A Roadmap to Restoring Federal Science

Published Jan 26, 2021

Dr. Gretchen Goldman details what is needed to bring back and strengthen the role of science in government.

In this episode
  • What is the role of federal scientists?
  • How can we restore science to policymaking and make it more just and equitable?
  • What are some of the recommendations for the Biden administration?
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:34)
Intro (0:34-2:58)
Interview part 1 (2:58-13:40)
Break (13:40-14:32)
Interview part 2 (14:32-22:20)
Throw (22:20-22:51)
Ending segment (22:51-27:22)
Outro (27:22-28:30)

Related content

Climate segment: Dr. Kristy Dahl
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: Welcome to the GS podcast. I’m your host Colleen MacDonald. Today we’re talking about how we can bring science back into decision-making and bring it back better.

And stick around after the interview. Dr. Kristy Dahl shares five important climate lessons we should keep top of mind in 2021. 

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster couple of weeks since our last episode…an insurrection, a presidential inauguration, and the ongoing toll of the pandemic. I hope everyone is doing well. I’m doing my best to get back to some of my day-to-day routines, where I take a lot of things for granted. Like, I assume the milk I buy from the store isn’t spoiled, that my car’s airbags will work in a crash, and that the Tylenol in my cabinet isn’t filled with poison.

And I can thank a federal scientist for that. Their analysis and research are vital to agencies like the EPA, the FDA, the CDC, and NOAA, which keep people safe and healthy. But under the previous administration, evidence was ignored, scientists were censored, and facts that contradicted political agendas were suppressed like never before, threatening our wellbeing.

President Biden has made clear that he’s going to “listen to the scientists.” So far, many outstanding scientists have been appointed to senior level positions in the administration. And tomorrow we’re expecting some bold executive actions from President Biden on scientific integrity and science-based policy that will set the stage for the administration’s plan to restore and strengthen the role of science in government decisions. But because of the unprecedented sidelining of science over the last four years, much more action will need to be taken.

To understand all the fixes and new policies needed, I reached out to Dr. Gretchen Goldman, research director for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She’s an environmental engineer and expert in federal scientific integrity, and has spent the last decade pushing back hard against attacks on science.

But remember this: while the last administration took science to a new low, they were certainly not the first to interfere with federal science. And unless we can build a better system for scientists under the new administration, it’ll only happen again. Gretchen and I discuss what scientific integrity looks like in practice... what happens when it’s missing... and some of the promising signs she has already seen from President Biden.

Colleen: Gretchen, welcome back to the podcast.

Gretchen: Yeah. Thanks for having me back.

Colleen: So before we get started, I do have to ask you, was that you on the cover of "The New Yorker" in November?

Gretchen: It sure looked like it. I took a photo of my behind-the-scenes from a CNN interview that I did from my house. And you can see toys scattered across the ground and my child's stuff everywhere. And "The New Yorker" cover looks very similar in terms of content and angle and everything.

Colleen: Yeah, it's just missing the martini.

Gretchen: Yes.

Colleen: Can you define the role of science in our government? What are some examples of how federal science plugs into the system?

Gretchen: Across the government, science plays a key role in all kinds of things that you and I might not even think about in our daily lives. But there's often a government scientist behind the scenes making sure that something is safe and healthy and protecting people. So this is everything from the safety of the products that are in our homes, our children's car seats, our vehicles, our drugs, our air and our water, of course. And this keeps the nation running. It allows us to go about life in ways that are far safer and, you know, increasing our quality of life over what has existed in the past. And so we can thank government scientists for all of the work that they do to get us a better world.

Colleen: So, essentially, I will either have the information at my disposal to determine if something's safe for me to use, or I can trust that it's safe to use because products and food and everything has been, you know, examined to some extent by federal science.

Gretchen: Right. We have programs and expertise in all kinds of things, and that's a huge infrastructure that we have to keep running in order to fulfill all of those agency missions and keep everyone safe and healthy, and keep our landscapes clean and all kinds of things. And so it's really a huge role that can be underappreciated because we don't see it in our day-to-day.

Colleen: I don't want a specific number, but can you just characterize how out of balance scientific expertise is at the end of the Trump administration?

Gretchen: We've seen federal science and scientists take a hit under the Trump administration. Unlike anything we have seen before, the Trump administration has dismissed, sidelined, suppressed science in new ways, and importantly, at a very alarming rate that we haven't seen under past administrations. We've, of course, known about interference in federal science for a long time, and it's something that happens under every administration, under both parties. Because science is such a powerful tool, when you're trying to enact policy that makes it very vulnerable to interference because if science is on your side, that's a really good tool to have if you're trying to win a policy debate.

And so that's why we have to safeguard it and make sure that we don't allow those kinds of situations to happen. And under the Trump administration, we saw where a lot of those vulnerabilities exist, and where our existing scientific integrity, infrastructure, and other protections aren't good enough. And we need to do more to really protect science, especially when we have an administration that's openly hostile to science, which is what we've seen in the past four years. So one priority that will need to be addressed is thinking about how to come back from that damage, and how do we better protect federal science and scientists?

Colleen: So we now have a chance to rebuild federal scientific capacity. There's been a lot of talk about the need to not simply refill positions and rebuild capacity, but to rebuild something better, more just and equitable. What are some ways that we can do that?

Gretchen: That is a really important point because we don't want to just restore the way things were in 2016. We want to do more and think of new ways to put in protections. So one thing that is the government's role is addressing inequities that exist in who is served by the governments. So we see this in kinds of things like who is exposed to air pollution and water pollution. There's huge inequities in this country in the air that people breathe, and that is part of the job of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is to address those inequities to improve air quality, especially for communities at the fence line of industrial facilities and other places where they are getting disproportionate impacts of air pollution.

And so that's something that should have been happening in the last four years, and it was a problem, of course, long before the Trump administration came in. So I'm very hopeful that the Biden administration will come in and really tackle that issue a lot. The Biden team has a really great environmental justice plan that is going to provide for a lot of community input and think bigger about how to prioritize those underserved communities. And so I'm very hopeful that they will work hard on that and prioritize that. And I think that's one area where there's a huge opportunity to build back better and not just restore, you know, the existing infrastructure that they did leave some communities behind. I think we can do a lot more in terms of addressing those inequities and making sure that everyone can breathe cleaner air.

Colleen: And under the Trump administration so many pollution safeguards have been rolled back that it's making the situation worse.

Gretchen: Yeah, absolutely. At the beginning of 2020, we did a paper looking at one of those Trump administration decisions, which would allow companies to emit more hazardous air pollutants. So these are things like benzene and other cancer-causing pollutants and we found that many facilities across the country could increase their emissions without any scrutiny from the government. They could do that, and it would release more pollution into communities that are already bearing a larger burden of pollution from industrial facilities.

Colleen: So we've got plenty of work to do to build back better. How would you tackle this?

Gretchen: So there's a couple things they can do it right out of the gate. One is the capacity issue, so just trying to hire more people to do the work because we know there's a backlog of work that needs to be done and we need people to do all these new initiatives that we're talking about. Another really early thing they can do that we're already seeing happen is appoint effective qualified leaders to federal science agencies.

So this happens during the transition period, usually the science agencies. And so we've seen in the Biden administration appoint a lot of people that are well qualified, they have strong backgrounds in science and policy, and they are committed to addressing climate change and environmental justice and all the things the administration has said will be a priority. So this is a big first step because we want to have people at the helm that can start to build back trust within the ranks of federal agencies. And we want them to be effective leaders in being able to get a lot of this work done very quickly.

Colleen: So what are some of the more challenging, the longer-term fixes?

Gretchen: There will be some things that will take a lot more time to really build back. The government, of course, does not work very fast in a lot of ways. And a lot of that is good, but it means that there will be things that it will take a long time to repair. So one is undoing some of the specific things that were harmful that the Trump administration has done. So this includes a lot of the rules that they have put out that undermine the ability of the EPA and other agencies to make science-based policies in the first place. Because of the way the rulemaking process works, it takes several years to repair those kinds of things because you have to go through all of the steps to get a rule. And so that’s some of the specific damages will take a few years to build back.

Another one is around science advice, so federal science advisory committees, which is a vast network of ways that the federal government gets expertise from the broader scientific community. So on all of the things we talked about, from drug approvals to environmental quality to worker safety, there are federal committees of scientists from academia and other places outside government that volunteer their time and expertise to inform agency decision-making. So this is a really great way that the government gets science advice on all kinds of things. But it was very underutilized and blatantly cut off in the Trump administration in a few places.

And so one broader task for the Biden administration will be to rebuild that network to build up new committees, gets more qualified people on those committees for the committees where they've been replaced by conflicted or unqualified people. And also, just getting that system going again, a lot of the committees just haven't been meeting. And that has a lot of consequences both on the ability of the government to make science-based decisions and then ultimately on people because if we aren't getting the best available science into policy decisions then that filters down to affecting everyone's air quality and water quality, and ability to have safe food and safe drugs. And so it really matters that we want the science advice to be the best possible.


Colleen: So the scientific advisory committees, they're almost like an active peer review or action peer review or something that's...

Gretchen: Yeah. That's a good way to think about it. It's kind of a public policy-oriented peer review, which is really incredible to see. I mean, of course, the minute by minute is gonna seem like a long, boring science meeting. But it's really neat to see that public ability to see how scientists operate, and how they think about challenges. And, you know, it's right at this nexus of science and policy where the rubber hits the road. It's seeing that in action is really neat because it is, sort of, these challenging questions, but you end up getting really great input because the scientists there have broad and diverse expertise and they can all contribute. And so in the end, you get this really thoughtful, robust science advice that feeds into government decisions.

Colleen: I wanna talk about scientific integrity for a minute. Wrapping my head around how scientific integrity works in government, it kinda makes my eyes glaze over a little bit.

Gretchen: Yeah. It is, sort of, a wonky, esoteric thing from federal agencies in thinking about scientific integrity and what does that mean, and why does that matter? But there's actually a lot of concrete ways where we see that it does matter. And, you know, one recent example around coronavirus that we could think of is there are federal agency policies about whether or not scientists can talk directly to the media and the public or whether they need approval from political officials.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists has always advocated that scientists should be able to talk publicly without needing permission from political officials. And this is an important provision that a lot of agencies have put into their scientific integrity policies that so do grant that right to scientists. But what we've seen under the Trump administration is that places that don't have that strong policy provision in place have suffered more on that point.

We've seen, for example, Dr. Fauci who, of course, is in very high demand for media interviews, he has said, and it's come out, that he was prevented from doing a lot of media interviews around coronavirus. And that's really unfortunate for the reasons we're talking about, we need timely information to get out to the public that affects people's choices about what's safe and what's not safe.

So that is something where it's very clear we could strengthen the policies, and that would have a clear impact on the ability of federal agencies to meet their missions and get information out to the public. And so that's one piece of what we're recommending and making sure that all agencies have very strong scientific integrity policies that protect the science and scientists that are doing that work.

Colleen: Is there a way to enforce scientific integrity policies?

Gretchen: We need to do more to make sure they are effectively in practice. That is one thing that we saw as a challenge under the Trump administration is that the policies were designed with the idea that you'd have a president, an administration that cared about following policy and doing what's right. And that's, of course, not what we've seen. And so, you know, it creates new challenges when the people that are violating the policy are not people embedded within the agencies, but the very leaders themselves of the agencies.

So we need to think bigger about how do we put these in effective practice at all levels, you know, where are these gaps, how can we better change the culture so that these are effectively in place and federal employees feel empowered to follow them? So I'm very hopeful that the Biden administration will prioritize this issue.

Colleen: So I know you’re excited about the executive actions the administration is signing tomorrow on scientific integrity and science-based policy making. Which seem like great first steps. Have you come up with recommendations for the first 100 days of the Biden administration?

Gretchen: We have a comprehensive set of recommendations for the administration. We call it a science road map. So these are all the things that of the Biden administration could and should do, that it doesn't need Congress to do, that would strengthen the role of science and the ability of science to be independent and protect the scientists doing the work.

So we have recommendations on several key agencies including the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of the Interior, as well as some specific topics that we know need to be addressed like equity and environmental justice, and addressing conflicts of interest in decision making, how to strengthen those scientific integrity policies that we talked about. There's a lot of really specific actions they could take. And we have developed that based on all of the work that we've done in recent years to understand and track and analyze what has happened under the Trump administration.

So based on the existing policies, based on surveying thousands of federal scientists, and based on analyzing the policies that do exist, we've learned a tremendous amount about what does and doesn't work in terms of protecting science and scientists. And so we can use all of that knowledge from these past four years and even prior to recommend what needs to be the priority, and how we can move forward. And so we've compiled all of those details for the administration and anyone, the people who will be charged with thinking about these issues within the White House and within federal agencies.

Colleen: What would you want scientists to do to help?

Gretchen: The broader scientific community can play a big role in getting a lot of progress in the coming years. I think it is important to remember that we didn't solve the problem just by electing a president who seems like they'll be more science supporting. We need to make sure that we actually get concrete policy changes in place that will protect science and scientists, even in the event that we get a future administration that isn't interested in respecting science.

So I want to emphasize that the work is not over. We need to really make sure that these issues are prioritized and, you know, we can't get comfortable in thinking that we're all set here. So I would want scientists to stay engaged, stay active in informing policy. We're going to need people to continue to encourage the administration to prioritize these issues, they are important and give specific recommendations because we want them to continue to think about this issue and do the hard work of getting concrete changes in place. So I'm hopeful and looking forward to working on some of those important challenges and making good progress in the coming years.

Colleen: Well, thanks for joining me, Gretchen. It's really comforting to know that you are keeping your eye on all of these issues for us.

Gretchen: Thank you.

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