Got Science? Podcast | Episode 44 Why Science Needs Your Vote in the Midterm Elections

October 15, 2018

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy, goes over some of the key issues facing science, and how your vote in the upcoming midterm elections can help.

In this episode Andy Rosenberg talks about:

  • How Congress' role has changed in the past two years
  • What to look for in a candidate when voting for science
  • Attacks on science we've seen under the current administration
  • Why voting for science is necessary for our health and the planet

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:56)
  • Intro (0:56-2:18)
  • Interview part 1 (2:18-13:04)
  • Break (13:04-14:03)
  • Interview part 2 (14:03-26:14)
  • This Week in Science History throw (26:14-26:19)
  • This Week in Science History (26:19-29:06)
  • Outro (29:06-30:00)

Related content:

Full Transcript

Colleen: Andy, thanks for joining me.

Andy: Thank you, Coleen.

Colleen: So, midterm elections are right around the corner. Science has been swept under the rug for the past two years and depending on the outcome of the midterm elections, we may have a chance to get science-based decision-making back into the mix. So, what do you see as the stakes for science in this election?

Andy: Well, perhaps one of the few things I agree with the president on is that this is an incredibly important midterm election. It's important because in the first two years of the Trump administration, Congress really has not taken on its traditional role of checks and balances. They have not checked the administration from attacks on science. And they have not come up with balanced policies or pushed for balance in the way that we implement existing policies for a whole range of issues from public health and safety to environmental protection, to worker safety and so on.

So, in this midterm, I believe there's an opportunity to restore what should be a functioning American style of government which critically includes checks and balances. Congress being the check.

Colleen: So, when you say "attacks on science," give me some specifics there.

Andy: We think of attacks on science, which we've catalogued on our website, as places where science has been pushed aside in making a decision. Not because of making a policy choice in light of the science which I might not agree with, but simply, the evidence has been completely ignored. Or attacking science programs and the process by which science comes into public policy directly. For example, saying we don't wanna talk about climate change where there's, very ample evidence and scientific work going on climate change that affects a huge range of federal programs, is an attack on science. Withholding grants is an attack on science.

One example is that the Environmental Protection Agency, they have proposed a rule which sounds on its face like it's about providing better information but is anything but. Yeah. It's called improving the transparency. We call it restricting science. And that rule would say that the EPA may not rely on any scientific study where the data isn't fully publicly available. Which sounds on its face like, "Oh, that's a good thing. They should make data publicly available." Except for, the EPA is a public health agency and a lot of the studies it need to rely on are public health studies that use people's medical history, medical records. And it's not as simple as simply blacking out the names because there's good information that you can still uncover people's identity. It's their personal, private information. So, you're telling the nation's premier public health agency that you should not use public health studies to protect the public. That's an attack on science.

Now, in fact, the Department of Interior this week has replicated that same strategy in the Department of Interior. There, it's not an issue of public health records, but it is an issue on things such as managing native lands, cultural resources, religious artifacts. It's also an issue for endangered species. You may not want to make publicly available the locations for the last individuals of an endangered species.

So, there are lots of concerns when this administration is creating policies under false pretenses, that this is about transparency where really it is designed to hamstring the process of putting in place public health, safety, and environmental protections. That's an attack on science.

Colleen: … So, they're taking transparency and they're using it in a way that is not going to protect people and people's private information?

Andy: Right. I mean, I call it Catch-22 rule. Basically, what they're saying is, "You may not rely on studies where the data isn't all publicly available. You may not require the data to be publicly released, but if you can't publicly release the data, you may not regulate." So, it's basically saying, "You're not allowed to use the data that you're prohibited from using and therefore you can't regulate."

It's a quiet cynical strategy. It was developed originally by lobbyists who were working to prevent regulations on secondhand smoke. And in fact, they were quite open about why they were doing this. They said, "If we can get this in place, it means they will not be able to regulate secondhand smoke because we can exclude all that science." So, now they've taken that forward 20-something years and said, "Hey, let's do that for everything. That means you won't be able to regulate chemicals. You won't be able to regulate air pollution. You won't be able to regulate water pollution," that have broad public health impacts. That's an attack on science.

Colleen: Would it make a difference if we had more scientists in office?

Andy: Well, it's helpful to have people in office that understand science and value science. I don't think that that's the, the critical element, although I'm certainly supportive of scientists who have the inclination to run for public office. I think what's more important is that you have elected officials that have a respect for the role that science can play and should play in our public policy.

And so, if you think about that...I was actually asked in an interview not so long ago, "Well, you know, how would you describe the importance of the role of science in public policy," you know, "very concisely?" And I said, "If you're making public policy and you're not using science as part of the decision, then you're making your decisions on a wholly political basis, who basically, has the most influence." So, science provides the guiderails. It says, "Here's the evidence and we wanna adhere to the evidence." That's why the best available science is included in so many of our laws as a requirement for implementing any given statute.

Colleen: In terms of the midterm elections coming up, there are a lot of issues that people are thinking about when they go into the voting booth. So, how can we make sure that science is one of those issues?

