Fall 2017

The Trump Administration Is Trying to Sideline Science. UCS Is Fighting Back.

Photo: Jinning Li/Shutterstock
President Trump has signed executive orders aimed at limiting federal regulations, such as those that protect people from exposure to harmful chemicals.

By Pamela Worth

To understand the state of science in the Trump administration, look no further than the case of Joel Clement, a climate scientist and former director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the US Interior Department. This summer, Clement was abruptly removed from his position and reassigned to an accounting position, even though he is not an accountant. He filed a formal whistleblower complaint with the US Office of Special Counsel, alleging that his transfer came as retaliation for his work on behalf of Alaskan Inuit communities whose land is being lost to climate-driven sea level rise.

“Many of these people need to move out of harm’s way, and soon,” Clement says. “Without full engagement from the federal government, that’s not going to happen. My role was coordinating that engagement.” But now, Clement says, with his reassignment, no one is doing that work. “That’s why I blew the whistle,” he says. “The health and safety of these Alaskan natives is put at risk by ignoring this problem.”

“In this case, the consequences will be felt by Alaskan native communities,” Clement says. But he adds that his reassignment is symptomatic of a larger problem within the Trump administration—with dangerous broader consequences for public health and safety.

“There’s a pattern of muzzling scientists,” he says, “putting many more people at risk.”

A Union of Concerned Scientists report released this summer, Sidelining Science Since Day One, exposes this broader pattern—chronicling dozens of examples of the abuse, manipulation, denial, and suppression of science during the first six months of the Trump administration.

“We knew there had been a number of incidents,” says report coauthor Jacob Carter, a research scientist with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “But even we were surprised when we compiled them; by our measure, there has been a new attack on science every four days on average.”

By repeatedly choosing political convenience over truth or health and safety concerns, the Trump administration has waged a veritable war on science. The president and Congress have willfully ignored the evidence on harmful products and practices, targeted and demoted scientists like Clement for doing their jobs, attempted to cut funding for crucial research, appointed people with blatant conflicts of interest, and denied the threat climate change poses to our country and the world.

“UCS became familiar with abuses of science during the George W. Bush administration. But what we’re witnessing now—the scale and pace—is on steroids,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy.

While attacks on civil and human rights have deservedly claimed the media spotlight in this administration, attacks on science have equally serious consequences. Policymakers need scientific evidence to make decisions on the challenging issues we face today. Suppressing that science is reckless, shortsighted, and harmful to Americans’ health and safety.

Deadly Consequences

Since January 20, 2017, the Trump administration has made several egregious policy choices that pose immediate threats to people’s lives. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Trump has delayed and weakened protections for construction and shipyard workers who are exposed through their jobs to the carcinogens silica and beryllium. Rules intended to limit exposure to these chemicals were based on decades of research. Workers will inevitably sicken and die because these rules won’t be properly implemented.

Farmworkers’ and children’s health will suffer as a result of a decision at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to willfully overrule scientific evidence. Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt went against the advice of his own staff scientists and canceled a planned ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is manufactured by Dow Chemical—whose CEO has donated to President Trump. The pesticide, prohibited for indoor use since 2001 but still widely applied in agriculture, has sickened farmworkers and hindered brain development in children who live near farm fields.

More recently, an executive order from President Trump threatens the safety of people living in flood-prone neighborhoods. The order, coming just days before the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey to Houston and many other Texas communities, rolls back standards for flood risk management that had required federal agencies to factor in sea level rise when building infrastructure such as roads and bridges in low-lying areas.

“It’s been made evident very quickly why we needed that federal flooding standard,” says Clement. “This isn’t a political debate.”

The Trump administration’s indifference to the role of science in policymaking couldn’t have come at a more precarious time, says Carter.

“Look at the flood damage in Texas from Hurricane Harvey,” he says. “Science is more important than ever for addressing global challenges like climate change.”

Key Trump Administration Tactics for Attacking Science

  • Sidelining independent science advice.
  • Appointing individuals with conflicts of interest to scientific leadership positions.
  • Leaving key science positions vacant.
  • Revoking science-based safeguards.
  • Misrepresenting climate science and rolling back climate-related safeguards.
  • Weakening science-based pollution standards without scientific justification.
  • Undermining protections from hazards at work and home.
  • Altering or deleting scientific content on federal websites.
  • Reducing public access to data.
  • Restricting federal scientists’ ability to speak publicly.
  • Creating a hostile environment for federal scientific staff.

Read about real-world examples of each tactic in the UCS report Sidelining Science Since Day One.

Scientists Fight Back

The good news: people are paying attention to UCS efforts to call out the Trump administration’s attacks on science. As Halpern notes, the UCS Sidelining Science report has been cited repeatedly by journalists. And more importantly, he says, UCS is seeing a welcome eagerness among scientists to step out of their comfort zones and participate in public life.

“We’ve seen a shift in how the scientific community speaks about public engagement: before, scientists questioned whether to engage at all; now they are asking how to engage. There’s a renewed and sustained culture of civic responsibility,” Halpern says. “We were concerned that people would develop fatigue and retreat after a couple of months of the Trump administration—but what we’re seeing is the opposite. People are saying, ‘Not on my watch.’”

A surge of newly energized and new-to-UCS supporters includes experts and activists who are ready to fight back; we are actively working to provide the tools and support all of our members can use to stand up for science. To that end, UCS has created two networks of volunteers who have asked to do more to preserve the role of science in public policy. Some of the 20,000 members of the UCS Science Network have stepped up to watchdog the administration—leveraging their expertise to fight bad policies. Many more of our half-million supporters have volunteered to become “Science Champions,” offering to rapidly respond to aid the organization’s efforts to respond to attacks on science.

“We’re building capacity so all our members have more ways to engage with public policy,” Halpern says. “They are calling their members of Congress on a regular basis, organizing events, showing up at town hall meetings, and developing relationships with reporters to be sources of information.”

In addition to our people power, UCS is using administrative and legal processes to push back against attempts to defund scientific enterprises within the federal government. This work has paid off in budget committee votes that, instead ofdefunding crucial federal science agencies, actually boosted funding.

“We’re not able to stop every attack on science,” Halpern says. “But we’re raising the price for actions that diminish the role of science in public policy. We’re making it politically unpalatable.”

Scientists interested in playing an active role in defending science can sign up to be a Science Watchdog; anyone can stand up for science by becoming a UCS Science Champion.