a third of American prisoners also experience mental health issues, and another sizable chunk experience chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. The medications for these conditions include psychotropics which further dampen the nervous system response to heat, as well as diuretics and anticholinergics, which tamper with bodily functions like sweat and urination. As a result, many prisoners may not even be able to sweat properly, and retain urine to the point of danger for kidney disease and hypertension.

But of course, the most important part of heat-related illness is the heat itself. And in Texas, the state with one of the hottest summers in the United States, this is the major killer. Almost 75% of Texas prisons don’t have air-conditioned residential areas. This is unacceptable now, and is even more concerning when you look at climate projections for the next 80 years.

As you can see, Texas is hot, and it’s only going to get hotter. Prisoners in Texas, and the rest of the country, are already feeling the impacts of heat. Last summer, a particularly disturbing video was shared on Facebook, where prisoners’ screams for help could be heard from outside. They repeated “Help Us, Help Us, It’s Too Hot, We Can’t Breathe.” The viral nature of this video pushed the St. Louis prison to implement better air-conditioning, but that was just a small start to addressing the larger issue.

Anecdotal reports will never be taken seriously by any institutional body, and they cannot inspire political will on the level that is needed to protect prisoner health. This brings me back to data resolution. Researchers need access to more information about prisoner health in order to better understand this issue and make a compelling case for better heat management. For starters, we need more data on the actual temperatures and humidity levels  inside of our prisons. As part of my graduate coursework I wrote a petition which calls for a public data collection schedule which includes urinalysis and blood work data along with temperature data.

You have the ability to send a similar petition the governmental bodies which control what data is collected and made public. You can use this template to petition the Office of Justice Programs, or your state’s correctional body. Finally, as further reading, I encourage you to look at the 2015 report out of Columbia Law School which examines the challenges climate change will pose for correctional institutes in the coming years.

Anyun Chatterjee is finishing his masters in environmental health at George Washington this fall. He is a researcher with the Cleveland based network of psychiatrist and mental health providers known as BRAIN. During his time in DC he started the research group MilkenGroup.com, based on the principles of informational equality and purpose based research.

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.

This Beetle Lays its Eggs in Dead Mice Carcasses and then Covers Them With Mucus – But it’s Endangered and Important

Photo: Wayne National Forest

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rushed a scientific assessment on the endangered American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) in Nebraska, seemingly because the agency didn’t want to disrupt agribusiness. Two biologists that were working on the assessment, Wyatt Hoback and Douglas Leasure, told the Washington Post that the FWS pushed them to conduct their science on an extremely constrained timeline. The beetle has been a source of contention in federal government research since 2013. The species was listed as endangered after 1989 when scientific evidence showed that the beetle had disappeared from over 90% of its historic range in the US.

Scientists pushed to conduct slapdash research

Drs. Hoback and Leasure are experts on the endangered American burying beetle, specifically in Nebraska. In 2017, the two biologists published a paper with a map of the species distribution in the state. Their expertise is the reason why the FWS asked these scientists to help them with the beetle’s status assessment under the Endangered Species Act. The FWS wanted the scientists to overlay their 2017 map of the beetle’s distribution with another map projecting future farmland to identify where agriculture may pose a threat to the beetle in the future.

When the scientists received the map projecting future farmland in Nebraska, created with data from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota , they raised major concerns. These states have very different environments and soils so Hoback and Leasure didn’t think it would be accurate to overlay the two maps. Hoback said the two maps “were never intended to be put together.” Furthermore, they told the FWS that using a map of the distribution of the beetle at finer scales in the state would be more accurate. The agency gave the scientists “literally one day” to resolve these issues with combining the two maps – an impossible task, the biologists agreed.

Due to the constrained timeline, Hoback and Leasure voluntarily left the project, asked to have their names pulled from any resulting reports or publications, and asked that their data not be used. And even after the two biologists left the project and were removed as authors on the report, Dr. Leasure later received a draft report of the assessment from a FWS scientists that he said had “copied word-for-word,” a paragraph from his and Dr. Hoback’s 2017 publication. In February, Dr. Hoback alerted the regional director for the agency’s Mountain-Prairie Region, Noreen Walsh, of the plagiarism. Walsh replied that the paragraph was only used in a “pre-decisional draft of the analysis.” I’m glad that Dr. Hoback brought this to their attention since plagiarism is clearly defined as a violation of the agency scientific integrity policy.

The American burying beetle is important

Yes, it’s true that burying beetles are not the most charismatic of creatures. It literally lays its eggs in dead mice (gross) and then covers those mice with mucus (ew…even more gross). Do they also feed their young by vomiting in their mouths? Yes – yes they do. Look, I’m not here to convince you that this beetle is a fluffy cute puppy that you should pick up, take home, pet and call your “fur baby.” But just because this bug is not the most charismatic of creatures to humans, doesn’t mean that it isn’t critically important to our lives.

Recycling dead mice is quite important to ecosystem functioning. The cycling of energy and matter in an ecosystem is heavily dependent on the process of decomposition. Animals consume approximately 10% of organic matter generated by plants, and eventually those nutrients are returned to the system either through excreta or through the decomposition of the animal’s body when it dies (referred to as carrion). Dead animals are a highly nutrient rich resource that affects everything from scavengers and predators down to the microbial community. Therefore, where an American burying beetle places its mummified mouse, how its mucus affects the decomposition of that mouse, and where in time the mouse decomposes have profound effects on nutrient cycling and, subsequently, ecosystem functioning. And you know, you won’t see as many dead rodents around your neighborhood if the beetle does its thing!

Most scientists now agree that we are on the brink of a sixth major extinction event. Such an event will impact humans because we depend heavily on the services that these species provide, many times unknowingly. But once a species is gone, we cannot bring it back. That’s why we must fight to preserve our world’s most rare plants and animals.

Good science isn’t timed

Science, good science, takes time. For example, one of my PhD projects started in 2011 and it wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal until 2017. From conceptualizing the question, to understanding what was already known about this question, to determining the appropriate methodology to answer the question, to collecting the data, then analyzing the data, and finally writing a paper to be submitted to a journal, which then would go through a long process of review by my peers, to the paper being finally accepted – that took six years!

And I would say that is an average time to produce a good scientific product from start to finish. The FWS just asked two biologists to resolve a major methodological issue in “literally one day.” That is simply ridiculous. I find it difficult to believe that the FWS believed this was possible. And if they knew it wasn’t possible, then it seems there may be other reasons why they rushed these biologists. Were they fishing for an answer the whole time?

Hoback and Leasure say that the combination of the two maps that FWS wanted combined would have resulted in an analysis showing that the American burying beetle population is far safer from agricultural threats than it actually is. That sounds like a manipulation of methods to produce results that fit a political agenda, which is not science. In our 2018 federal scientists survey, FWS scientists reported that the top barrier to science-based decision-making at their agency was political interference. This example certainly supports that result.

Photo: Wayne National Forest

Proposed Changes to the Endangered Species Act Threaten Wildlife

The endangered black-footed ferret. Photo: USFWS Mountain-prairie

The Trump Administration is threatening species, land conservation, and human health and wellbeing by rolling back our health, safety, and environmental protections. This time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are attempting to undercut the scientific basis of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by proposing changes that will make it less effective, even increasing the chances that species will go extinct.

FWS and NMFS jointly issued the proposed rule, “Endangered and Threatened Species: Listing Species and Designating Critical Habitat.” This proposal contains troublesome language around economic consideration and planning for the foreseeable future.

Economic considerations

The Departments of Interior and Commerce (via the agencies that implement the law, FWS and NMFS) are proposing to allow for considerations other than science to influence listing decisions. The proposal adds economic considerations in the process for deciding if a species is in fact threatened or endangered, instead of making it a purely scientific decision. Currently, the determination of endangered or threatened status is made without reference to possible economic or other impacts.

The agencies argue in their proposal that including economic information in the listing decision better informs the public. There is, however, ample opportunity in the process of determining how to conserve threatened or endangered species to inform the public of possible economic and other impacts.

Including economic information in the listing decision itself is contrary to the four factors that the law states should be the basis for determining status: “(A) the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.”

Foreseeable future

The proposal also limits the extent that the agency can look to potential harms to a species in the foreseeable future which could keep climate change impacts like drought, habitat loss from flooding, heat impacts, and range changes, out of the listing decision and recovery plans for species. The definition of a species as “threatened” includes the phrase “within the foreseeable future”.  In other words, it requires the agencies to look ahead as they make listing decisions. The proposal says that the agencies will evaluate what the foreseeable future means on a case-by-case basis, but in describing factors to be considered does not include changing climate (only environmental variability).  They also state that the foreseeable future should only include the time period for which predictions are “reliable”.

Climate change is not the same as environmental variability.  The ongoing effects of global warming are directional, very broad-scale, and have already posed observable and quantifiable harm to species and their habitats. To not account for a changing climate in listing decisions is to ignore a critical factor relevant to the listing criteria. Furthermore, stating that the timeframe to be considered should be based on when projections are “reliable,” without any indication on what that means, is being intentionally vague. It should be sufficient to say that the timeframe should be based on the best science available.

Voice your concerns

The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of species listed under the law from going extinct, and it has done so by basing decisions solely on the best available science, without reference to economic impacts. The proposed changes will weaken the ability of the FWS and NMFS to make decisions informed by science when implementing the Endangered Species Act, as well as send a loud message to the public that economic considerations will prevail over scientific evidence, even at the cost of an entire ecosystem and the species dependent upon it. Fortunately, there is a way we can voice our concerns and block these changes from taking place. There is still time to submit a public comment to the record, but the comment period for the proposed rule ends September 24th. UCS has created an public comment guide for tips on writing a strong comment for this particular proposed rule, which can be found here.

I would like to thank my colleagues in the Center for contributing their expertise to this blog and for their dedication to protecting the Endangered Species Act as a science-based statute. 

Photo: USFWS Mountain-Praire

Brett Kavanaugh: Enemy of Innovation

The Supreme Court at night. Photo: Wikimedia

The confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begins next week with a hearing on Tuesday. Supporters and opponents are drawing battle lines over crucial issues such as abortion, health care, immigration, and whether the President is subject to criminal processes. But, as I wrote in an earlier blog, the nominee’s views on the role of federal agencies in protecting public health, safety and the environment deserve our attention as well.

Unlike others before him, Brett Kavanaugh is no “stealth nominee.” As a judge on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Kavanaugh authored many opinions on the role of federal agencies, and these opinions provide an unusually expansive window into his thinking.

Unfortunately, a careful review of his opinions reveals a disturbing pattern:

Judge Kavanaugh is hostile to innovation by executive branch agencies. He has such rigid and antiquated views of the respective roles of congress and executive agencies that he leaves little room for federal agencies to try new approaches to existing problems or to take on new challenges. This should alarm not just those on the left who would like to see more robust federal response to threats to public health, the environment, worker safety and the like, but conservatives as well, who should also want government to be nimble and able to adjust to new circumstances.

To see this pattern, follow me on a guided tour of his thinking in three key cases.

Interstate air pollution and the “Good Neighbor Rule.”

Air pollution crosses state boundaries, and many states are in the unenviable position of having dirty air even though they are effectively controlling pollution sources within their state. For example, even if Maryland were to shut down every business in its state that emits ozone-causing pollutants, portions of the state would still be in violation of federal ozone standards due to pollution from neighboring upwind states. There is a provision in the federal Clean Air Act, colloquially called “the Good Neighbor” rule, that prevents one state from causing or significantly contributing to another state’s violation of federal air quality standards.

The problem is that it is fiendishly complex to implement the good neighbor rule. Many “upwind” states emit multiple pollutants to many downwind states, many downwind states receive multiple pollutants from multiple upwind states, and some states are both upwind and downwind states. Thus, it is exceedingly difficult to point a finger at any one particular upwind state and say that it is “responsible” for any downwind’s state air quality, and even more difficult to devise a formula to fairly and effectively apportion responsibility.

In 2011, after many false starts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crafted an ingenious “Transport Rule” to address the problem. The EPA conducted extensive analysis of the costs of pollution control to determine how expensive it would be, per ton of pollutant reduction, to ensure that upwind states in the aggregate do not cause downwind states’ air quality in the aggregate to exceed federal standards. The EPA then gave each upwind state a pollution “budget” for the state to use to reduce the pollutants that were wafting beyond their borders, based on this “cost per ton” reduction benchmark. In this way, just enough pollution would be reduced so that upwind states would not tip a downwind state into non-compliance, and the amount of each state’s pollution reduction would be based on a common yardstick of cost-effectiveness.

But Judge Kavanaugh struck this plan down. In his view, Congress had not expressly embraced this particular approach, and therefore the EPA was not allowed to implement it. His decision instead required EPA to determine each upwind state’s “proportionate responsibility” for pollution in downwind states and base the required reductions on that (even though the statute does not explicitly require that approach). Judge Kavanaugh’s decision largely ignored the compelling practical difficulty of assigning proportionate responsibility, or the many economic benefits of the EPA’s proposed approach.

As a result, his ruling would have consigned downwind states to many more years of air pollution while the EPA grappled with how to implement it.

Had Judge Kavanaugh’s “proportionate” responsibility approach been required by the law, that would be one thing. But it wasn’t. The Supreme Court, on a 6-2 vote that included Justices Kennedy and Roberts, found that that the statute did not require a proportionate responsibility approach (even assuming one could be fashioned). Instead, they ruled that Congress had vested the EPA with broad discretion to devise an appropriate remedy, and the Transport Rule was both fair and cost effective.

The Clean Power Plan oral argument

This same apparent hostility to agency innovation was on display in Judge Kavanaugh’s comments on the Clean Power Plan during a court hearing. That case involved a challenge to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever rules to limit carbon pollution from coal and gas fired power plants, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the United States. The Clean Power plan, a measure that received extensive input from UCS and many others, relied on an infrequently used provision of the Clean Air Act that allows the EPA to require polluters to use the “best system of emissions reduction” to address pollutants such as greenhouse gases.

After years of review and receipt of over 4 million comments, the EPA issued a final rule in October 2015. The EPA determined that the “best system of emissions reduction” for carbon pollution from power plants included three strategies that are in widespread use today—improving the efficiency of coal plants, switching from coal to gas, and substituting low or no carbon generation, such as wind, solar and nuclear. The EPA quantified the emissions reduction that would be possible using these strategies, and devised a national standard based on this quantification. The rule was intended to cut carbon emissions from power plants by approximately 30 percent by 2030, and formed a key component of the United States’ pledge to reduce its overall emissions as part of the Paris Climate agreement.

Industry and states filed suit to challenge the Clean Power Plan, and the case was heard by the DC Circuit court of appeals. No decision was ever issued on the case, but the court held an all-day oral argument in which Judge Kavanaugh participated. His questions and comments were revealing.

A major point of debate focused on the unusual nature of the regulation. When regulating conventional air pollutants, EPA often sets pollution control standards by focusing on what each plant can do with pollution controls at the source to cut pollution, e.g. a scrubber to lower sulfur dioxide emissions, or a baghouse to collect soot. In the Clean Power Plan, in contrast, EPA established CO2 limits by focusing not on what each individual plant could do to cut CO2, but rather what the system as a whole could do by shifting away from coal-based generation towards gas and renewables.

The opponents contended that this “beyond the fenceline” approach rendered it illegal, because Congress had not specifically authorized it.

Judge Kavanaugh’s questioning at the hearing demonstrated that he bought into this line of thinking. Judge Kavanaugh stressed repeatedly that the rule would have significant economic consequences, that the EPA was using a previously unused provision of the Clean Air Act to implement this approach, and that Congress had not specifically embraced the policy of shifting to low or no carbon generation. Judge Kavanaugh seemed unmoved by the strong counterarguments that: 1) EPA had a mandatory duty under the act to lower carbon pollution from power plants; 2) this was the most cost-effective and tested method of doing so; and 3) it fit the statutory command to deploy “the best system of emissions reduction.”

While the court never issued a ruling, it seemed clear that Judge Kavanaugh was prepared to strike down the rule on this basis, leaving behind no remedy for carbon pollution from power plants.

The Case of the Killer Whale

In 2010, an employee of Sea World was lying on a platform above a pool during a whale training show when a killer whale dragged her into the water, maiming and drowning her. This marked the third death by killer whales in a roughly 30-year period.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) responded by requiring the company to ensure minimum distances and physical barriers between a trainer and a whale.

Sea World challenged this order, claiming that OSHA impermissibly extended its authority to regulate the risks of sporting events. Two of the three judges, including Merrick Garland, President Obama’s ill-fated Supreme Court nominee, dispensed with the challenge, ruling that OSHA had the authority to require these commonsense safeguards for workers.

Not so Judge Kavanaugh. His dissenting opinion begins as an elaborate paean to the thrill of sporting events in which physical risks are present. He never actually critiques the solution that OSHA devised on the merits, but rather deploys the familiar lawyer’s trick of a “parade of horribles,” claiming, e.g. that if OSHA can regulate killer whale shows, it can prohibit tackling in football or set speed limits on NASCAR racing (things that OSHA has never done). All of this, according to Kavanaugh, would go well beyond the authority that Congress intended OSHA to have.

As for the physical safety of employees who work with whales—according to Kavanaugh’s logic, that would be up to Congress to legislate.

Common threads

What unites these opinions—and others like them—is that, in each of these cases, Judge Kavanaugh struck down solutions (or appeared poised to do so), when a federal agency responded to an existing problem with a novel approach or sought to address a new problem in a manner we should all value—with creativity, scientific evidence, consideration of costs and benefits, and an eye towards feasibility and practicality. In none of these cases did the agency violate any specific provision of its authorizing statute. But, in all of these cases, Judge Kavanaugh opposed these solutions under the theory that Congress had not specifically blessed the choice the agency had made.

Judge Kavanaugh and his defenders claim that curbing the power of agencies is essential to ensuring that elected leaders in Congress, rather than unelected bureaucrats, make the fundamental policy choices. This seemingly benign principal is either naïve, malevolent, or both.

The fact of the matter is that Congress is largely paralyzed and incapable of passing legislation on virtually any important issue—witness the stalemates on immigration, gun control, climate, health care, and many others. And even when Congress manages to overcome gridlock, as a necessity it legislates in broad generalities, not specifics. This is because Congress does not have a crystal ball to foresee all the possible variations of a problem or all the best solutions to it. That is why Congress wisely delegates implementation to agencies staffed with experts, and why we use a process of notice and comment to ensure that all views are heard before a regulation becomes final.

There is an important role for the courts in this rulemaking process judges must make sure that agencies do not violate the law or disregard sound reasoning and evidence. But Judge Kavanaugh takes the judicial role too far. His insistence that Congress specifically endorse an agency plan that is otherwise scientifically sound and legally within its discretion is a formula for paralysis, and the maintenance of the status quo (which helps explain his appeal to groups such as the Koch Brothers and the US Chamber of Commerce).

All of us will regret it if Judge Kavanagh’s reactionary view becomes the guiding principle of a new Supreme Court majority. With Congress already deadlocked and demonstrating almost daily basis its inability to respond to pressing challenges, we cannot thrive if executive branch agencies are paralyzed as well.

Photo: Wikimedia

Ante la crisis fiscal, climática, y humanitaria, la comunidad científica boricua se moviliza para informar la política pública post-María

Puerto Rico atraviesa por el momento más crítico de su historia ante el embate de la grave crisis fiscal y climática que devastó a la Isla hace un año tras el paso del Huracán María. De cara a la reconstrucción del territorio no incorporado de los Estados Unidos, los puertorriqueños dentro y fuera de la Isla exigen un lugar en la mesa donde se tomarán las decisiones que definirán el tipo de país en que les tocará vivir y al que ansiamos regresar. ¿Están los boricuas dispuestos a permitir que se repitan los errores del pasado que nos pusieron en el camino de la ruina fiscal y la vulnerabilidad climática? O, por el contrario, ¿exigirán los puertorriqueños el diseño de una infraestructura energética, de vivienda, de educación y económica que responda tanto a las necesidades presentes como a las que se vaticinan ya debido al cambio climático?

El desarrollo de la infraestructura energética, industrial, urbana y económica en la Isla desde la invasión de 1898 ha respondido más a las necesidades geopolíticas de los Estados Unidos que a las propias de Puerto Rico, y no se ha tomado en cuenta la geografía, la localización en el Caribe, ni las necesidades y aspiraciones de la población puertorriqueña. Puerto Rico fue insertado violentamente—“a la brava”—dentro del esquema constitucional y de desarrollo de los Estados Unidos, y no han tenido los boricuas una sola oportunidad a lo largo de 120 años de colonización de hacer oír su voz en el proceso de toma de decisiones y formulación de políticas públicas federales que afectan sus vidas y que determinan temas tan fundamentales como el costo de vida (por ejemplo el alza en el costo de bienes de consumo debido a la Ley Jones), y el desarrollo económico (por ejemplo el impuesto a manufactureras estadounidenses en la Isla). En la esfera local, la intervención política en el Fideicomiso para Ciencia, Tecnología e Investigación mediante una votación de la Cámara tarde en la noche y a espaldas del pueblo, y la intentona de eliminar el Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico ponen de manifiesto el pobre ejercicio de los derechos democráticos en Puerto Rico en materia de política pública científica.

Esto, combinado con una maquinaria partidista criolla más interesada en adelantar ideologías políticas que en mejorar las condiciones de vida de los puertorriqueños, finalmente nos ha pasado la factura: una red eléctrica en ruinas y susceptible a colapsar ante la menor presión; una fuga masiva de población a los Estados Unidos; cierres masivos de escuelas públicas. La sociedad civil boricua, mientras tanto, exige condiciones de vida decentes y una recuperación equitativa; el gobierno del Dr. Rosselló responde con gas pimienta tras ya haber criminalizado el derecho a protestar antes de María.

La comunidad científica boricua presenta la conferencia “Ciencia en Acción: Política Pública Puertorriqueña Apoyada por Evidencia”

Ante este cuadro, la comunidad cientÍfica en Puerto Rico y en la diáspora se moviliza para servir como puente entre el gobierno y la sociedad civil. Union of Concerned Scientists, en cumplimiento de su compromiso con la justicia ambiental y climática, y el apoyo a políticas públicas basadas en evidencia científica para el beneficio de todos, se ha unido al liderato de la División del Caribe de la Asociación Americana para el Avance de la Ciencia (AAAS-CD) y Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) para presentar la conferencia titulada Ciencia en Acción: Política Pública Puertorriqueña Apoyada por Evidencia, a celebrarse el sábado primero de septiembre del 2018 en el Centro Criollo de Ciencia y Tecnología (C3Tec) en Caguas, Puerto Rico. Además, se estará lanzando la Red de Acción de Política Científica de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico-Science Policy Action Network o PR-SPAN), una red de científicos comprometidos a actuar como expertos en materias de ciencia y tecnología, y servir como enlaces en sus respectivos campos para asegurar la participación de la comunidad científica en la elaboración de políticas públicas relevantes para Puerto Rico.

UCS se enorgullece en apoyar el liderato de la Dra. Zulmarie Pérez Horta (AAAS), la Dra. Giovanna Guerrero Medina (CienciaPR), y el Dr. Juan Ramírez Lugo (AAAS-CD) en convocar la conferencia y el lanzamiento de PR-SPAN. Esperamos que el evento sirva para enlazar a la comunidad científica del Caribe y Puerto Rico en la gestión de política pública basada en la ciencia que tanto necesita la región y la Isla para una recuperación sostenible y equitativa a futuro.

El otro día un colega decía que a Puerto Rico no lo destruyó el Huracán María, sino que la crisis fiscal que arrastramos hace décadas ya había destruido la Isla. De esa manera me imaginé a María como una suerte de escoba climatológica que barrió los escombros de lo que la crisis fiscal destruyó. Ya que hemos visto que mucha de la infraestructura de Puerto Rico está en escombros, las y los científicos tenemos la obligación de movilizar nuestro conocimiento y poder colectivo para crear un futuro resiliente a crisis fiscales, energéticas, sociales, y climáticas. El país lo exige y los científicos han contestado el llamado.

El evento está abierto al público – regístrate aquí: Ciencia en Acción: Política Pública Puertorriqueña Apoyada por Evidencia

 

 

Public Discussion of Science Policy Surges Nationwide as Thousands Engage in Science Rising

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

The great awakening of the science community is only gaining steam in the wake of increased attacks on science. Since the spring launch of Science Rising, we’ve recorded more than 125 events submitted by 118 organizations around the country who are focused on making sure science is front and center in the decision-making processes that affect us all. As we get closer to the midterm elections, it becomes ever more critical for us to create conversations that encourage elected officials to protect science. Here are 5 Science Rising events you may have missed—and 5 more coming up, including a Twitter chat later today.

At a Science Rising event in June, residents of the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee and community organizations gathered to discuss lead abatement strategies and organize around preventing lead exposure.

Gun Violence Prevention Challenge Summit & Hackathon: In Boston in April, public health advocates, local government officials, and neighborhood residents gathered to discuss evidence-based gun violence prevention solutions. The following day, they held a hack-a-thon to collaborate on innovative local solutions to gun violence. This event, supported by the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies, demonstrated a creative way to bring together community members and harness their collective power to explore new ways to address the issue.

Environmental Lobby Day: The Illinois Environmental Council, Illinois Sierra Club, and Faith in Place supporters gathered in Springfield for an April Environmental Lobby Day. Building relationships with legislators at the state level is an important way to make sure that science and environmental issues are being taken seriously. If you’d like to organize your own lobby day, check out this blog from the Illinois Environmental Council on how to organize a DIY Advocacy Day.

Black Panther Lives – Wakanda STEM Equity Outreach: This Oakland event began with the idea that science is relevant to all people—but science still struggles with a history of racism, exclusion, and inequity. By bringing in pop culture references like Black Panther, as well as well-respected scientists of color to speak at the event, this organizers were able to reach and resonate with a broader audience and help break down some of the barriers traditionally placed around science talks.

Hosting a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon: Many organizations are thinking about the broader science advocacy movement, and how to build a more diverse and inclusive community to stand up for science. 500 Women Scientists hosted an edit-a-thon as part of Caveat NYC’s Underground Science Festival to recognize the scientific contributions of women, gender and sexual minorities, and people of color, who remain underrepresented on Wikipedia’s pages.

And here’s a quick look at 5 upcoming Science Rising events, both in person and virtual. (Don’t see any in your area? Check the full list at www.sciencerising.org)

  • Tidal Town Halls in coastal Florida (August-October). Tidal Town Halls allow voters to hear ideas for solutions to sea level rise and other related topics directly from candidates running for public office, so that they may make an informed choice at the polls.
  • #ScienceRising Twitter chat: A Healthy Democracy Requires Honesty and Accountability: August 22, 12-1pm ET. Lying to the public for private or political gain is always wrong. We should all be able to know the facts, even when they are inconvenient—especially when they are inconvenient. Public officials and private interests should face consequences when they mislead the public. Future of Research and Science Rising invite you to the fourth in a series of Twitter Chats on the principles of #ScienceRising and the science advocacy movement.
  • Art for Science Rising: Interested Parties Hearing: Tonight in Columbia, Missouri, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs will be seeking feedback on the design of a proposed large-scale mural that will showcase the Columbia’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. Resident Arts is a recipient of an Art for Science Rising grant.
  • Empowering Puerto Rican Scientists to be Science Policy Stewards: in Puerto Rico September 1 (and live-streamed online), you’re invited to attend the kickoff event for the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network.
  • Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice: In San Francisco on September 11, join an impressive gathering of women leaders from around the world to discuss how women are leading solutions on the front lines of climate change.
Getting your own event started

How to organize an event that makes an impact: If you’re inspired by these past events, you can organize an event in your community with guidance from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Watch the recording of the training, or use this checklist on How to organize an event.

When you’ve fleshed out the details of your event, submit it here so we can help you make it a success. Science Rising has plenty of additional resources, stories, and events to check out; more will be added regularly between now and the election. Help us send the message that the scientific community—and indeed, anyone who cares about the crucial role of science in our democracy—will resist attacks on science and fight to advance the role of science in public life.

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS Photo: John Saller

The EPA’s Proposed Chemical Disaster Rule is a Disaster in the Making

Photo: LadyDragonflyCC/Flickr

It isn’t new news or another hot take: communities of color are disproportionately exposed to and impacted by toxic chemical releases. The impacts of these incidents are severe, including death and serious injury, and often the children and families affected also have the fewest resources to protect themselves. They are also more immediately impacted by the decisions the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes on chemical risk management.

UCS released a white paper todayThe Impact of Chemical Facilities on Environmental Justice Communities: Review of Selected Communities Affected by Chemical Facility Incidents – that addresses the EPA’s proposed rule to reverse improvements to the Risk Management Program (RMP), a regulatory mechanism intended to ensure the safety and security of over 12,000 facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals nationwide, as made under the Obama administration and finalized in January 2017. Specifically, it highlights the potential health impacts of past catastrophic incidents at chemical facilities on nearby communities.

Initially, the EPA delayed enforcement of the 2017 RMP changes, but just last week the delay was ruled as “arbitrary and capricious” (read: an abuse of power; illegal) by the DC Circuit Court. The court win means EPA must implement the changes at once – but the proposed rule is still on the table. The white paper highlights examples of the impacts of industrial chemical facilities incidents on the people in surrounding areas, which are most often workers and environmental justice communities (majority people of color, often low-income or living at or below the poverty line), thereby demonstrating the need for the 2017 rule.

Key provisions of the 2017 rule that would increase information for first responders, fenceline communities, and the broader public are eliminated in the proposed rule, along with the move toward safer technologies and practices. Despite the EPA’s acknowledgment over the past several years that chemical facility incidents occur frequently and can affect nearby local communities as well as facility employees themselves, the EPA’s 2018 proposed rule and supporting documentation ignores these findings – and the communities and workers who fought hard for common-sense protections. As the white paper details, the 2018 proposed rule not only increases the likelihood that incidents will occur by removing essentially all preventive measures, but it also increases the impact on communities when these incidents happen. The findings in the report underscore an important need to honor the safeguards from the 2017 rule and to investigate the long-term and cumulative health impacts from chemical facility incidents, including the regular release of toxics into surrounding communities.

Without a doubt, the EPA’s proposed chemical disaster rule would leave the public without greater protection from life-threatening industrial incidents. There is still time to let them know that removing safeguards for communities and workers is unconscionable and we will not stand for it. We have fought hard for improvements in the past and won, and we can do it again. There is still time to submit a public comment to the record, but the comment period for the proposed rule ends in two days. UCS has created an RMP public comment guide for tips on writing a strong comment for the proposed rule, which can be found here.

Photo: LadyDragonflyCC/Flickr

The Senate Will Accelerate Kelvin Droegemeier’s White House Science Advisor Nomination. That’s a Good Thing.

Try not to breathe too easily, but the Senate is in fast drive mode to consider the nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House Office and Science and Technology Policy. And well it should. These days, this is one nomination we should all be excited about, as this Superman of science policy is sorely needed in the White House.

Many scientists cheered Dr. Droegemeier’s nomination after the White House went 19 months without a science advisor. I believe he would be a great pick for any administration, in any country.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy provides the president with advice on everything from energy to health care to pandemics. It needs a confirmed leader.

Feedback on his nomination has been almost universally positive.

A Senate committee will hold a confirmation hearing next Thursday, August 23 at 10:15 a.m. I hope that he will get up and not only talk about the passion that he has for scientific research, but also take a stand for the role of robust federal scientific workforce in informing public health and environmental policy. Historically, OSTP has helped ensure that federal agencies have both resources and independence to use the best available science to make policy. It can do so again.

It remains to be seen whether Dr. Droegemeier will be appointed to serve as science advisor to the president as well as OSTP director; the former doesn’t require Senate confirmation. And while some suspect that the president will simply provide his science advisor with a sword to fall on, methinks that it isn’t that simple. A lack of science advice is a disadvantage for any world leader. Pretend that you’re trying to negotiate a nuclear or climate agreement: you can’t get there from here without understanding the science.

It’s important for Dr. Droegemeier to make it out okay and help end the longest drought of science advice the White House has seen in modern times.

Strong Leadership Makes for Satisfied Federal Scientists: A Case Study at the FDA

As our research team was analyzing the results of our newest federal scientist survey that was released earlier this week, it was heartening to see that at some agencies, like at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the job satisfaction and ability to work appear to be even better than in years past. One of the best characterizations of the sentiments expressed by FDA scientists is this quote from a respondent: “The current administration has overall enforced certain science policies which harm the public in general. However, the current commissioner is fantastic and committed to the FDA’s mission. He is consistently involved in policy development which allows the protection and promotion of public health.”

We sent 9,378 FDA scientists and scientific experts a survey; of which 354 responded, yielding an overall response rate of 3.8 percent. Overall, our findings suggest that scientists at the FDA are faring better than their colleagues at the other 16 federal agencies surveyed. FDA scientists overall appeared to have faith in FDA leadership, including the FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

So what is FDA doing right?

Commissioner Gottlieb visits the agency’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) in Silver Spring, MD in November 2017 (Photo credit: Flickr/US FDA)

A genuine interest in getting the science right

Encouragingly, and as in previous UCS surveys, FDA scientists called attention to efforts by the agency to protect scientific integrity, with some responses indicating a strong sense of trust in supervisors and leadership. Most FDA scientists reported no change in personal job satisfaction or perception of office effectiveness; some respondents noted increased job satisfaction during the past year. 25 percent (87 respondents) said that the effectiveness of their division or office has increased compared with one year ago. Part of the reason for the agency’s effectiveness is its ability to collect the scientific and monitoring information needed to meet its mission, a metric that has significantly improved between 2015 and 2018. (See figure below). Further, 65 percent (222 respondents) felt that their direct supervisors consistently stand behind scientists who put forth scientifically defensible positions that may be politically contentious.

In 2018, the majority of FDA respondents felt that the agency frequently collected the information needed to meet its mission. When compared with previous results, the most significant differences were found between the 2015 and 2018 surveys (p<0.0001).

Perhaps it is because Gottlieb is a medical doctor who seems genuinely interested in evidence-based policies that we have not been bombarded with policy proposals that sideline science from the FDA since he began leading the agency in July 2017. FDA scientists who took the survey have corroborated this. One respondent wrote that that “the Commissioner’s office is tirelessly upholding best practices in various scientific fields such as smoking cessation, opioid/addiction crisis, generic drug manufacturing, sustainable farming practices.” Another respondent wrote, “FDA has a proactive Commissioner who —so far—has consistently followed science-based information and promoted science-based initiatives in the interest of public health.”

He has encouraged the work of FDA’s advisory committees like the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee and the Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee that recently met to make recommendations to the FDA on its regulation of transmucosal immediate-release fentanyl (TIRF) products, which were being prescribed for off-label uses for years. Gottlieb does not get defensive about weak spots in FDA’s portfolio. According to one respondent, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Commissioner Gottlieb’s knowledge and focus on FDA science. I was at a brief with him and he was interested in the science and less focused on the legal and political effects than I would have guessed. He was open-minded and curious, and asked questions when he didn’t understand the issue fully. It improved my outlook on my Agency’s future.” The ability for Gottlieb to ask questions and listen to agency scientists as well as outside experts is an important quality for a Commissioner making decisions that impact our health and safety.

I took this photo of an advertisement on a DC metro train this summer, revealing that Gottlieb is serious about recruitment to the agency.

Taking action to improve hiring practices and retention of staff

Soon after Commissioner Gottlieb was confirmed, the FDA took steps to examine its own hiring practices to identify improvements that could be made to build and keep a stronger workforce. The agency wrote a report, held a public meeting, and received feedback from FDA staff throughout the process because according to Gottlieb,  “The soul of FDA and our public health mission is our people. Retaining the people who help us achieve our successes is as important as recruiting new colleagues to help us meet our future challenges.” For scientific staff, the agency plans to do more outreach to scientific societies and academic institutions for recruitment and to reach out to early career scientists and make them aware that public service at the FDA is a viable career option.

A commitment to transparency

Not only have there been some encouraging policies put in place by the FDA, but Gottlieb seems committed to informing the public about these decisions. He is very active on twitter and issues so many public statements that reporters feel almost overwhelmed by his updates. This is in contrast of course to leaders like former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt who seldom announced his whereabouts in advance and was openly hostile to reporters.

Still room for improvement at the FDA and across the government

To be sure, there have been some bumps along the road. Last year, Gottlieb disbanded the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee, which was the only federal advisory committee focused entirely on science-based recommendations on food safety, and he delayed implementation of changes to the nutrition facts label that would have included a line for added sugars by this summer.

Further, survey respondents noted that inappropriate outside influence, such as from regulated industries, is apparent and stymies science-based decisionmaking at the agency. 22 percent (70 respondents) felt that the presence of senior decisionmakers from regulated industries or with financial interest in regulatory outcomes inappropriately influences FDA decisionmaking. Nearly a third (101 respondents) cited the consideration of political interests as a barrier to science-based decisionmaking and 36 percent (114 respondents) felt that the influence of business interests hinders the ability of the agency to make science-based decisions. In addition, respondents reported workforce reductions at the agency and said these lessened their ability to fulfill FDA’s science-based mission.

One thing became very clear as we reviewed the results of UCS’ seventh federal scientist survey that closed this spring: scientists across many federal agencies have been unable to do their jobs to the best of their ability under the Trump administration. Since the start of 2017, agencies have been hollowed out and there has been a sharp decline in expertise and capacity. Reduced staff capacity combined with political interference and the absence of leadership in some cases has made it harder for scientists to carry out important work. As the threat of political influence looms large over the government, much of federal scientists’ ability to do their work to advance the mission of the agencies has to do with the quality of leadership and the administrator or commissioner’s commitment to evidence over politics as a basis for decisionmaking.

Is Scientific Integrity Safe at the USDA?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist Franck Dayan observes wild-type and herbicide-resistant biotypes of Palmer Amaranth (pigweed) as Mississippi State University graduate student, Daniela Ribeiro collects samples for DNA analysis at the ARS Natural Products Utilization Research Unit in Oxford, MS on July 20, 2011. USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus. Photo: Stephen Ausmus, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Science is critical to everything the US Department of Agriculture does—helping farmers produce a safe, abundant food supply, protecting our soil and water for the future, and advising all of us about good nutrition to stay healthy. I recently wrote about the Trump administration’s new USDA chief scientist nominee, Scott Hutchins, and the conflicts he would bring from a career narrowly focused on developing pesticides for Dow.

But meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last week abruptly announced a proposed reorganization of the USDA’s research agencies. This move has implications for whoever takes up the post of chief scientist—as do new survey findings released yesterday, which suggest that the Trump administration is already having detrimental effects on science and scientists at the USDA.

An attack on science, and a shrinking portfolio for the next chief scientist

The job for which Scott Hutchins (and this guy before him) has been nominated is actually a multi-pronged position. The under secretary is responsible for overseeing the four agencies that currently make up the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area: the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Collectively, these agencies carry out or facilitate nearly $3 billion worth of research on food and agriculture topics every year. In addition, the REE under secretary is the USDA’s designated chief scientist, overseeing the Office of the Chief Scientist, established by Congress in 2008 to “provide strategic coordination of the science that informs the Department’s and the Federal government’s decisions, policies and regulations that impact all aspects of U.S. food and agriculture and related landscapes and communities.” OCS and the chief scientist are also responsible for ensuring scientific integrity across the department.

Altogether, it’s no small job, but it may soon get smaller. Secretary Perdue’s unexpected reorganization proposal last week would pluck ERS figuratively from within REE and place it in the Secretary’s office. Perdue’s announcement also included a plan to literally move ERS, along with NIFA, to as-yet-undetermined locations outside the DC area.

Perdue’s proposal cited lower rents and better opportunities to recruit agricultural specialists. But that rationale sounds fishy to UCS and other observers, as well as former USDA staff (the most recent NIFA administrator had this unvarnished reaction) and current staff who were caught by surprise. The move looks suspiciously like subordinating science to politics, likely giving big agribusiness and its boosters in farm-state universities ever more influence over the direction of USDA research that really should be driven by the public interest. Moreover, on the heels of a White House proposal earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—which Congress has thus far ignored—Perdue’s “relocate or leave” plan for ERS staff sure seems like a back-door way to gut the agency’s capacity.

New USDA scientist survey findings give more cause for concern

Even before announcements of a conflicted chief scientist nominee and ill-conceived reorganization, things weren’t exactly rosy for those working within REE agencies. In a survey conducted in February and March and released by UCS yesterday, scientists and economists in ARS, ERS, NASS, and NIFA raised concerns about the effects of political interference, budget cuts, and staff reductions. In partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, we asked more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 government agencies about scientific integrity, agency effectiveness, and the working environment for scientists in the first year of the Trump administration. At the USDA, we sent the survey to more than 3,600 scientists, economists, and statisticians we identified in the four REE agencies; about 7 percent (n=258) responded.

Among the findings summarized in our USDA-specific fact sheet are that scientists:

  • Face restrictions on communicating their work—78 percent said they must obtain agency preapproval to communicate with journalists; and
  • Report workforce reductions are a problem—90 percent say they’ve noticed such reductions in their agencies. And of those, 92 percent say short-staffing is making it harder for the USDA to fulfill its science-based mission.

To sum up: the next USDA chief scientist will lead a shrinking, under-resourced, and somewhat demoralized cadre of scientists facing political interference and possibly increased influence from industry (a trend we are already seeing in the Trump/Perdue USDA). All this at a time when the department really needs to advance research that can help farmers meet the myriad challenges they face and safeguard the future of our food system.

Soon, I’ll follow up with questions the Senate might want to ask Scott Hutchins—in light of all this and his own chemical industry baggage—when they hold his confirmation hearing.

We Surveyed Thousands of Federal Scientists. Here are Some Potential Reasons Why the Response Rate Was Lower than Usual

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, sent a survey to over 63,000 federal career staff across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus. Our goal was to give scientists a voice on the state of science under the Trump administration as we had during previous administrations.

We worked diligently to maintain the anonymity of the federal scientists taking our survey, providing three different methods for participants to take the survey (online, phone, and a mail-in option). Scientists took advantage of all three methods.

We followed up with reminders nearly weekly. Some scientists who were invited to take the survey did reach out to confirm that UCS and Iowa State University were conducting a legitimate survey, and the link that we sent them was safe to click on. In addition, some agencies communicated to their staff that the survey was legitimate and that experts were free to take it on their own time.

And while we received enough responses for the results to be valid, the final overall response rate on this years’ federal scientists survey sits at 6.9%. Compared to response rates on prior surveys conducted by UCS over the past 13 years, which have typically ranged from 15-20%, this year’s rate is lower. Let’s unpack some potential reasons why, and what the impact may be on interpreting results.

Reasons Why the Response Rate was Low
  1. Fear

It is possible that federal scientists and scientific experts were fearful or reluctant to comment on the state of science under the Trump administration. This may be borne from some political appointees reprimanding career staff for speaking publicly about their work.

Additionally, it is possible that given the heightened threat of cyber-attacks in the modern era, scientists were afraid their information might be monitored or leaked. Survey respondents were given a unique identifier to ensure the integrity of the survey, and while these identifiers were deleted before the survey results were prepared for release, we heard reports that simply being associated with that unique identifier was too much of a barrier.

  1. Discouragement from Senior Leadership

At some offices within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), senior leadership sent emails to employees that discouraged them from taking the 2018 UCS survey. FWS emails stated “Requests for service employees to participate in surveys, from both internal and external sources, must be approved in advance of the issuance of the survey.” But this is only true of surveys issued through the agency. Federal employees are not required to receive an ethics clearance to take an outside survey if they take it on their own time and with their own equipment. On the other hand, other offices within the EPA as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent emails reminding employees that they were welcome to take the survey given that they took it using their own time and equipment.

  1. Larger Survey Sample

This is the largest survey that UCS has ever conducted. Our prior surveys have been administered to up to 4 agencies, whereas we surveyed 16 agencies, offices, and bureaus this year. It may be easier to achieve higher response rates with smaller survey samples because it is possible for researchers to devote more time to working with the survey sample and building trust.

  1. Lack of Public Directory and/or Job Descriptions

UCS can survey federal scientists because their name, email address, and job title are publicly available, or at least they should be. For some agencies that we surveyed, like the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) who do not have public directories available, we submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for this information (it’s been a year and half, and we still don’t have the directory from DOE). For other agencies, such as the EPA, a public directory was available but didn’t have complete information (e.g., job titles). Having the job title of the career staffer is important as it allows us to narrow down our survey sample to those who are likely to be a scientist or scientific expert. In the case of the EPA, Census Bureau, and DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), we did not have this information, so we had to administer the survey to the entire agency, or to only offices that we assumed would do scientific work. This greatly increases the number of individuals in an agency sample such that response rates are likely skewed lower relative to other agencies.

Does this low response rate matter in the interpretation of survey results?

A low response rate can give rise to sampling bias, meaning that some individuals in our survey sample are less likely to be included than others (some suggest that only the most disgruntled employees would respond). However, there is a growing body of literature that suggests that this may not be the case. Counterintuitively, it’s possible that surveys with lower response rates may yield more accurate results compared to those with higher response rates. Another study showed that administering the same survey for only 5 days (achieving a 25% response rate) versus weeks (achieving a 50% response rate) largely did not result in statistically different results. Results that were significantly different across these surveys only differed between 4-8 percentage points.

Further, we have never suggested that the responses received at an agency represent the agency as a whole. Rather, the responses represent the experiences of those who chose to respond. And when hundreds or thousands of federal scientists report censorship, political influence on their work, or funding being distributed away from work just because the issue is viewed as politically contentious…well, we have a problem.

I’m very happy that we gave these scientists a voice, because they had a lot to say and it’s time that they’re heard.

Trump Administration Takes Aim at Public Health Protections

Photo: Daniels, Gene/ The U.S. National Archives

In a new regulatory effort, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims to be working to increase consistency and transparency in how it considers costs and benefits in the rulemaking process.

Don’t be fooled.

Under the cover of these anodyne goals, the agency is in fact trying to pursue something far more nefarious. Indeed, what the EPA is actually working to do is formalize a process whereby the decision of whether or not to go ahead with a rule is permanently tilted in industry’s favor. How? By slashing away at what the agency can count as “benefits,” resulting in a full-on broadside to public health.

EPA handcuffs itself to let industry roam free

Though it may seem obscure, the implications of this fiddling are anything but.

That’s because EPA regularly engages in what’s known as “cost-benefit analysis,” or a comparison of the costs of implementing a rule to the benefits that are expected to result. This doesn’t always shape how a standard gets set—for some air pollutants, for example, Congress actually requires the agency to specifically not develop standards based on cost, but rather based on health, to ensure that the public stays sufficiently protected. Other regulations weigh costs at varying levels of import, related to the specifics of the issue at hand.

Still, cost-benefit analysis is widely used, even when it describes rather than informs. The process lends context to rulemaking efforts, though it certainly isn’t perfect: cost-benefit analysis faces challenges, especially in quantifying those impacts that don’t lend themselves well to quantitative reductions. But on either side serious practitioners agree: this new effort by EPA is ill-conceived.

And the consequence of EPA’s proposed manipulations? Well, when the agency next goes to tally up the impacts of a rule, the traditionally towering benefits of its regulations could suddenly be cut way down in size. Not because public health is suddenly fixed, but just because it’s the only way to get the equation to solve in favor of industry time after time.

What’s more, alongside this effort EPA is simultaneously endeavoring to place untenable restrictions on the data and research the agency can consider in its rulemaking process, effectively hamstringing its own ability to fully and adequately evaluate impacts to public health.

Together, the net result would be a regulatory framework aggressively biased in industry’s favor, and a Trump Administration suddenly able to claim that public health protections are just not worth the cost.

To industry, with love

The good news is that this nascent proposal is incredibly hard to defend—on morals, and on merits.

The bad news is that the Trump Administration is highly motivated to do everything it can to find in favor of industry, so it’s still sure to be a fight.

Here, three key points to note:

  1. Ignoring co-benefits would permanently tilt the scales—and just does not make sense. One of the primary ways EPA is looking to shirk its regulatory responsibilities is by attempting to exclude the consideration of “co-benefits,” or those that arise as a result of a rule but not from the target pollutant itself, during its cost-benefit evaluations. Absurd. Although these indirect benefits—the avoided ER visits, the precluded asthma attacks, the workdays still in play—are just as real as indirect costs, under this proposal only the latter would continue to stay in the ledger.

 

  1. Requiring consistency across agency actions goes against EPA’s statutory requirements. The EPA is suggesting that cost-benefit methodologies should be applied uniformly across rulemaking efforts. This not only fails to recognize that not all protections should be evaluated in the same ways, but also that Congress itself outlined differences in how the agency should evaluate proposals depending on specific circumstances. As a result, the agency isn’t even allowed to do what it’s trying to do. And even worse than this nonsense standardization? The fact that the agency is trying to implement the requirement at the level least protective of public health.

 

  1. EPA already tried this out, and those efforts were roundly denounced. Prior to this proposal, EPA actually made a preliminary attempt at using a co-benefits-limited approach in its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. There, it attempted to separate out and consider only the benefits that accrued from carbon dioxide emissions reductions, despite the billions of dollars of additional health benefits anticipated to come from indirect benefits of the rule. This action was taken alongside a slew of other discriminatory accounting maneuvers, revealing an agency desperately doing anything it could to deliver for industry, including by tipping the scales.

This regulatory effort was carefully constructed to conceal intentions and motivations, but it’s clear from the agency’s surrounding narrative and parallel policy initiatives that it is being advanced in strict pursuit of an industry-favored finding.

Where to next?

Let’s not forget the mission of the EPA: to protect human health and the environment.

From that frame, it’s hard to see what good this effort would do. It doesn’t bring EPA closer to an objective analytical truth, it doesn’t elevate and further that which is in the public’s interest, and it certainly doesn’t suggest an agency doing everything it can to advance its one core mission.

Instead, what we see is EPA displaying shockingly overt piety to industry over public, and in the process, failing to defend the very thing the agency was created to protect.

We’ve filed comments with EPA to call this rigged process out, and we’ll continue to stand up for the mission of the agency even when EPA lets it slide.

Because this demands a fight.

A fight for an agency that fights for the public, and a fight for a ledger that pulls people and places out of the red, not permanently cements them in it.

Photo: Daniels, Gene/ The U.S. National Archives

UCS Survey Shows Interior Department is Worse Than We Thought—And That’s Saying Something

Photo: US Geological Survey

Can scientific staff at the US Department of the Interior rest easy knowing that their colleagues at other agencies have it worse when it comes to political interference?

Survey says: Nope.

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the results from their periodic survey of scientific professionals at federal agencies, and the results from the Department of Interior (DOI) are damning. Not only do the responses indicate plummeting morale, job satisfaction, and agency effectiveness, but politics is now being felt significantly at the US Geological Survey, a non-regulatory scientific bureau at DOI that has historically operated without substantial political interference. In all, concerns about political interference, censorship of politically contentious issues, and workforce reductions at DOI are higher than most other agencies.

The comments from the survey read like an organizational leadership seminar’s list of fatal flaws: Hostile workplace, check; fear of retaliation and discrimination, check; self-censorship, check; poor leadership, check; chronic understaffing, check. To make matters worse, the political leadership at Interior, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, has a deserved reputation for barring career staff from decision-making processes.

In addition to the undue influence of political staff, the top concern from DOI scientific staff was lack of capacity. One respondent commented: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As a former career civil servant at Interior I can attest to the plummeting morale at the agency—even before I resigned in October 2017 there was a pall over every office and bureau and career staff were feeling completely ignored by Trump administration officials. This led to some very bad decisions from Zinke, but that has not led to greater inclusion—in fact, team Zinke has continued to alienate career staff and seems to be betting that they will remain silent.

Some good investigative journalism and a lot of Freedom of Information Act disclosures have shown that only industry representatives get meetings with the top brass, decisions are made without input from career staff, censorship (especially of climate change related science) is on the upswing, science is routinely ignored or questioned, and expert advisory boards are being ignored, suspended, or disbanded.

All of this adds up to an agency that is being intentionally hollowed out, with consequences for American health and safety and for our nation’s treasured lands and wildlife. Americans are clamoring for more information on how their businesses, lands, and communities can address the climate impacts they see all year round—but DOI scientists responding to the survey pointed to how Zinke is slowly shutting down the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) that deliver that information. Congress provided Zinke with the money to keep growing the LCC’s, but he continues to let them wither on the vine just as they are providing important and timely support for communities in need.

As the Federal Trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Interior should be expected to support tribes and villages in need of resources and capacity for relocating or addressing dramatic climate change impacts, but Zinke is leaving them to fend for themselves despite a bipartisan call to get them out of harm’s way.

As the land manager for America’s most treasured landscapes, Interior is expected to be an effective steward of our National Parks and other areas dedicated to conservation, recreation, and the protection of wildlife habitat. Instead, Zinke ordered the largest reduction in conservation lands in our nation’s history when he shrunk Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by nearly half. Scientists responding to the survey referred to these decisions as lacking scientific justification. Thanks to recently disclosed documents and emails, we now know that science was pushed aside and the real reason for shrinking the Monuments was to encourage oil and gas extraction in those locations, despite Zinke’s emphatic statements to the contrary. The most damning evidence? The new maps for these shrunken Monuments match the maps that industry lobbyists provided for him. This is yet another insult to the American Indians for whom this area is sacred.

While this is consistent with the Administration’s goal of hobbling federal agencies and opening the door for industry donors, it is not consistent with the use of taxpayer dollars to protect national assets and address health and safety needs, and it is not consistent with the role of public servant. The UCS survey results are a damning indication of the depth of dysfunction that Ryan Zinke has fostered at Interior, and it is essential that Congress implement its important oversight role to prevent the rot from spreading still further.

Happy 10th Birthday to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act!

Photo: Valentina Powers/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Since the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) became law, it has done a number of things to protect children from exposure to lead in toys and other items, improved the safety standards for cribs and other infant and toddler products, and created the saferproducts.gov database so that consumers have a place to go for research on certain products or reporting safety hazards and negative experiences. Today, along with a group of other consumer and public health advocacy organizations, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the passage of this law. I am especially grateful that this act was passed a decade ago, as both a consumer advocate and an expecting mom.

Most of us might not realize it, but being a consumer now is a lot better than it would have been ten years ago.

When I sat down to begin the process of making a baby registry several months back, I didn’t know quite what to expect. With so many decisions to make about products that were going to be used by the person I already hold most dear in this world, I felt the anxiety begin to build. Perhaps I knew a little bit too much about how chemicals can slip through the regulatory cracks and end up on the market or how some companies deliberately manipulate the science in order to keep us in the dark about the safety of their products. But as I began to do research on children’s products, I ran into some pretty neat bits of information and have the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to thank.

First, cribs all have to meet conformity standards that were developed by the CPSC in 2011. The rule requires that all crib manufacturers cannot sell drop-side cribs, and must strengthen crib slates and mattress supports, improve the quality of hardware, and require more rigorous testing of cribs before sale. This means if a crib is for sale anywhere in the US, it has been accredited by a CPSC-approved body and meets distinct safety requirements so that not only can your baby sleep safely but parents can sleep soundly (insert joke about parents and lack of sleep here). Between 2006-2008 and 2012-2014, the percentage of deaths associated with cribs attributed to crib integrity vs. hazardous crib surroundings has decreased from 32 percent to 10 percent.

This isn’t the only product type for which CPSC has created standards in the past 10 years. So far, CPSC has written rules for play yards, baby walkers, baby bath seats, children’s portable bed rails, strollers, toddler beds, infant swings, handheld infant carriers, soft infant carriers, framed infant carriers, bassinets, cradles, portable hook-on chairs, infant sling carriers, infant bouncer seats, high chairs, and most recently it approved standards for baby changing tables this summer.

Next, I can rest assured that no baby products contain dangerous levels of the reproductive toxins, phthalates, because of a provision in CPSIA that restricted a total of eight types of phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles to a very strict standard of 0.1% on a permanent basis. It also established a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel of experts to review the science on phthalates that would eventually inform a CPSC final rule. that This rule was issued in October 2017 and became effective beginning in April 2018.

I can also be sure that the toys purchased for my child will not contain unsafe levels of the developmental toxin, lead, as long as they were tested and accredited by a CPSC-approved entity. As of 2011, the CPSIA limited the amount of lead that can be in children’s products to 100 ppm. And once we found that perfect paint color for the walls after hours of staring at violet swatches, I didn’t need to worry about its lead content considering that the CPSIA set the limit at 0.009 percent or 90 ppm for paint and some furniture that contains paint.

Finally, when in doubt, I discovered I can query the saferproducts.gov database to check whether there have been reports of a product’s hazard or head over to recalls.gov to double check that a product I’m planning on buying doesn’t have any recall notices on it.

There’s clearly been a lot of progress since the CPSIA was passed a decade ago, and I have to say, I feel fortunate that I’m beginning the parenting stage of my life as many of its provisions are being fully implemented. In all my reading on pregnancy and parenting, I’ve learned that there are only so many things you can control before your child arrives. The safety of my home is one of those things, so I’m thankful that the CPSIA has given me the ability to make informed decisions about the products with which I’m furnishing my child’s room.

And as I wear my Union of Concerned Scientists hat, I’m also encouraged that the CPSIA gave the agency the space to ensure that its scientists were able to do their work without fear of interference, including whistleblower protections. As the CPSC embarks upon its next ten years of ensuring the goals of the CPSIA are fully realized, we urge the agency to continue to enforce its safety standards, ensure that manufacturers of recalled products are held accountable, and educate the public about its product hazard database and other tools for reporting and researching harmful products. Unrelatedly, the agency should also continue to stay weird on twitter, because its memes bring joy to all. Case in point below.

Photo credit: twitter/US CPSC

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Results of Our 2018 Federal Scientists Survey

Photo: Virginia State Parks/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted a survey of federal scientists to ask about the state of science over the past year, and the results are in. Scientists and their work are being hampered by political interference, workforce reductions, censorship, and other issues, but the federal scientific workforce is resilient and continuing to stand up for the use of science in policy decisions.

This survey was conducted in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology building upon prior surveys conducted by UCS since 2005. However, this year’s survey is unique in that it is the largest that UCS has ever conducted to date (sent to over 63,000 federal employees across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus), and it is the first survey to our knowledge to gauge employee’s perceptions of the Trump administration’s use of science in decisionmaking processes.

The Trump administration’s record on science on a number of issues in multiple agencies is abysmal. Anyone who has paid attention to the news even slightly will know this. Therefore, my expectations were that the surveyed scientists and scientific experts would report out that they were working in a hostile work environment, that they are encountering numerous barriers to doing and communicating science, and that too many scientists are leaving the federal workforce. And while many of the respondents reported out on these negative issues, many respondents also reported out a lot of good work that is happening.

To be certain, some agencies seem to be faring better than others. Respondents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported better working environments and leadership that were conducive to continuing science-based work that informs decisionmaking at their agencies. However, respondents from bureaus at the Department of Interior (DOI) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seem to be having a difficult time with political interference, maintaining professional development, and censorship, to name a few issues illustrated by this survey. This agency-level variation, as well as variation in response rates  across surveyed agencies, should be considered when interpreting results across all agencies.

Below, I highlight some results of this year’s survey, but you can also find all of the results, methodology, quotes from surveyed scientists, and more at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey.

The Ugly: Political interference in science-based decisionmaking

The Trump administration has been no stranger to interfering with science-based processes at federal agencies. For example, both Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt changed the review processes of science-based grants such that they are critiqued based on how well they fit the administration’s political agenda instead of their intellectual merit. UCS also discovered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the White House interfered in the publication of a study about the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States.

Surveyed scientists and scientific experts in our 2018 survey noted that political interference is one of the greatest barriers to science-based decisionmaking at their agency. In a multiple response survey question in which respondents chose up to three barriers to decisionmaking, those ranked at the top were: Influence of political appointees in your agency or department, influence of the White House, limited staff capacity, delay in leadership making a decision, and absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise. This result was different as compared to our 2015 survey in which respondents reported that limited staff capacity and complexity of the scientific issue were the top barriers—influence of other agencies or the administration, as it was phrased in our 2015 survey, was not identified as a top barrier. One respondent from the EPA noted that political interference is undoing scientific processes: “…efforts are being made at the highest levels to unwind the good work that has been done, using scientifically questionable approaches to get answers that will support the outcomes desired by top agency leadership.”

Many respondents also reported issues of censorship, especially in regard to climate change science. In total, 631 respondents reported that they have been asked or told to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. A total of 703 respondents reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. But it is not only climate change—over 1,000 responding scientists and scientific experts reported that they have been asked or told to omit certain words in their scientific work because they are viewed as politically contentious. One respondent from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted that scientists studying pollinator health are being scrutinized: “We have scientists at my location that deal with insect pollinator issues, and there appears to be some suppression of work on that topic, in that supervisors question the contents of manuscripts, involvement in certain types of research, and participation in public presentation of the research. It has not eliminated the work of those scientists, but their involvement in those areas is highly scrutinized.”

The Bad: The scientific workforce is likely dwindling

Nearly 80% of respondents (3,266 respondents in total) noticed workforce reductions either due to staff departures, hiring freezes, and/or retirement buyouts. Of those respondents who noticed workforce reductions, nearly 90% (2,852 respondents in total) reported that these reductions make it difficult for them to fulfill their agency’s science-based missions. A respondent from the Fish and Wildlife Service summed up the issue: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As of June 2018, the 18th month of his administration, President Trump had filled 25 of the 83 government posts that the National Academy of Sciences designates as “scientist appointees.” Maybe now that President Trump has nominated meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, we will see other scientific appointments as well. For now, agencies that are understaffed and that do not have leadership with needed scientific expertise will likely continue to have a difficult time getting their scientific work completed.

The Good:  The scientific workforce is resilient

While 38% of those surveyed (1628 respondents in total) reported that the effectiveness of their division or offices has decreased over the past year, 15% reported an increase in effectiveness (643 respondents total) and 38% (1567 respondents total) reported no change in effectiveness over the past year. It is still not a good sign that over 1,000 scientists and scientific experts are reporting that the effectiveness of their office/division has decreased under the Trump administration, but it is also good to see that there are still a number of scientists and scientific experts being able to continue to do their important work.

Further, a majority of respondents (64%; 2452 respondents in total) reported that their agencies are adhering to their scientific integrity policies and that they are receiving adequate training on them. While those surveyed reported on barriers to science-based decisionmaking such as those described above and more that fall outside of the scope of these policies, it is still a step forward to see that the federal scientific workforce knows about the policies and perceives them to be followed. Many responding scientists reported that they are doing the best work they can under this administration. As one respondent from the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, “USGS scientific integrity guidelines are among the best in the federal service. They are robust and followed by the agency. What happens at the political level is another story.”

There is still work to do

Some scientists are continuing to get their work done and others are having a difficult time. Many scientists see their leadership as a barrier to their science-based work, whereas some scientists think their leadership recognizes the importance of science to their agency’s mission.

However, when hundreds to thousands of scientists are reporting that there is political interference in their work, that they fear using certain terms like “climate change,” or that they are seeing funds being distributed away from work viewed as politically contentious – this is an ugly side of this administration’s treatment of science. Those numbers should be as close to zero as possible because when science takes a back seat to political whims, the health and safety of the American people loses.

Science Prevails in the Courts as Chlorpyrifos Ban Becomes Likely

Photo: Will Fuller/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, children, farmworkers, and the rest of us won big in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as the court ordered EPA to finalize its proposed ban of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. Ultimately, the judge determined that EPA’s 2017 decision to refuse to ban the chemical was unlawful because it failed to justify keeping chlorpyrifos on the market, while the scientific evidence very clearly pointed to the link between chlorpyrifos exposure and neurodevelopmental damage to children, and further risks to farmworkers and users of rural drinking water.

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the EPA is required to remove pesticide tolerances (effectively banning them) when it cannot find they are safe with a “reasonable certainty.” The judge found that when former Administrator Pruitt’s refused to ban the chemical, he contradicted the work of the agency’s own scientists, who found the chemical posed extensive health risks to children. His failure to act accordingly violated the agency’s mandate under the FFDCA.

This attack on science was fueled by close relationships that Scott Pruitt and President Trump have with Dow Chemical Company, which makes chlorpyrifos. Unfortunately, this was just one of many recent EPA actions that not only lack justification and supporting analysis, but actively undermine the agency’s ability to protect public health—and in this case specifically, the health of children. Acting Administrator Wheeler should learn from this particular case that EPA’s decisions must be grounded in evidence, and that the public will continue to watch and demand as much.

The petition was filed by a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations. The EPA now has 60 days to ban chlorpyrifos.

Photo: Will Fuller/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

As States Target University Students for Voter Suppression, Student Groups are Fighting Back

Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr

As the 2018 general midterm election approaches, college student voting rights are under attack.  Students are being specifically targeted for voter suppression in a number of states by excluding student identification as an acceptable form of voter identification, tightening up residency requirements, and selectively spreading misinformation. Fortunately, in several states, campus-wide and student-led movements are organizing and mobilizing college voters in a recognition of the historic role that students have played in the civil and voting rights movements in the United States and abroad.

New hurdles for students

Many states still do not allow absentee voting, often preventing students from outside of their birth states from casting a ballot.  More specifically, and more frequently since the Supreme Court overturned sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, dozens of states have implemented voter identification requirements, some of which either exclude student identification as a valid form of ID, or require proof of residency with forms (electric bills, etc.) that students living on campus are less likely to have.  A University of Michigan study has demonstrated the recent decline of drivers’ license ownership among college students, a form of identification frequently used in states with strict voter ID laws.

Perhaps most notoriously, the state of New Hampshire recently legislated the equivalent of a poll tax on out-of-state students, a residency requirement that includes registering one’s vehicle with the state and getting a New Hampshire driver’s license, which can cost several hundred dollars.  New Hampshire students have one chance , this November, to overturn the law: because it does not go into effect until 2019, they have an opportunity to mobilize and change the leadership in the legislature, a legislature that intentionally targeted them.

Direct, intentional targeting of students to suppress their votes in not solely the province of legislatures.  For example, in 2016, campuses in Maine were targeted with flyers providing false information about voting and registration requirements, and past elections have seen campuses targeted by organizations that fraudulently register students without completing their registration.

Nevertheless, students organizing to protect voting rights  in other states have achieved significant victories.  North Carolina’s strict voter ID law, which excluded student IDs as valid, was struck down in 2016 before the general election, after a group of college students, along with the Department of Justice, the North Carolina NAACP, the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters filed lawsuits against the state of North Carolina.  Just this month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker sided with students and struck down Florida’s ban on early voting sites on college campuses as “facially discriminatory on account of age.”

Of course, the struggle continues.  A newly refurbished voter ID law is actually back on the ballot this November in North Carolina, with no mention of whether student IDs would be a valid form of identification.

Voter ID is also back on the ballot in Arkansas, and restrictive election laws already on the books weaken electoral integrity and threaten to disenfranchise voters across the United States.

Student organizing brings ballot access

For decades, student movements have been critical to expanding and defending ballot access throughout the United States. We need students to fulfill their historic role as agents of change in the expansion and protection of voting rights, from the Women’s Suffrage movement to Selma, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been organizing since 1963.

Organizing is already under way.  Across the country, campaigns like The Big Ten Voting Challenge are working to increase the number of eligible registered students across the country, through an extension of the Turbo Vote Challenge.  Student groups like Turn Up Turnout have a straightforward, non-partisan approach to political action: sign students onto Turbovote; organize turnout initiatives; administer workshops to explain the importance and effectiveness of voting, especially in midterm and local elections; and provide workshop materials that other campuses can use to develop their own initiatives.  The goal is not just to increase on-campus voting, but “that students should vote where they want—at home or at school—that it should be their choice” according to professor Edie Goldberg, who helped initiate the group at the University of Michigan.

The freedom to choose.  That is ultimately what students are fighting for this election cycle.  Not just for the right to free, fair and competitive elections, but for the ultimate ends of political action: the health of their communities, the health of the planet, as well as the academic means, the science that supports the sorts of policy that will get us there.  Science Rising is one such effort, a coalition of scientists, students, and activists fighting to ensure that knowledge generated for the public good continues to play a central role in policymaking, despite recent attacks on science and the scientific community.

Organizers and activists are creating windows of opportunity this election season. Opportunities to ensure that our democracy has an adequate supply of its two basic components: the energy of citizens, equally empowered to associate and express their collective goals; and the knowledge required to make informed, ethical and humane choices about what those goals are.  Ultimately, democracy depends on “strong people” in the words of SNCC organizer, advisor, and mentor Ella Baker; “Strong people don’t need leaders…we were strong people.  We did strong things.”

Preliminary data look promising. Record turnout among young people in Virginia helped to unseat dozens of incumbent state lawmakers in 2017.  While Millennials are still less likely to register than older Americans, their share among newly registered voters indicates a significant increase, especially in battleground states.  Additionally, the number of young people running for office is surging across the country at every level of government. But we won’t know until November, just how many students are stepping up to take on their historic responsibility as agents of change, and showing it at the ballot box.

Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr

At Long Last, President Trump is Expected to Appoint a Science Adviser

Multiple outlets (Nature, Science, the Washington Post) are reporting that President Trump is set to appoint meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He is an experienced scientist with an impressive record of public service. When the appointment happens, the Senate should move quickly to vet and consider his nomination so that the vacuum of science advice within the White House can begin to be filled.

Importantly, the OSTP director has typically also served as the science advisor to the president, reporting directly to the president (except during the George W. Bush administration, when the science advisor was demoted to report to the White House chief of staff). If you want to go deep on presidential science advice, here’s one book for you.

Presumed science adviser nominee Kelvin Droegemeier could be a moderating force within the White House. Photo: Oklahoma State University

Direct access to the president matters. Just think of all of the issues the president deals with that have a science and technological component: pandemics, disaster response, economic competitiveness, health care, drug abuse, energy, food systems, resource extraction and more. Imagine how much better prepared the president could have been in talks with North Korea with a trusted advisor on the nation’s nuclear capacity.

Dr. Droegemeier is an extreme weather expert, a knowledge base that is becoming more and more important with climate change loading the dice as extreme weather becomes more prevalent, costly, and deadly. Science advisors can be moderating forces by providing road maps and showing what is possible, and working behind the scenes to stop dangerous proposals from moving forward.

Hopefully, Dr. Droegemeier would help the president and his advisors make decisions that are more scientifically justifiable and reflective of scientific evidence. He would also serve the country well by supporting efforts that protect federal scientists from political interference in their work.

Some will doubt that the president will have any inclination to listen to science advice and incorporate it into his erratic behavior. But not all policy comes from the mouth of the president, and at this point any mainstream scientific presence in the White House should be considered a step forward.

Federal Health Study on Drinking Water Contaminants Calls into Question Safety of Nation’s Drinking Water Supply

The public water supply in Hyannis, Massachusetts, one of the communities currently dealing PFAS contamination. Photo: A. Fox. Courtesy of STEEP

On a late June evening in a high school auditorium in Exeter, NH, dozens of people stepped up to the microphone to tell EPA about contaminated drinking water in their communities. They described unexplained illnesses in their families, expressed frustration about inadequate government response, and shared their guilt and fear about their children’s exposures to toxics and the possible long-term effects. “Years before becoming pregnant, I was educating people on how to eliminate environmental toxics from their personal care products and food. That’s why this was so devastating,” said Alayna Davis, co-founder of a local community group called Testing for Pease. “I could not prevent this water from contaminating my son’s body.” 

This event was the first in a series of community listening sessions that EPA will host nationwide on a class of chemicals called PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—toxic chemicals that, in recent years, have been detected in drinking water supplies across the country serving millions of Americans. A new federal report on PFAS health effects suggests that drinking water guidelines developed by EPA are not protective enough and should be lower. Scientists, environmental organizations, and community groups are urging the agency to take strong steps to address the problem. How the agency will respond is unclear at this point. What we do know, however, is that regardless of EPA action, the problem will not go away anytime soon unless we reduce our reliance on these chemicals and invest in safer alternatives.

A wake-up call

PFASs are ubiquitous. They’re used in stain-repellent furniture and carpets, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, and even some fast food packaging and dental floss. They can also end up in drinking water through waste released from chemical manufacturing sites as well as military bases and airports where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used. Due to their extreme persistence, these chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” PFASs are found in all of our bodies, and have been linked to cancers, developmental and reproductive toxicity, thyroid disease, immune system toxicity, and other effects.

In May, there was public outcry over efforts by the White House and EPA to delay the release of a federal health study on PFASs. The study was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to internal EPA emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, officials were looking to avoid a “public relations nightmare.” Advocacy groups circulated online petitions and launched social media campaigns, pressing the government to release the report. On June 20, after much anticipation and controversy, ATSDR finally released a draft of the study, which found health risks associated with exposure to PFASs at levels much lower than the threshold levels estimated by EPA.

Weighing the evidence

Weighing in at 852 pages, the report is a comprehensive review of dozens of published studies on the toxicity of PFASs in humans and laboratory animals. While there are at least 4,700 PFASs on the global market, the report looked at just 14 types—ones the CDC monitors in the general population. Of these, ATSDR found it only had enough information on four—PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFNA—to generate what are called minimal risk levels, or MRLs.

An MRL is essentially a measure of how much of a chemical a person can be exposed to each day without it causing health effects. MRLs encompass exposures from all sources, including drinking water, food, and consumer products. To calculate an MRL, scientists identify the lowest levels of exposure shown to cause harmful effects in humans or laboratory animals. They further reduce these levels by building in various safety factors to ensure that MRLs are protective for even the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.

Safety in numbers

What got the attention of EPA officials earlier this year was that ATSDR’s new MRLs for PFOA and PFOS (the two most prevalent PFASs) are 6.7 and 10 times lower, respectively, than comparable values developed by EPA, which are known as reference doses (RfDs).

Although MRLs and RfDs are more or less the same thing, in this case, there were some differences in the way the two agencies generated their numbers. For PFOS, ATSDR and EPA both based their values on the same study that showed developmental effects in rats. However, in calculating its MRL, ATSDR lowered its value by a factor of 10 to account for additional studies showing effects on the immune system at low levels of exposure. In the case of PFOA, ATSDR and EPA relied on different studies altogether for their calculations.

What does this mean for our drinking water?

In May 2016, EPA issued a non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, individually or combined. Dozens of public water supplies across the U.S. scrambled to meet this new advisory by shutting off polluted water sources and installing new treatment. For instance, on Cape Cod, where I have been studying unregulated drinking water contaminants including PFASs since 2010, the Hyannis Water System issued a temporary do-not-drink advisory to its customers. It has since spent millions of dollars to install large carbon filters to remove PFOS and PFOA from polluted wells.

The EPA develops its drinking water health advisories based on its RfDs, and includes assumptions about how much water people drink and how much of people’s exposure comes from other sources. Using the same methods and assumptions as EPA, when we translate ATSDR’s MRLs into drinking water guidelines, we get equivalent levels in drinking water of 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA—7 to 10 times lower than EPA’s. These values are also similar to those developed by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, which recommends limits of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

What’s next?

The public comment period for ATSDR’s report ends on August 20, and anyone can submit comments online. Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, officials from EPA’s Washington DC and Boston offices have pledged to take action on PFASs in drinking water. Following a federal PFAS summit in May, EPA identified four areas for future action, including developing enforceable drinking water standards and groundwater cleanup recommendations to speed up remediation at contaminated sites.

These are good first steps. EPA should also consider ATSDR’s recent report and additional evidence of health effects at low levels of exposure. For instance, a study led by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean concluded that drinking water guidelines for PFOS and PFOA should be closer to 1 ppt based on immune system effects in children. In addition, studies in laboratory animals have found that low levels of PFOA exposure can impair mammary gland development. This is concerning because research shows that altered mammary gland development may increase breast cancer susceptibility later in life.

While PFOS and PFOA have received the most attention, it’s important to remember that PFASs are a broad group of chemicals, each with its own unique structure but united in their persistence. Although manufacturers have moved away from PFOS and PFOA, new alternative PFASs have emerged to fill their place, and these too raise concerns about effects in the environment and in people. Efforts to limit PFASs as a class rather than one at a time, such as Washington State’s recent ban on PFASs in food packaging and firefighting foam, are an important step in the right direction. Residents of affected communities across the U.S. are demanding action, and EPA needs to follow up on its promises by taking strong steps to protect public health.

 

Dr. Laurel Schaider is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. Her current research focuses on PFASs in drinking water and consumer products, including fast food packaging, and on septic systems as sources of unregulated drinking water contaminants. She is a researcher on the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and is a technical advisor to ATSDR’s Community Assistance Panel at the Pease Tradeport, a site of PFAS drinking water contamination. Find her on Twitter @laurelschaider.

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.

Courtesy of STEEP, photo by A. Fox.

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