Catalyst Fall 2018

Federal Scientists Speak on the State of Science under President Trump

UCS surveyed scientists in 16 government agencies. What we found is sobering.
Photo: Kenny CMK/Shutterstock
By Pamela Worth

Scientists employed by the US government deserve credit for the nation’s mostly safe drinking water, reduced smog, and airbags and unleaded gasoline in our cars, not to mention the moon landing, saving the bald eagle, and thousands of innovations and protections that safeguard our environment and health. Most federal scientists are dedicated public servants who choose to work at government agencies because they understand how science can help improve people’s lives and they hope to carry out research that will be beneficial to society.

A recent Union of Concerned Scientists survey of more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 government agencies found that the respondents’ good intentions—and the science-based missions of their agencies—are being stymied by the Trump administration.

More than 4,200 scientists answered the survey’s 58 questions about staff capacity, morale, and political interference, and UCS worked in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology to tabulate the results. (View the UCS survey results.) We found scientific integrity being compromised on a number of fronts.

1. Widespread Underfunding and Mismanagement

Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents across all 16 agencies reported workforce reductions: staff cuts, hiring freezes, and a failure to replace staff members who have retired or quit. Of those, 87 percent said the reductions in budgets and staff have undermined their ability to fulfill their agency’s scientific mission. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been hit particularly hard in this regard, with staff levels at a 20-year low.

Jacob Carter, a research scientist with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, led the team administering the survey. Before joining UCS, he worked at the EPA, developing policies to protect communities from contaminants during floods driven by climate change. Carter left the EPA before President Trump took office; if he had chosen to stay, he says, he suspects he would not be working on climate change—if he even had a job at all.

This administration has not funded us well. Our office still does not have enough financial resources to fulfill its mission: not enough staff for the heavy workload, not enough money for training or travel, not enough support staff.
—EPA scientist

Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.
—Fish and Wildlife Service scientist

2. Rampant Political Interference

Half of all respondents across agencies agreed or strongly agreed that political interests are now hindering their agency’s ability to base policy and decisions on science. Notably, 76 percent of respondents at the National Park Service reported this, as did 81 percent of respondents at the EPA. Scientists at the EPA also reported problems with the “fox-guarding-the-henhouse” nature of Trump administration appointees: some 70 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that agency leaders, picked from the very industries they are supposed to be regulating or who have a financial stake in deregulating those industries, have inappropriately influenced agency decisionmaking.

Carter says that the sizable majorities making such claims surprised his team, which has conducted this survey seven times since 2005. “In the past, we’ve seen more respondents cite limited staff capacity, or not having enough resources and funding to do their work,” he says. “But this year, the top barriers reported to science-based decisionmaking were all related to political interference.”

The current administration sees protecting industry as part of the agency’s mission and does not want to consider [any] action that might reduce industry profit, even if it’s based on sound science. We are not fulfilling our mission to protect human health and the environment as a result.
—EPA scientist

3. Evidence of Censorship

While climate change proceeds mostly unabated, our federal scientific enterprise is being largely prevented from addressing the problem. Carter says that while some scientists have been asked outright not to mention climate change, others say they are self-censoring so as not to incur a backlash from their leadership. And as he analyzed the survey, he says he got a sinking feeling about his former employer: at the EPA, nearly 150 scientists, or 35 percent of the respondents from that agency, said they’d been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work, and another 30 percent said they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase even without explicit orders to do so.

“Imagine being literally afraid to do your job,” Carter says. “My former colleagues and friends are really committed to the science-based mission. It’s hard to see these kinds of responses.”

We’ve been told to avoid using words like ‘climate change’ in internal project proposals and cooperative agreements. . . . It puts a pall on work involving climate change, which is central to managing the parks.
—National Park Service scientist

Appointed officials are openly climate change deniers. . . . Many scientists are reluctant to speak up about science-based evidence that supports climate change observations, let alone discuss how our science can support efforts to build a [nation prepared for extreme weather].
—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist

Far-Reaching Implications

Of course, it’s not just the scientists themselves who suffer when science is sidelined at the federal level. “More vulnerable populations—low-income populations, communities of color—are generally hit the hardest when policies are not being informed by science or existing rules and standards are reversed,” Carter says. People with the least amount of voting power are affected as well; Carter says a good example is the rollback of the Stream Protection Rule—designed to protect people living near mountaintop-removal coal mining operations from toxins in their drinking water—which was reversed shortly after President Trump was elected.

“That was a Department of the Interior regulation,” he says. “Later on, the department even stopped a scientific study by the National Academy of Sciences on the health impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining. Whatever interests were behind these decisions, it’s clear they weren’t considering the health of the communities who now have to drink this water.”

Carter says the Trump administration has clearly intended to roll back environmental and public health safeguards—in many cases, even if it means going against the scientific evidence. “The agencies responsible for the environmental regulations the administration is seeking to undermine or get rid of,” he says, “are the same agencies where federal scientists reported the most widespread abuses of scientific integrity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

Still, although this year’s survey revealed new lows in many categories, Carter emphasizes some bright spots. “Based on my personal experience with the Trump administration and how they’ve treated scientists, I expected the results to be even worse,” he says. Scientists at many agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reported a fairly high degree of satisfaction with their leadership, and that they were able to do good work without fear of censorship.

“I think that points to how resilient the scientific workforce is,” Carter says. “Despite a difficult political climate, they’re doing the best they can.”

What You Can Do to Protect Federal Science

Document Your Observations

Federal employees and grantees with science-related jobs should document any challenges, problems, or concerns related to an agency’s scientific integrity. Check out our guide to keeping notes. “It’s important,” says Carter of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, “to have a record of all these scientific integrity issues even after this administration is gone.”

Contact the Science Protection Project

Federal scientists who wish to expose or prevent a violation of scientific integrity within their agency, and who need confidential advice, can contact the UCS Science Protection Project to speak with experienced attorneys about the best course of action—get started here.

Join the UCS Science Network or Become a Science Champion

Scientists, engineers, economists, public health professionals, and other experts are invited to join the UCS Science Network to put your knowledge to work on issues that affect our health and safety. Science enthusiasts can become UCS Science Champions and learn skills for engaging on science-related issues.

“Science Network members and Science Champions keep people up to date on comment periods, what’s appearing in the Federal Register, attacks on science,” says Carter. “They also provide folks with the tools and resources they need to effectively push back on anti-science actions.”

Talk to Your Elected Officials

“Anyone can talk to their decisionmakers and ask for more oversight of government agencies to make sure science remains in its rightful place in the policymaking process," says Carter.