Andy: Well, we need to make science real to people on the ground where they live. We can't just talk about, "Gee, science is important. Look at all the valuable things we've invented," or whatever. You know, that discussion might be the value to society. It needs to be something that people feel and respect where they live and on the issues that they care about.

So, an example of that is we just released a report last week about ground water contamination and drinking water contamination in communities all around the country, particularly on military bases which shows that the level of chemicals, called polyfluorinated alkylate substances or PFAS, are very, very, very high compared to recommended levels to reduce the risk from a whole host of diseases including cancer. And the EPA had suppressed a report that showed that actually that safe level was much lower than previously thought, and they suppressed it because as in the words of one White House staffer, "It would cause a public relations nightmare." Well, that's not a good reason not to release scientific information. And so, there's literally hundreds of places around the country on military bases that have extremely high levels of PFAS in the water. That's an issue that affects people where they live. Doesn't matter whether you're Republican or a Democrat. You probably don't want your kids drinking in...playing in water or having dishes washed that have dangerous chemicals in them.

Colleen: Right. I actually was reading… I don't know if you saw the article about Pease Air Force base in New Hampshire where there's an extremely high number of people with cancer that have died that were working on that base or living around that base.

Andy: It's an incredibly important issue, and I used to teach at the University of New Hampshire... You know, it's not that this is a new issue that we didn't know about, but the EPA and the Department of Defense need to take much stronger action. Now, in that activist group at Pease Air Force base, I have no idea what the political affiliation is of the members of the activist group and they probably don't care. It's not a matter that is political. It's a matter of people's lives, family safety, the safety of your children. And so, these are issues that need to be brought forward. When I talked to representatives from Department of Defense, they said, you know, "If EPA would set a real standard as opposed to just a health advisory, that would mean we could direct more resources towards actually trying to fix this problem."

Colleen: So, there isn't anything that they are mandated to do to fix it?

Andy: Right. They are not requiring cleanup. They are not even including it on the toxic substance registry. They simply have a health advisory saying, "This stuff isn't so good for you," and the levels that they recommended are seven times higher than the most recent science has indicated out of the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services. That's the report they wanted to suppress, the one that said, "Actually, the levels are even much, much lower than the EPA's health advisory says." There was only one military base that has been tested that was at safe levels in their ground water.

Colleen: Out of how many?

Andy: 150 or so.

[Break]

Colleen: Okay. So, how do you get the EPA then to take this seriously?

Andy: Well, the EPA is saying, "Oh, It would take a long time for us to do something." If Congress was doing its role of checks and balances, they would step in and order the EPA and provide the funding for the EPA to rapidly put measures in place that would then motivate Department of Defense, which already has a plot of money for base cleanup, to clean up some of these areas.

And so, Congress, again, is the, body within our government that appropriates funds, but it's also the body that is supposed to be addressing checks and balances in the administration to make sure that...in fact, the will of Congress or laws are faithfully carried out by the executive branch. And so, that's not really functioning right now because everything is seen as a partisan attack. Republicans won't allow any critical hearings of the administration. Democrats really can't get through because it's seen as a partisan battle.

Colleen: So, the EPA, are they enforcing the rules that are already in place?

Andy: Well, this is another major issue. There's been a serious reduction in enforcement staff at the EPA in particular. And while we don't have the figures yet at other agencies like Department of Interior, I believe will also be the case. The reduction in the number of staff basically means that there's fewer inspections. There's fewer cases brought for people who are violating the rules.

And so, that has a couple of effects. The first effect is, you know, if you live somewhere where say there's an industrial facility that hasn't been adhering to the pollution control rules, you probably want them to do so. I mean, that's your neighborhood. And that's not gonna happen unless there's an aggressive enforcement campaign that says, "Let's go and inspect. Let's make sure that people are adhering to the rules. And particularly for people who are major violators, let's bring a case."

A lot of people may not realize that the EPA and other agencies, their enforcement people are not, low level. They are FBI-trained. They do investigations like a detective would. They are looking for major cases. This isn't just to go around and, make small cases on businesses. They are looking for those major violators that are really causing problems. And they're trying to use civil penalties to actually make sure that people are complying with the rules. Well, they have reduced the number of enforcement agents by a large number all around the country and in headquarters. And they have also changed strategy where they want to rely on voluntary compliance and compliance assistance as opposed to actual enforcement.

Well, businesses know what they need to do. And they can certainly...many businesses voluntarily comply. But what happens when you don't have sufficient enforcement is there's a lot of businesses that try to do the right thing and then unfortunately there's always someone who, figures the rules don't apply to them, or they can get around them, or they can boost their profits, and that makes it unfair for the businesses that are trying to do the right thing. They can't compete because, you know, they have to meet all the rules and somebody might never get an inspection is getting away with not applying the rules. So, that's unfair too in addition to just the environmental impacts.

Colleen: So, is anyone held accountable?

