Got Science? Podcast | Episode 51 Two Years of Attacks on Science: Holding the Trump Administration Accountable

January 29, 2019

Dr. Gretchen Goldman takes us through the systematic dismantling of science protections, what it means for public health and safety, and how scientists are standing up for science.

In this episode Gretchen talks about:

  • How science has changed two years into President Trump's administration
  • Ways that science and policy interact
  • Censorship and self censorship of federal scientists
  • The scientists who continue to do their jobs despite widespread attacks on science

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:49)
  • Intro (0:49-2:29)
  • Interview Part 1 (2:29-13:52)
  • Break (13:52-14:43)
  • Sidelining Science Throw (22:25-22:51)
  • Sidelining Science (22:51-26:34)
  • Outro (26:34-27:30)

Related content:

Full Transcript

As of this podcast’s release date of January 29th, 2019, it’s been two years and nine days since President Trump took office. That’s two years and nine days of his administration ignoring science. Two years and nine days of climate change denial, and two years and nine days of breaking down our environmental and public health protections in favor of special interests and fossil fuel money. But who’s counting? I’ve been curious about whether our federal scientific enterprise is strong enough to weather each fresh assault, and how our federal scientists are hanging in there. So I turned to an expert who also happens to be my colleague. Dr. Gretchen Goldman is the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She’s been watching this administration closely and pushing back against their shady tactics for two years and nine days. In fact, her team just released their second report about science under President Trump, titled “The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damage Done, Lessons Learned and a Path to Progress.” I highly recommend that you check it out. What I liked most is that it’s not just a summary of all of the attacks on science we’ve seen, but a manual for how to move forward and help the new congress keep this administration accountable. Gretchen joined me to talk about how the attacks on science have become more sinister since day one of the Trump administration, how she brought her baby along to defend EPA science, and about what’s giving her hope these days.


Colleen: Gretchen, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Gretchen: Thanks so much for having me, Colleen.

Colleen: So your work looks at the intersection of science and policy. You've had almost two years now to observe the Trump administration. Thinking about science, what's the story of these last two years?

Gretchen: Well, it depends on how much time you have, but there's been a lot that's happened. And I think back to just after the election when we knew, based on the rhetoric of candidate Trump, what his administration might do, and we, of course, had concerns given how he had treated science in the campaign, but I don't know that I could have predicted the full out assault on science that has resulted.

We actually recently put out a scientific paper that looked at the degree to which the attacks on science under the Trump administration were different from past administrations and found that indeed there were elements of it that were very new and more intense than what we've seen in the past. Though, of course, there has always been political interference in science policy. We've seen that under both Democratic and Republican administrations, but what we're seeing under Trump really is a different beast.

And specifically, I think one difference that I noticed is that it's been a lot of attacks happening in broad daylight. In the past, we've observed a lot of issues around science and policy where, you know, there were efforts to hide the malfeasance to try to, you know, edit a scientific document, or have a secret meeting with industry that was inappropriate. But instead what we're seeing a lot from the Trump administration is just not following the science, making it clear they're not, not even pretending to be following the appropriate process on things. And it's really been remarkable to see them go to that extent.

Colleen: So a blatant example would be President Trump saying that the science isn't settled on climate change, that those types of examples of just saying ludicrous things?

Gretchen: Right. Exactly. And I think the National Climate Assessment that just came out is a good example of that in that in the past administration we might've seen an attempt to try to change the findings to sort of massage the paper itself, the results themselves, to emphasize uncertainty in inappropriate ways or something similar. But instead, under the Trump administration, we see they let the report come out untouched, untampered with, but then the President just disparages it out in the open.

Colleen: So when a federal agency is making policy decisions, there are several points where science gets considered. Can you walk me through what that looks like in real life, in practice?

Gretchen: There's lots of ways that science fits into this policy-making process. And it's not that every decision needs to be based on science. There's of course, lots of different policy decisions we might make that have nothing to do with science. We might make things based on our values, based on protecting particular groups of people, even if it doesn't make sense, economically. There's lots of different reasons we make policy, but there's lots of places in the policy-making process that require you to base information on science or require you to get scientific input.

So examples of this are places where career staff, so people working within the federal government will develop scientific documents. So scientists working within the EPA, for example, will make scientific documents. There's external advisory committees which are composed of scientists mostly from academic spaces that inform policy-making processes. These are scientists that just lend their time and expertise to policy's decisions to help with them. And there's also lots of places where public comments occur, so scientists like me or anyone can weigh in and give their opinion on a particular policy. And there's also peer-review processes throughout the government where documents will be put out for peer review by scientists external to the government.

And, so all of these are places where science intersects with the decision-making process. The value of having science at all these different junctures is that it allows grounding in evidence for policy decisions and that without that we leave a void that could be filled by special interests or those who aren't thinking about the public as the primary motivation. And so science provides that crucial role.

Colleen: So what has been the biggest, unpleasant surprise for you in these last two years?

Gretchen: I think the biggest surprise has been the destruction for the sake of destruction. You know, we know there is, of course, pressures on decision makers to make decisions that go against the science and go against what's in the public interest. But we're seeing that this administration in some cases is just wrecking things and undoing things for no reason. It's not even anything anyone wants. And I think a good example of that is the car emission standards where even the industry, the auto industry did not want the administration to roll back the standard. This was a standard that companies had already invested technology into and it doesn't help anyone to roll it back. And it certainly doesn't help the public health. And yet they did it anyway.

Colleen: So your research has shown that the Trump administration is interfering with science at all of these points. What are the actions they've taken that have undermined science?

Gretchen: Well, there's quite a few that we've seen, but I think some that come to mind, in particular, are a lot of what they've done to advisory committees, advisory committees of independent scientists that are outside of the government. They've in some cases gutted some of the EPA committees. They've frozen many others at other agencies. And this is only gonna serve to decrease the amount of science that gets into the decision-making process.

We've also seen there have been some hollowing out of agencies, so staff, particularly scientific staff that have left due to buyouts, retirements, hiring freezes. We've seen less people are now at federal agencies to do that work of protecting the public health, and safety, and the environment. And that's gonna have consequences for people.

Colleen: So your graduate work was on air pollution and that's been an area where the Trump administration has been very active. How should science be informing air pollution protections and where is the Trump administration getting it wrong?

Gretchen: The Clean Air Act is actually wonderfully written in terms of its separation of science and policy. It allows for independent science, robust science to inform what policy the decisions are made about air pollution and what levels are safe to breathe. And yet we're seeing the administration dismantled that process in a couple different places. That's happened on the advisory committee front, as I've mentioned. It's also been happening in terms of restricting the science that the EPA can use to look at what the impacts of air pollution on public health are.

And all of that science goes into the administrator of the EPA making a decision about what standard protects public health. This is how it works for ambient air quality standards in this country. And we're seeing the administration make changes that ultimately mean less science feeding into the process. And it makes it easier for them to make a political decision on the standard. It makes it easier for them to set an air pollution standard that does not protect public health with an adequate margin of safety as the Clean Air Act requires.

Colleen: So, I wanna pivot to the actual scientists. So your team [00:08:30] surveyed thousands of federal employees at science agencies to find out what the state of science is on the inside. So what did you learn from that survey?

Gretchen: We learned a lot from federal scientists. And I first wanna thank the thousands of scientists that took the time and energy to tell us about their experience as a scientist within the Trump administration right now. And we learned largely that a lot of scientists are working business as usual. They're working hard. They're doing their best work in this environment despite all of the headlines that we see about attacks on science by the Trump administration.

We also saw some censorship of scientists, particularly around climate change. Many scientists told us that either they were told not to do climate-related work or that they weren't directly told, but had been avoiding climate change related work for fear of retaliation or for fear of the consequences of doing so. And we're really worried about that self-censorship and the idea that scientists might be choosing not to talk about politically contentious topics like climate change because that will ultimately mean that information won't reach the public, it won't reach decision makers like it should.

Colleen: Yeah. It feels like there's just this creeping rot or something that's slowly seeping in. And how do you stop that?

Gretchen: Yeah, it's very hard to control. And I mean, it's important to say that you can, of course, pivot your focus within the government and within scientific work. You know, different administrations have different policy priorities and so it makes sense for them to say, you know, "We're really interested in focusing here." But what they cannot do is meddle with the science and change what science said, and they can't stop science that's already being produced. And that's, unfortunately, a lot of what we're seeing.

Colleen: Gretchen, have you ever thought about what you would do if you were a scientist right now working in federal government?

Gretchen: I think it's a really tough call. I mean, it's a tough decision, right? There's a lot of professional and personal consequences if you were to call out the administration or blow the whistle, so to speak. Fortunately, nowadays there's lots of ways that scientists can get the word out about transgression or anything that they'd like to share externally. We at UCS have ways for scientists to communicate with us. We have a scientist protection project that allows scientists to confidentially speak to legal experts about situations, and there's lots of options they have now to share things. But it's a good question. I'm not sure if I'd be brave enough to blow the whistle.

[Break]

Colleen: So over the summer, you testified at a public hearing about science at the EPA and you had a special guest there with you. So what inspired this testimony?

Gretchen: I did. I had my infant son. He was only about a month old and he was strapped to my chest as I gave testimony at the EPA this summer. And I didn't need to be there I was on parental leave, but I felt like I had to be. This was too important of an issue, and frankly, it really matters for his future. The hearing was about the science that EPA is able to use in its decision-making.

And I think a lot about his future when we're talking about all of these issues. We're talking about it in the sort of D.C. policy context, but a lot of these things will ultimately affect him in his future and his ability to live in a world that's free of pollution and uses science to improve the lives of Americans. I think about it at the basic level of, you know, when I was a child, I assumed that the government was there to protect me. And I use this silly example of I would always ignore those little signs on lawns that said, "Don't go here because we sprayed a pesticide." And I thought, "Oh, those are just overly cautious. They wouldn't spray something on the lawn if it was dangerous to me." And as a kid, I would ignore that.

And we could talk about, you know, what kind of kid that probably made me, but I think the point is that we expect that our government should protect us. That's what we're paying taxes for. There are agencies and scientists working across the government to make sure that we are protected from harms and I want that for my son and I don't want him to live in a world that doesn't use science to protect people and improve their lives.

Colleen: So are you seeing any bright spots besides your son who I'm sure is a very bright spot, but in what's been going on, is there anything that's giving you real hope?

Gretchen: Yes. Aside from baby snuggles, which of course always give me hope, there are some bright spots. I think one of them is one of the main conclusions of the survey was, which is in the government right now, there's an army of scientists continuing to do their job. And that was really hopeful to see and I think we need to remember that when the administration makes an action that's not all of the scientists at the EPA doing it, it's a few political appointees or a single political appointee somewhere.

And so there's a lot of people behind the scenes that are doing good work, that are continuing to do their job and get science into the hands of decision-makers and the public. And that makes me hopeful.

Colleen: So, with the energy that we're seeing around the country, people are getting more involved in politics and in policy and they're marching for science. They're going to town hall meetings, high turnout in the midterm election. How's that being reflected in the scientific community?

Gretchen: It's unbelievable. I've been just blown away with the number of scientists that have stepped up to be engaged in this space. And when I was a student, I don't think there was nearly as many opportunities to do things in the policy space, even if I had wanted to. And now it seems there's so much more that scientists can do and are doing to get engaged on the policy front.

And so I've been very impressed to see just how far that's gone and that gives me a lot of hope for where we can go. I think the important thing is that we need to be able to sustain that momentum because it is important that people will stand up for science and engage on science policy under the Trump administration when we're seeing all these attacks. But it will also be important in the next administration and the one after that, regardless of what party is in power or the degree to which they appear to be following the science. There's always space and there's always a need for scientists to engage in the policy-making process and inform decision makers. So, I hope that people that are newly engaged now will continue that momentum and do a lot more engagement in the future.

Colleen: What are the most effective ways that scientists and supporters of science can make a difference in their community or at the national level?

Gretchen: There's a lot they can do. At the local level, I think it's a lot of what is needed is just talking about science and normalizing the idea of scientists talking to the public, talking to decision-makers and sharing what they know. We always hear the statistics about how few people know a scientist or at least think they know a scientist. And so I think we need to continue to work on that front and make science more accessible to people. And I think within the scientific community, we need to normalize the idea of being an engaged scientist that talks to the public, talks to decision makers, and is engaged in this process.

Historically, many scientists have chosen not to be engaged in the policy-making process. And I think we're seeing less of that stigma now, but we need to maintain that and make sure that scientists are in an environment, whether it's at a university or elsewhere, where they feel they can take time away from the lab, away from publishing to do outreach to communities or to talk with decision-makers and think about how to inform the policy-making process. So I'm hoping we can make some long-term changes that will help us continue along this path.

Colleen: Yeah. One thing that I wish there would be more of is conversation around science and the fact that scientists don't just study something and then there's a right or a wrong answer, it's yes or no. But it's an exploration and a study. And I think that's really lost in this administration. It seems like you have to have the right answer, which seems completely not scientific at all.

Gretchen: Right. Yes. Science is, of course, a journey. There's a question that we ask and we study it and you come up with an answer. And that answer isn't always a yes or no, bery clear answer. It might be, you know, "This sort of policy choice leads to this risk and that policy choice leads to different risks." And we have to decide what to do. And some of those decisions are policy decisions, right? Science can't tell us the exact policy that works to address a particular science issue, but it might tell us what those risks are, what are the concerns, what are the impacts that will happen if we choose different policy paths?

So, I think there is more that we should do within this administration and beyond to think about how can we better make sure that's communicated? And I think there should be more places where we're separating out the science and the policy decision because sometimes that gets muddied and I think that makes it difficult for people to be able to hold accountable decision-makers if it's unclear what's a science choice and a policy choice.

Colleen: Great. Well, Gretchen, I wanna be mindful of your time because I know you have a meeting in a couple of minutes, but thanks for sitting down with me.

Gretchen: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Colleen.


My colleague Juan Declet-Barreto posted something interesting on Facebook the other day…granted, he’s been posting a bit more than usual over the last couple of weeks. It’s not that he’s avoiding doing work. He just literally…can’t.

Here’s the interesting thing he said, and I quote:

“Not even in the ballpark of the hardship felt by people who are not collecting a check or receiving critical services, but here's another impact of the shutdown: it's making it very difficult or impossible for me to conduct climate change research at the Union of Concerned Scientists, because I can't access NOAA data and websites.”

End quote. NOAA of course is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is closed because of the shutdown, with many of its employees furloughed.

Juan is just one of thousands of scientists who are either part of the federal scientific enterprise, or who depend on it to do their jobs. At least he can turn his attention to other areas of research, and he’s still getting a paycheck. But the work he could be doing and cannot is important, and so is the work of the other scientists who are stuck posting on Facebook right now. The government shutdown that is still dragging on as of this recording is really kicking science in the teeth.

For federal scientists, the shutdown means they’re on furlough, which means, according to the Washington Post, they can’t even check their work emails, let alone do science. In the same Post story about the shutdown and science, Christine McEntee, head of the American Geophysical Union says, quote, “Until funding is secured, many scientists employed by the U.S. government aren’t able to make important observations or analyze data to protect life, property and ecosystems here at home and abroad,” end quote. So not only are thousands of workers not getting paychecks, but their inability to work has tangible consequences to our health and safety.

For non-federal scientists whose work depends on an open, functioning government, they now have huge holes in their data sets, canceled conferences, stalled research, and in some cases, a lack of funding for work they’d been planning. Many scientists affiliated with institutions such as universities and hospitals receive grants to do their work from the government bodies such as the National Science Foundation, or the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which can’t provide new funding or accept new grant proposals because of the shutdown. So.. no new work.

Finally, and what I find most unfair for scientists, is that this shutdown really affects those at the beginning of their careers. When you’re trying to make a name for yourself and staking your reputation on the quality of your research, having holes in your data collection along with a weeks-long gap in your research could lead to unpublishable results. For many scientists, especially doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, their work is on a strict timetable, and it’s not as though they can easily pick it back up once the government goes back to work. And when you can’t publish what you’ve been working on because of those holes, you can’t get the jobs you want. The damage to career trajectories for early-career scientists could reverberate for years. If you’re a scientist who’s been affected by the government shutdown, please feel free to reach out to UCS securely and confidentially at www.ucsusa.org/scienceprotection, to share your story. Thank you for hanging in there, and we all hope you can log off Facebook and get back to work ASAP.

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Credits: 

Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald