August 14, 2018

New Survey Offers First Look into Science in the Trump Era

Amid Growing Concern about Political Interference, Some Agencies Offer Hope

WASHINGTON (August 14, 2018)—Over the past year and a half, the news from inside the Trump administration has been disturbing: reports of studies cancelled, public-facing information altered or removed from websites, and scientists coming under political pressure. A survey released today with responses from more than 4,200 federal scientists provides a look into 16 agencies, providing the scientists who work at them the first opportunity to share openly and anonymously what they are experiencing.

A project of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, the survey shows that there are profound problems facing science in the Trump era—but also bright spots that show federal scientists are still firmly committed to public service and science can still play an important role in policy.

“At several federal agencies and departments, scientists reported that political and capacity pressures are compromising their ability to protect public health and the environment,” said Jacob Carter, a research scientist with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and a co-author of “Science Under Trump,” a report based on the survey. “In many of the critical science agencies—especially the agencies that handle environmental regulation—scientists reported that they are having trouble doing their jobs because of political interference, staff reductions and a lack of qualified leadership.”

Many federal scientists reported that science is under pressure at their agencies. Nearly 80 percent of respondents reported that the scientific workforce is getting smaller through retirements, buyouts and hiring freezes—and 87 percent of those respondents said that this has made their agency less effective.

The threat of political interference is also constraining federal science. At key agencies, scientists reported, some political appointees don’t have sufficient subject-matter expertise, and in many cases are hostile to the mission of the agency. Senior political appointees, scientists said, often direct, edit or block scientists’ work, including their communications with the public.

“Hundreds of scientists reported that they’ve had the work they do or the words they use censored,” said Carter. “Hundreds also reported self-censorship to avoid becoming a political target. In some agencies, political appointees are pressuring scientists to avoid controversial topics or silencing scientists’ work if it runs contrary to the administration’s political goals. You just can’t do good science in that kind of environment.”

UCS researchers noted that the news isn’t all bad—at agencies with leadership committed to the agency’s mission, scientists reported higher morale and more ability to carry out their work.

“The good news is that science isn’t being compromised throughout the entire administration,” said Carter. “Agencies such as the FDA and CDC stand out compared to other agencies we surveyed because scientists there said that their leadership respects their work and includes them in the policymaking process.”

Scientists also reported that they’re glad to have scientific integrity policies and whistleblower protections in place to protect their work, and that they have been well-trained in their use—though these policies can’t always prevent the worst abuses coming from political appointees.

Unfortunately, many of the agencies where scientists reported the worst atmosphere are those that oversee vital environmental and public health laws. Scientists at the EPA and agencies within the Department of Interior reported higher levels of workforce reductions and political interference.

“When federal scientists can’t carry out their work, it’s the public that suffers,” said Charise Johnson, a UCS research analyst who worked on the survey. “When you can’t research threats and share accurate information with the public, there are real consequences. People depend on federal science to protect them from pollution, chemical exposure and natural disasters. This work really matters.”

This is the ninth survey of federal scientists UCS has carried out since 2005. It is also the largest, examining 16 different agencies and sub-agencies. The survey offered scientists the chance to speak out anonymously about the state of science in their agency.

“The challenges we’re seeing for scientists in the Trump administration are serious,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy and a former senior NOAA scientist. “These are public servants. They want to be able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and the public deserves to be able to benefit from their expertise. We can’t afford to have these agencies hollowed out or let their work be manipulated for political reasons.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.