Andy: Well, they are held accountable, but it's difficult to do when Congress isn't stepping up to do its job of checks and balances. again, Congress should be saying, "Tell me how the enforcement program is going." The EPA issued a report that said, "Oh, well, we've issued more violations and fines than, you know, in the previous year." What they didn't point out is that almost all of those violations were issued under the Obama administration. They were just collecting the fines in the first year of the Trump administration.

So, they need to be held accountable for enforcing the rules and also for sufficient staffing, because this doesn't happen if you cut the staff way back. And right now, a lot of senior people are leaving because first of all, it's a difficult place to work right now as our scientists survey showed. But also, the workforce is an aging workforce. And so, half of the federal employees are eligible to retire in the next, I don't know, 5 to 10 years, but they're not hiring in new young professionals, which they should be. That's what these agencies really need, is new talent coming in whether it be in enforcement or it be in policy or it be scientists. You need new talent coming in, and they've stopped that supply of new talent and they're essentially tried to starve some agencies to death.

Colleen: So, Andy, that's a lot of bad news. Is there any good news in here?

Andy: There is some good news. Well, you take good news where you can get it these days. It's hard to, keep pushing with a flood of bad news. But first of all, also what we found on our survey of federal scientists is that most scientists, yeah, there's a lot of retirements, but people are, sticking it out, working at their desks saying, "I've got a job to do. It's a really important job and nobody's gonna push me out." They're still doing the good scientific work that's needed. The enforcement agents that are left are saying, "I'm committed to doing my task."

I mean, the public image... I'm a formal federal employee. Ten years at NOAA. The public image of, federal employees just sort of sitting around waiting to collect a pension, not really doing very much, is just totally wrong. You've got really committed people who believe in public service, believe in what they do. They're professionals in their field.

Colleen: Let's say an overwhelming number of candidates that take science to heart actually win in November. What's likely to change?

Andy: What I hope will change is that Congress will be asking agencies like the EPA or the Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA Fisheries where I used to work, they will be asking the hard questions. They will be demanding that the agencies justify actions that they're taking. They will be listening to their constituents and raising issues their constituents raise about why they're taking a particular action that might increase hazardous air pollutant, or why there isn't a cleanup program for PFAS as I discussed before, or why, you know, OSHA is no longer requiring businesses to keep records of worker accidents for longer than two years, or a whole host of other things. Congress should be effectively calling on the agencies to come forward and justify their actions and then considering those, whether there are legal changes that need to be made, whether that affects appropriation of funds for the agency and so on.

Colleen: So, will they be able to actually do more than just raise those questions? Can they actually force some action?

Andy: They can force action through legislation and appropriations. There's no question of that. But they can hold the administration to account in the court of public opinion too, which matters a lot leading up to a presidential election. we've seen in this administration a pretty large number of officials have to leave because of, misuse of government funds, or inappropriate travel, or inappropriate actions. That's not because Congress acted but because there was a public outcry and politically it wasn't sustainable. Well, Congress should be part of that effort. They should be saying, "This is not acceptable under our laws." They can refer things of course to the Department of Justice if it's illegal, but even more than that, they should be raising the issues and clarifying, "No, the public interest does come first, not, a particular company or industry."

The EPA is there to serve the public. The Department of Interior is not there to issue as many oil and gas leases as they can. They're there to serve the public, and public lands are for the public, not for private industry and so on. So, they can have a very big role here in addition to courts as the other part of checks and balances in the way our constitution is designed.

Colleen: So, when voters are considering candidates, what should they be looking for if they wanna support science and science-based policies?

Andy: They should be looking for someone that has some independence to raise issues that are of concern to them, regardless of their party platform. They should be looking for someone who's willing to turn and ask advice from scientists and ask advice from other experts. a lot of people have sort of said, "Well, the expertise is no longer valued." I just don't believe that's true. I mean, you wouldn't hire somebody to do your plumbing if they didn't have some expertise in plumbing and electricity, or building your house. So, it doesn't make much sense to me that people would say, "No, I don't care about expertise anymore." So, you want your candidates to say, "I'm gonna go and ask,", "independent scientists," "'What does the evidence say?'" In addition to listening to constituents. I think that voters in candidate forums and letters should be looking for that strength of independence to ask the questions that are needed to formulate a policy position, not just come forward with some dogmatic position and certainly not to assert that there were alternative facts or some such nonsense like that.

Colleen: And we do actually, on our website, we have a list of sample questions that you can ask candidates on different issues.

Andy: And on Science Rising, which is something that we participate in at sciencerising.org, there's events all around the country that different science groups and groups interested in science are organizing in advance of the election where you can express your views and have an opportunity to meet in candidate forums and other things at a local level. Most importantly, people need to vote.

Colleen: Right. Exactly.

Andy: We have very, very low voting rates. We have very high voting barriers in too many places. Those need to be overcome and people really need to get out and vote because otherwise you get, the government that you asked for.

Colleen: So, this is what we're asking all our listeners to do, to get out and vote.

Andy: That’s exactly what I think we should do. Ask people to get out and vote. Become informed, and get out and vote.

Colleen: Andy, thanks for joining me, and we'll be chatting after the election.

Andy: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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Credits: 

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald