Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Fri, 17 Aug 2018 13:54:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Science and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 The Senate Will Accelerate Kelvin Droegemeier’s White House Science Advisor Nomination. That’s a Good Thing. https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/the-senate-will-accelerate-kelvin-droegemeiers-white-house-science-advisor-nomination-thats-a-good-thing https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/the-senate-will-accelerate-kelvin-droegemeiers-white-house-science-advisor-nomination-thats-a-good-thing#respond Fri, 17 Aug 2018 13:43:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60513

Try not to breathe too easily, but the Senate is in fast drive mode to consider the nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House Office and Science and Technology Policy. And well it should. These days, this is one nomination we should all be excited about, as this Superman of science policy is sorely needed in the White House.

Many scientists cheered Dr. Droegemeier’s nomination after the White House went 19 months without a science advisor. I believe he would be a great pick for any administration, in any country.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy provides the president with advice on everything from energy to health care to pandemics. It needs a confirmed leader.

Feedback on his nomination has been almost universally positive.

A Senate committee will hold a confirmation hearing next Thursday, August 23 at 10:15 a.m. I hope that he will get up and not only talk about the passion that he has for scientific research, but also take a stand for the role of robust federal scientific workforce in informing public health and environmental policy. Historically, OSTP has helped ensure that federal agencies have both resources and independence to use the best available science to make policy. It can do so again.

It remains to be seen whether Dr. Droegemeier will be appointed to serve as science advisor to the president as well as OSTP director; the former doesn’t require Senate confirmation. And while some suspect that the president will simply provide his science advisor with a sword to fall on, methinks that it isn’t that simple. A lack of science advice is a disadvantage for any world leader. Pretend that you’re trying to negotiate a nuclear or climate agreement: you can’t get there from here without understanding the science.

It’s important for Dr. Droegemeier to make it out okay and help end the longest drought of science advice the White House has seen in modern times.

]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/the-senate-will-accelerate-kelvin-droegemeiers-white-house-science-advisor-nomination-thats-a-good-thing/feed 0
Strong Leadership Makes for Satisfied Federal Scientists: A Case Study at the FDA https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/strong-leadership-makes-for-satisfied-federal-scientists-a-case-study-at-the-fda https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/strong-leadership-makes-for-satisfied-federal-scientists-a-case-study-at-the-fda#comments Wed, 15 Aug 2018 22:06:49 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60410

As our research team was analyzing the results of our newest federal scientist survey that was released earlier this week, it was heartening to see that at some agencies, like at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the job satisfaction and ability to work appear to be even better than in years past. One of the best characterizations of the sentiments expressed by FDA scientists is this quote from a respondent: “The current administration has overall enforced certain science policies which harm the public in general. However, the current commissioner is fantastic and committed to the FDA’s mission. He is consistently involved in policy development which allows the protection and promotion of public health.”

We sent 9,378 FDA scientists and scientific experts a survey; of which 354 responded, yielding an overall response rate of 3.8 percent. Overall, our findings suggest that scientists at the FDA are faring better than their colleagues at the other 16 federal agencies surveyed. FDA scientists overall appeared to have faith in FDA leadership, including the FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

So what is FDA doing right?

Commissioner Gottlieb visits the agency’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) in Silver Spring, MD in November 2017 (Photo credit: Flickr/US FDA)

A genuine interest in getting the science right

Encouragingly, and as in previous UCS surveys, FDA scientists called attention to efforts by the agency to protect scientific integrity, with some responses indicating a strong sense of trust in supervisors and leadership. Most FDA scientists reported no change in personal job satisfaction or perception of office effectiveness; some respondents noted increased job satisfaction during the past year. 25 percent (87 respondents) said that the effectiveness of their division or office has increased compared with one year ago. Part of the reason for the agency’s effectiveness is its ability to collect the scientific and monitoring information needed to meet its mission, a metric that has significantly improved between 2015 and 2018. (See figure below). Further, 65 percent (222 respondents) felt that their direct supervisors consistently stand behind scientists who put forth scientifically defensible positions that may be politically contentious.

In 2018, the majority of FDA respondents felt that the agency frequently collected the information needed to meet its mission. When compared with previous results, the most significant differences were found between the 2015 and 2018 surveys (p<0.0001).

Perhaps it is because Gottlieb is a medical doctor who seems genuinely interested in evidence-based policies that we have not been bombarded with policy proposals that sideline science from the FDA since he began leading the agency in July 2017. FDA scientists who took the survey have corroborated this. One respondent wrote that that “the Commissioner’s office is tirelessly upholding best practices in various scientific fields such as smoking cessation, opioid/addiction crisis, generic drug manufacturing, sustainable farming practices.” Another respondent wrote, “FDA has a proactive Commissioner who —so far—has consistently followed science-based information and promoted science-based initiatives in the interest of public health.”

He has encouraged the work of FDA’s advisory committees like the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee and the Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee that recently met to make recommendations to the FDA on its regulation of transmucosal immediate-release fentanyl (TIRF) products, which were being prescribed for off-label uses for years. Gottlieb does not get defensive about weak spots in FDA’s portfolio. According to one respondent, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Commissioner Gottlieb’s knowledge and focus on FDA science. I was at a brief with him and he was interested in the science and less focused on the legal and political effects than I would have guessed. He was open-minded and curious, and asked questions when he didn’t understand the issue fully. It improved my outlook on my Agency’s future.” The ability for Gottlieb to ask questions and listen to agency scientists as well as outside experts is an important quality for a Commissioner making decisions that impact our health and safety.

I took this photo of an advertisement on a DC metro train this summer, revealing that Gottlieb is serious about recruitment to the agency.

Taking action to improve hiring practices and retention of staff

Soon after Commissioner Gottlieb was confirmed, the FDA took steps to examine its own hiring practices to identify improvements that could be made to build and keep a stronger workforce. The agency wrote a report, held a public meeting, and received feedback from FDA staff throughout the process because according to Gottlieb,  “The soul of FDA and our public health mission is our people. Retaining the people who help us achieve our successes is as important as recruiting new colleagues to help us meet our future challenges.” For scientific staff, the agency plans to do more outreach to scientific societies and academic institutions for recruitment and to reach out to early career scientists and make them aware that public service at the FDA is a viable career option.

A commitment to transparency

Not only have there been some encouraging policies put in place by the FDA, but Gottlieb seems committed to informing the public about these decisions. He is very active on twitter and issues so many public statements that reporters feel almost overwhelmed by his updates. This is in contrast of course to leaders like former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt who seldom announced his whereabouts in advance and was openly hostile to reporters.

Still room for improvement at the FDA and across the government

To be sure, there have been some bumps along the road. Last year, Gottlieb disbanded the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee, which was the only federal advisory committee focused entirely on science-based recommendations on food safety, and he delayed implementation of changes to the nutrition facts label that would have included a line for added sugars by this summer.

Further, survey respondents noted that inappropriate outside influence, such as from regulated industries, is apparent and stymies science-based decisionmaking at the agency. 22 percent (70 respondents) felt that the presence of senior decisionmakers from regulated industries or with financial interest in regulatory outcomes inappropriately influences FDA decisionmaking. Nearly a third (101 respondents) cited the consideration of political interests as a barrier to science-based decisionmaking and 36 percent (114 respondents) felt that the influence of business interests hinders the ability of the agency to make science-based decisions. In addition, respondents reported workforce reductions at the agency and said these lessened their ability to fulfill FDA’s science-based mission.

One thing became very clear as we reviewed the results of UCS’ seventh federal scientist survey that closed this spring: scientists across many federal agencies have been unable to do their jobs to the best of their ability under the Trump administration. Since the start of 2017, agencies have been hollowed out and there has been a sharp decline in expertise and capacity. Reduced staff capacity combined with political interference and the absence of leadership in some cases has made it harder for scientists to carry out important work. As the threat of political influence looms large over the government, much of federal scientists’ ability to do their work to advance the mission of the agencies has to do with the quality of leadership and the administrator or commissioner’s commitment to evidence over politics as a basis for decisionmaking.

]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/strong-leadership-makes-for-satisfied-federal-scientists-a-case-study-at-the-fda/feed 1
Is Scientific Integrity Safe at the USDA? https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/is-scientific-integrity-safe-at-the-usda https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/is-scientific-integrity-safe-at-the-usda#respond Wed, 15 Aug 2018 15:38:35 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60483
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist Franck Dayan observes wild-type and herbicide-resistant biotypes of Palmer Amaranth (pigweed) as Mississippi State University graduate student, Daniela Ribeiro collects samples for DNA analysis at the ARS Natural Products Utilization Research Unit in Oxford, MS on July 20, 2011. USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus. Photo: Stephen Ausmus, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Science is critical to everything the US Department of Agriculture does—helping farmers produce a safe, abundant food supply, protecting our soil and water for the future, and advising all of us about good nutrition to stay healthy. I recently wrote about the Trump administration’s new USDA chief scientist nominee, Scott Hutchins, and the conflicts he would bring from a career narrowly focused on developing pesticides for Dow.

But meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last week abruptly announced a proposed reorganization of the USDA’s research agencies. This move has implications for whoever takes up the post of chief scientist—as do new survey findings released yesterday, which suggest that the Trump administration is already having detrimental effects on science and scientists at the USDA.

An attack on science, and a shrinking portfolio for the next chief scientist

The job for which Scott Hutchins (and this guy before him) has been nominated is actually a multi-pronged position. The under secretary is responsible for overseeing the four agencies that currently make up the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area: the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Collectively, these agencies carry out or facilitate nearly $3 billion worth of research on food and agriculture topics every year. In addition, the REE under secretary is the USDA’s designated chief scientist, overseeing the Office of the Chief Scientist, established by Congress in 2008 to “provide strategic coordination of the science that informs the Department’s and the Federal government’s decisions, policies and regulations that impact all aspects of U.S. food and agriculture and related landscapes and communities.” OCS and the chief scientist are also responsible for ensuring scientific integrity across the department.

Altogether, it’s no small job, but it may soon get smaller. Secretary Perdue’s unexpected reorganization proposal last week would pluck ERS figuratively from within REE and place it in the Secretary’s office. Perdue’s announcement also included a plan to literally move ERS, along with NIFA, to as-yet-undetermined locations outside the DC area.

Perdue’s proposal cited lower rents and better opportunities to recruit agricultural specialists. But that rationale sounds fishy to UCS and other observers, as well as former USDA staff (the most recent NIFA administrator had this unvarnished reaction) and current staff who were caught by surprise. The move looks suspiciously like subordinating science to politics, likely giving big agribusiness and its boosters in farm-state universities ever more influence over the direction of USDA research that really should be driven by the public interest. Moreover, on the heels of a White House proposal earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—which Congress has thus far ignored—Perdue’s “relocate or leave” plan for ERS staff sure seems like a back-door way to gut the agency’s capacity.

New USDA scientist survey findings give more cause for concern

Even before announcements of a conflicted chief scientist nominee and ill-conceived reorganization, things weren’t exactly rosy for those working within REE agencies. In a survey conducted in February and March and released by UCS yesterday, scientists and economists in ARS, ERS, NASS, and NIFA raised concerns about the effects of political interference, budget cuts, and staff reductions. In partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, we asked more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 government agencies about scientific integrity, agency effectiveness, and the working environment for scientists in the first year of the Trump administration. At the USDA, we sent the survey to more than 3,600 scientists, economists, and statisticians we identified in the four REE agencies; about 7 percent (n=258) responded.

Among the findings summarized in our USDA-specific fact sheet are that scientists:

  • Face restrictions on communicating their work—78 percent said they must obtain agency preapproval to communicate with journalists; and
  • Report workforce reductions are a problem—90 percent say they’ve noticed such reductions in their agencies. And of those, 92 percent say short-staffing is making it harder for the USDA to fulfill its science-based mission.

To sum up: the next USDA chief scientist will lead a shrinking, under-resourced, and somewhat demoralized cadre of scientists facing political interference and possibly increased influence from industry (a trend we are already seeing in the Trump/Perdue USDA). All this at a time when the department really needs to advance research that can help farmers meet the myriad challenges they face and safeguard the future of our food system.

Soon, I’ll follow up with questions the Senate might want to ask Scott Hutchins—in light of all this and his own chemical industry baggage—when they hold his confirmation hearing.

]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/is-scientific-integrity-safe-at-the-usda/feed 0
We Surveyed Thousands of Federal Scientists. Here are Some Potential Reasons Why the Response Rate Was Lower than Usual https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/we-surveyed-thousands-of-federal-scientists-here-are-some-potential-reasons-why-the-response-rate-was-lower-than-usual https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/we-surveyed-thousands-of-federal-scientists-here-are-some-potential-reasons-why-the-response-rate-was-lower-than-usual#respond Tue, 14 Aug 2018 18:49:09 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60428

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, sent a survey to over 63,000 federal career staff across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus. Our goal was to give scientists a voice on the state of science under the Trump administration as we had during previous administrations.

We worked diligently to maintain the anonymity of the federal scientists taking our survey, providing three different methods for participants to take the survey (online, phone, and a mail-in option). Scientists took advantage of all three methods.

We followed up with reminders nearly weekly. Some scientists who were invited to take the survey did reach out to confirm that UCS and Iowa State University were conducting a legitimate survey, and the link that we sent them was safe to click on. In addition, some agencies communicated to their staff that the survey was legitimate and that experts were free to take it on their own time.

And while we received enough responses for the results to be valid, the final overall response rate on this years’ federal scientists survey sits at 6.9%. Compared to response rates on prior surveys conducted by UCS over the past 13 years, which have typically ranged from 15-20%, this year’s rate is lower. Let’s unpack some potential reasons why, and what the impact may be on interpreting results.

Reasons Why the Response Rate was Low

  1. Fear

It is possible that federal scientists and scientific experts were fearful or reluctant to comment on the state of science under the Trump administration. This may be borne from some political appointees reprimanding career staff for speaking publicly about their work.

Additionally, it is possible that given the heightened threat of cyber-attacks in the modern era, scientists were afraid their information might be monitored or leaked. Survey respondents were given a unique identifier to ensure the integrity of the survey, and while these identifiers were deleted before the survey results were prepared for release, we heard reports that simply being associated with that unique identifier was too much of a barrier.

  1. Discouragement from Senior Leadership

At some offices within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), senior leadership sent emails to employees that discouraged them from taking the 2018 UCS survey. FWS emails stated “Requests for service employees to participate in surveys, from both internal and external sources, must be approved in advance of the issuance of the survey.” But this is only true of surveys issued through the agency. Federal employees are not required to receive an ethics clearance to take an outside survey if they take it on their own time and with their own equipment. On the other hand, other offices within the EPA as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent emails reminding employees that they were welcome to take the survey given that they took it using their own time and equipment.

  1. Larger Survey Sample

This is the largest survey that UCS has ever conducted. Our prior surveys have been administered to up to 4 agencies, whereas we surveyed 16 agencies, offices, and bureaus this year. It may be easier to achieve higher response rates with smaller survey samples because it is possible for researchers to devote more time to working with the survey sample and building trust.

  1. Lack of Public Directory and/or Job Descriptions

UCS can survey federal scientists because their name, email address, and job title are publicly available, or at least they should be. For some agencies that we surveyed, like the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) who do not have public directories available, we submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for this information (it’s been a year and half, and we still don’t have the directory from DOE). For other agencies, such as the EPA, a public directory was available but didn’t have complete information (e.g., job titles). Having the job title of the career staffer is important as it allows us to narrow down our survey sample to those who are likely to be a scientist or scientific expert. In the case of the EPA, Census Bureau, and DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), we did not have this information, so we had to administer the survey to the entire agency, or to only offices that we assumed would do scientific work. This greatly increases the number of individuals in an agency sample such that response rates are likely skewed lower relative to other agencies.

Does this low response rate matter in the interpretation of survey results?

A low response rate can give rise to sampling bias, meaning that some individuals in our survey sample are less likely to be included than others (some suggest that only the most disgruntled employees would respond). However, there is a growing body of literature that suggests that this may not be the case. Counterintuitively, it’s possible that surveys with lower response rates may yield more accurate results compared to those with higher response rates. Another study showed that administering the same survey for only 5 days (achieving a 25% response rate) versus weeks (achieving a 50% response rate) largely did not result in statistically different results. Results that were significantly different across these surveys only differed between 4-8 percentage points.

Further, we have never suggested that the responses received at an agency represent the agency as a whole. Rather, the responses represent the experiences of those who chose to respond. And when hundreds or thousands of federal scientists report censorship, political influence on their work, or funding being distributed away from work just because the issue is viewed as politically contentious…well, we have a problem.

I’m very happy that we gave these scientists a voice, because they had a lot to say and it’s time that they’re heard.

]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/we-surveyed-thousands-of-federal-scientists-here-are-some-potential-reasons-why-the-response-rate-was-lower-than-usual/feed 0
Trump Administration Takes Aim at Public Health Protections https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/epa-cost-benefit-takes-aim-at-public-health https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/epa-cost-benefit-takes-aim-at-public-health#respond Tue, 14 Aug 2018 18:15:16 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60443
Photo: Daniels, Gene/ The U.S. National Archives

In a new regulatory effort, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims to be working to increase consistency and transparency in how it considers costs and benefits in the rulemaking process.

Don’t be fooled.

Under the cover of these anodyne goals, the agency is in fact trying to pursue something far more nefarious. Indeed, what the EPA is actually working to do is formalize a process whereby the decision of whether or not to go ahead with a rule is permanently tilted in industry’s favor. How? By slashing away at what the agency can count as “benefits,” resulting in a full-on broadside to public health.

EPA handcuffs itself to let industry roam free

Though it may seem obscure, the implications of this fiddling are anything but.

That’s because EPA regularly engages in what’s known as “cost-benefit analysis,” or a comparison of the costs of implementing a rule to the benefits that are expected to result. This doesn’t always shape how a standard gets set—for some air pollutants, for example, Congress actually requires the agency to specifically not develop standards based on cost, but rather based on health, to ensure that the public stays sufficiently protected. Other regulations weigh costs at varying levels of import, related to the specifics of the issue at hand.

Still, cost-benefit analysis is widely used, even when it describes rather than informs. The process lends context to rulemaking efforts, though it certainly isn’t perfect: cost-benefit analysis faces challenges, especially in quantifying those impacts that don’t lend themselves well to quantitative reductions. But on either side serious practitioners agree: this new effort by EPA is ill-conceived.

And the consequence of EPA’s proposed manipulations? Well, when the agency next goes to tally up the impacts of a rule, the traditionally towering benefits of its regulations could suddenly be cut way down in size. Not because public health is suddenly fixed, but just because it’s the only way to get the equation to solve in favor of industry time after time.

What’s more, alongside this effort EPA is simultaneously endeavoring to place untenable restrictions on the data and research the agency can consider in its rulemaking process, effectively hamstringing its own ability to fully and adequately evaluate impacts to public health.

Together, the net result would be a regulatory framework aggressively biased in industry’s favor, and a Trump Administration suddenly able to claim that public health protections are just not worth the cost.

To industry, with love

The good news is that this nascent proposal is incredibly hard to defend—on morals, and on merits.

The bad news is that the Trump Administration is highly motivated to do everything it can to find in favor of industry, so it’s still sure to be a fight.

Here, three key points to note:

  1. Ignoring co-benefits would permanently tilt the scales—and just does not make sense. One of the primary ways EPA is looking to shirk its regulatory responsibilities is by attempting to exclude the consideration of “co-benefits,” or those that arise as a result of a rule but not from the target pollutant itself, during its cost-benefit evaluations. Absurd. Although these indirect benefits—the avoided ER visits, the precluded asthma attacks, the workdays still in play—are just as real as indirect costs, under this proposal only the latter would continue to stay in the ledger.

 

  1. Requiring consistency across agency actions goes against EPA’s statutory requirements. The EPA is suggesting that cost-benefit methodologies should be applied uniformly across rulemaking efforts. This not only fails to recognize that not all protections should be evaluated in the same ways, but also that Congress itself outlined differences in how the agency should evaluate proposals depending on specific circumstances. As a result, the agency isn’t even allowed to do what it’s trying to do. And even worse than this nonsense standardization? The fact that the agency is trying to implement the requirement at the level least protective of public health.

 

  1. EPA already tried this out, and those efforts were roundly denounced. Prior to this proposal, EPA actually made a preliminary attempt at using a co-benefits-limited approach in its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. There, it attempted to separate out and consider only the benefits that accrued from carbon dioxide emissions reductions, despite the billions of dollars of additional health benefits anticipated to come from indirect benefits of the rule. This action was taken alongside a slew of other discriminatory accounting maneuvers, revealing an agency desperately doing anything it could to deliver for industry, including by tipping the scales.

This regulatory effort was carefully constructed to conceal intentions and motivations, but it’s clear from the agency’s surrounding narrative and parallel policy initiatives that it is being advanced in strict pursuit of an industry-favored finding.

Where to next?

Let’s not forget the mission of the EPA: to protect human health and the environment.

From that frame, it’s hard to see what good this effort would do. It doesn’t bring EPA closer to an objective analytical truth, it doesn’t elevate and further that which is in the public’s interest, and it certainly doesn’t suggest an agency doing everything it can to advance its one core mission.

Instead, what we see is EPA displaying shockingly overt piety to industry over public, and in the process, failing to defend the very thing the agency was created to protect.

We’ve filed comments with EPA to call this rigged process out, and we’ll continue to stand up for the mission of the agency even when EPA lets it slide.

Because this demands a fight.

A fight for an agency that fights for the public, and a fight for a ledger that pulls people and places out of the red, not permanently cements them in it.

Photo: Daniels, Gene/ The U.S. National Archives
]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/epa-cost-benefit-takes-aim-at-public-health/feed 0
UCS Survey Shows Interior Department is Worse Than We Thought—And That’s Saying Something https://blog.ucsusa.org/joel-clement/ucs-survey-shows-interior-department-is-worse-than-we-thought-and-thats-saying-something https://blog.ucsusa.org/joel-clement/ucs-survey-shows-interior-department-is-worse-than-we-thought-and-thats-saying-something#comments Tue, 14 Aug 2018 18:14:59 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60465

Can scientific staff at the US Department of the Interior rest easy knowing that their colleagues at other agencies have it worse when it comes to political interference?

Survey says: Nope.

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the results from their periodic survey of scientific professionals at federal agencies, and the results from the Department of Interior (DOI) are damning. Not only do the responses indicate plummeting morale, job satisfaction, and agency effectiveness, but politics is now being felt significantly at the US Geological Survey, a non-regulatory scientific bureau at DOI that has historically operated without substantial political interference. In all, concerns about political interference, censorship of politically contentious issues, and workforce reductions at DOI are higher than most other agencies.

The comments from the survey read like an organizational leadership seminar’s list of fatal flaws: Hostile workplace, check; fear of retaliation and discrimination, check; self-censorship, check; poor leadership, check; chronic understaffing, check. To make matters worse, the political leadership at Interior, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, has a deserved reputation for barring career staff from decision-making processes.

In addition to the undue influence of political staff, the top concern from DOI scientific staff was lack of capacity. One respondent commented: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As a former career civil servant at Interior I can attest to the plummeting morale at the agency—even before I resigned in October 2017 there was a pall over every office and bureau and career staff were feeling completely ignored by Trump administration officials. This led to some very bad decisions from Zinke, but that has not led to greater inclusion—in fact, team Zinke has continued to alienate career staff and seems to be betting that they will remain silent.

Some good investigative journalism and a lot of Freedom of Information Act disclosures have shown that only industry representatives get meetings with the top brass, decisions are made without input from career staff, censorship (especially of climate change related science) is on the upswing, science is routinely ignored or questioned, and expert advisory boards are being ignored, suspended, or disbanded.

All of this adds up to an agency that is being intentionally hollowed out, with consequences for American health and safety and for our nation’s treasured lands and wildlife. Americans are clamoring for more information on how their businesses, lands, and communities can address the climate impacts they see all year round—but DOI scientists responding to the survey pointed to how Zinke is slowly shutting down the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) that deliver that information. Congress provided Zinke with the money to keep growing the LCC’s, but he continues to let them wither on the vine just as they are providing important and timely support for communities in need.

As the Federal Trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Interior should be expected to support tribes and villages in need of resources and capacity for relocating or addressing dramatic climate change impacts, but Zinke is leaving them to fend for themselves despite a bipartisan call to get them out of harm’s way.

As the land manager for America’s most treasured landscapes, Interior is expected to be an effective steward of our National Parks and other areas dedicated to conservation, recreation, and the protection of wildlife habitat. Instead, Zinke ordered the largest reduction in conservation lands in our nation’s history when he shrunk Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by nearly half. Scientists responding to the survey referred to these decisions as lacking scientific justification. Thanks to recently disclosed documents and emails, we now know that science was pushed aside and the real reason for shrinking the Monuments was to encourage oil and gas extraction in those locations, despite Zinke’s emphatic statements to the contrary. The most damning evidence? The new maps for these shrunken Monuments match the maps that industry lobbyists provided for him. This is yet another insult to the American Indians for whom this area is sacred.

While this is consistent with the Administration’s goal of hobbling federal agencies and opening the door for industry donors, it is not consistent with the use of taxpayer dollars to protect national assets and address health and safety needs, and it is not consistent with the role of public servant. The UCS survey results are a damning indication of the depth of dysfunction that Ryan Zinke has fostered at Interior, and it is essential that Congress implement its important oversight role to prevent the rot from spreading still further.

]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/joel-clement/ucs-survey-shows-interior-department-is-worse-than-we-thought-and-thats-saying-something/feed 2
Happy 10th Birthday to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act! https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/happy-10th-birthday-to-the-consumer-product-safety-improvement-act https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/happy-10th-birthday-to-the-consumer-product-safety-improvement-act#respond Tue, 14 Aug 2018 16:30:15 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60450
Photo: Valentina Powers/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Since the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) became law, it has done a number of things to protect children from exposure to lead in toys and other items, improved the safety standards for cribs and other infant and toddler products, and created the saferproducts.gov database so that consumers have a place to go for research on certain products or reporting safety hazards and negative experiences. Today, along with a group of other consumer and public health advocacy organizations, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the passage of this law. I am especially grateful that this act was passed a decade ago, as both a consumer advocate and an expecting mom.

Most of us might not realize it, but being a consumer now is a lot better than it would have been ten years ago.

When I sat down to begin the process of making a baby registry several months back, I didn’t know quite what to expect. With so many decisions to make about products that were going to be used by the person I already hold most dear in this world, I felt the anxiety begin to build. Perhaps I knew a little bit too much about how chemicals can slip through the regulatory cracks and end up on the market or how some companies deliberately manipulate the science in order to keep us in the dark about the safety of their products. But as I began to do research on children’s products, I ran into some pretty neat bits of information and have the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to thank.

First, cribs all have to meet conformity standards that were developed by the CPSC in 2011. The rule requires that all crib manufacturers cannot sell drop-side cribs, and must strengthen crib slates and mattress supports, improve the quality of hardware, and require more rigorous testing of cribs before sale. This means if a crib is for sale anywhere in the US, it has been accredited by a CPSC-approved body and meets distinct safety requirements so that not only can your baby sleep safely but parents can sleep soundly (insert joke about parents and lack of sleep here). Between 2006-2008 and 2012-2014, the percentage of deaths associated with cribs attributed to crib integrity vs. hazardous crib surroundings has decreased from 32 percent to 10 percent.

This isn’t the only product type for which CPSC has created standards in the past 10 years. So far, CPSC has written rules for play yards, baby walkers, baby bath seats, children’s portable bed rails, strollers, toddler beds, infant swings, handheld infant carriers, soft infant carriers, framed infant carriers, bassinets, cradles, portable hook-on chairs, infant sling carriers, infant bouncer seats, high chairs, and most recently it approved standards for baby changing tables this summer.

Next, I can rest assured that no baby products contain dangerous levels of the reproductive toxins, phthalates, because of a provision in CPSIA that restricted a total of eight types of phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles to a very strict standard of 0.1% on a permanent basis. It also established a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel of experts to review the science on phthalates that would eventually inform a CPSC final rule. This rule was issued in October 2017 and became effective beginning in April 2018.

I can also be sure that the toys purchased for my child will not contain unsafe levels of the developmental toxin, lead, as long as they were tested and accredited by a CPSC-approved entity. As of 2011, the CPSIA limited the amount of lead that can be in children’s products to 100 ppm. And once we found that perfect paint color for the walls after hours of staring at violet swatches, I didn’t need to worry about its lead content considering that the CPSIA set the limit at 0.009 percent or 90 ppm for paint and some furniture that contains paint.

Finally, when in doubt, I discovered I can query the saferproducts.gov database to check whether there have been reports of a product’s hazard or head over to recalls.gov to double check that a product I’m planning on buying doesn’t have any recall notices on it.

There’s clearly been a lot of progress since the CPSIA was passed a decade ago, and I have to say, I feel fortunate that I’m beginning the parenting stage of my life as many of its provisions are being fully implemented. In all my reading on pregnancy and parenting, I’ve learned that there are only so many things you can control before your child arrives. The safety of my home is one of those things, so I’m thankful that the CPSIA has given me the ability to make informed decisions about the products with which I’m furnishing my child’s room.

And as I wear my Union of Concerned Scientists hat, I’m also encouraged that the CPSIA gave the agency the space to ensure that its scientists were able to do their work without fear of interference, including whistleblower protections. As the CPSC embarks upon its next ten years of ensuring the goals of the CPSIA are fully realized, we urge the agency to continue to enforce its safety standards, ensure that manufacturers of recalled products are held accountable, and educate the public about its product hazard database and other tools for reporting and researching harmful products. Unrelatedly, the agency should also continue to stay weird on twitter, because its memes bring joy to all. Case in point below.

Photo credit: twitter/US CPSC

]]> https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/happy-10th-birthday-to-the-consumer-product-safety-improvement-act/feed 0 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Results of Our 2018 Federal Scientists Survey https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-the-results-of-our-2018-federal-scientists-survey https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-the-results-of-our-2018-federal-scientists-survey#respond Tue, 14 Aug 2018 14:34:15 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60432

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted a survey of federal scientists to ask about the state of science over the past year, and the results are in. Scientists and their work are being hampered by political interference, workforce reductions, censorship, and other issues, but the federal scientific workforce is resilient and continuing to stand up for the use of science in policy decisions.

This survey was conducted in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology building upon prior surveys conducted by UCS since 2005. However, this year’s survey is unique in that it is the largest that UCS has ever conducted to date (sent to over 63,000 federal employees across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus), and it is the first survey to our knowledge to gauge employee’s perceptions of the Trump administration’s use of science in decisionmaking processes.

The Trump administration’s record on science on a number of issues in multiple agencies is abysmal. Anyone who has paid attention to the news even slightly will know this. Therefore, my expectations were that the surveyed scientists and scientific experts would report out that they were working in a hostile work environment, that they are encountering numerous barriers to doing and communicating science, and that too many scientists are leaving the federal workforce. And while many of the respondents reported out on these negative issues, many respondents also reported out a lot of good work that is happening.

To be certain, some agencies seem to be faring better than others. Respondents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported better working environments and leadership that were conducive to continuing science-based work that informs decisionmaking at their agencies. However, respondents from bureaus at the Department of Interior (DOI) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seem to be having a difficult time with political interference, maintaining professional development, and censorship, to name a few issues illustrated by this survey. This agency-level variation, as well as variation in response rates  across surveyed agencies, should be considered when interpreting results across all agencies.

Below, I highlight some results of this year’s survey, but you can also find all of the results, methodology, quotes from surveyed scientists, and more at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey.

The Ugly: Political interference in science-based decisionmaking

The Trump administration has been no stranger to interfering with science-based processes at federal agencies. For example, both Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt changed the review processes of science-based grants such that they are critiqued based on how well they fit the administration’s political agenda instead of their intellectual merit. UCS also discovered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the White House interfered in the publication of a study about the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States.

Surveyed scientists and scientific experts in our 2018 survey noted that political interference is one of the greatest barriers to science-based decisionmaking at their agency. In a multiple response survey question in which respondents chose up to three barriers to decisionmaking, those ranked at the top were: Influence of political appointees in your agency or department, influence of the White House, limited staff capacity, delay in leadership making a decision, and absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise. This result was different as compared to our 2015 survey in which respondents reported that limited staff capacity and complexity of the scientific issue were the top barriers—influence of other agencies or the administration, as it was phrased in our 2015 survey, was not identified as a top barrier. One respondent from the EPA noted that political interference is undoing scientific processes: “…efforts are being made at the highest levels to unwind the good work that has been done, using scientifically questionable approaches to get answers that will support the outcomes desired by top agency leadership.”

Many respondents also reported issues of censorship, especially in regard to climate change science. In total, 631 respondents reported that they have been asked or told to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. A total of 703 respondents reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. But it is not only climate change—over 1,000 responding scientists and scientific experts reported that they have been asked or told to omit certain words in their scientific work because they are viewed as politically contentious. One respondent from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted that scientists studying pollinator health are being scrutinized: “We have scientists at my location that deal with insect pollinator issues, and there appears to be some suppression of work on that topic, in that supervisors question the contents of manuscripts, involvement in certain types of research, and participation in public presentation of the research. It has not eliminated the work of those scientists, but their involvement in those areas is highly scrutinized.”

The Bad: The scientific workforce is likely dwindling

Nearly 80% of respondents (3,266 respondents in total) noticed workforce reductions either due to staff departures, hiring freezes, and/or retirement buyouts. Of those respondents who noticed workforce reductions, nearly 90% (2,852 respondents in total) reported that these reductions make it difficult for them to fulfill their agency’s science-based missions. A respondent from the Fish and Wildlife Service summed up the issue: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As of June 2018, the 18th month of his administration, President Trump had filled 25 of the 83 government posts that the National Academy of Sciences designates as “scientist appointees.” Maybe now that President Trump has nominated meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, we will see other scientific appointments as well. For now, agencies that are understaffed and that do not have leadership with needed scientific expertise will likely continue to have a difficult time getting their scientific work completed.

The Good:  The scientific workforce is resilient

While 38% of those surveyed (1628 respondents in total) reported that the effectiveness of their division or offices has decreased over the past year, 15% reported an increase in effectiveness (643 respondents total) and 38% (1567 respondents total) reported no change in effectiveness over the past year. It is still not a good sign that over 1,000 scientists and scientific experts are reporting that the effectiveness of their office/division has decreased under the Trump administration, but it is also good to see that there are still a number of scientists and scientific experts being able to continue to do their important work.

Further, a majority of respondents (64%; 2452 respondents in total) reported that their agencies are adhering to their scientific integrity policies and that they are receiving adequate training on them. While those surveyed reported on barriers to science-based decisionmaking such as those described above and more that fall outside of the scope of these policies, it is still a step forward to see that the federal scientific workforce knows about the policies and perceives them to be followed. Many responding scientists reported that they are doing the best work they can under this administration. As one respondent from the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, “USGS scientific integrity guidelines are among the best in the federal service. They are robust and followed by the agency. What happens at the political level is another story.”

There is still work to do

Some scientists are continuing to get their work done and others are having a difficult time. Many scientists see their leadership as a barrier to their science-based work, whereas some scientists think their leadership recognizes the importance of science to their agency’s mission.

However, when hundreds to thousands of scientists are reporting that there is political interference in their work, that they fear using certain terms like “climate change,” or that they are seeing funds being distributed away from work viewed as politically contentious – this is an ugly side of this administration’s treatment of science. Those numbers should be as close to zero as possible because when science takes a back seat to political whims, the health and safety of the American people loses.

]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-the-results-of-our-2018-federal-scientists-survey/feed 0
Science Prevails in the Courts as Chlorpyrifos Ban Becomes Likely https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/science-prevails-in-the-courts-as-chlorpyrifos-ban-becomes-likely https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/science-prevails-in-the-courts-as-chlorpyrifos-ban-becomes-likely#comments Thu, 09 Aug 2018 21:36:05 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60370
Photo: Will Fuller/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, children, farmworkers, and the rest of us won big in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as the court ordered EPA to finalize its proposed ban of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. Ultimately, the judge determined that EPA’s 2017 decision to refuse to ban the chemical was unlawful because it failed to justify keeping chlorpyrifos on the market, while the scientific evidence very clearly pointed to the link between chlorpyrifos exposure and neurodevelopmental damage to children, and further risks to farmworkers and users of rural drinking water.

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the EPA is required to remove pesticide tolerances (effectively banning them) when it cannot find they are safe with a “reasonable certainty.” The judge found that when former Administrator Pruitt’s refused to ban the chemical, he contradicted the work of the agency’s own scientists, who found the chemical posed extensive health risks to children. His failure to act accordingly violated the agency’s mandate under the FFDCA.

This attack on science was fueled by close relationships that Scott Pruitt and President Trump have with Dow Chemical Company, which makes chlorpyrifos. Unfortunately, this was just one of many recent EPA actions that not only lack justification and supporting analysis, but actively undermine the agency’s ability to protect public health—and in this case specifically, the health of children. Acting Administrator Wheeler should learn from this particular case that EPA’s decisions must be grounded in evidence, and that the public will continue to watch and demand as much.

The petition was filed by a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations. The EPA now has 60 days to ban chlorpyrifos.

Photo: Will Fuller/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)
]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/science-prevails-in-the-courts-as-chlorpyrifos-ban-becomes-likely/feed 3
As States Target University Students for Voter Suppression, Student Groups are Fighting Back https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/as-states-target-university-students-for-voter-suppression-student-groups-are-fighting-back https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/as-states-target-university-students-for-voter-suppression-student-groups-are-fighting-back#respond Tue, 07 Aug 2018 21:11:53 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60282
Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr

As the 2018 general midterm election approaches, college student voting rights are under attack.  Students are being specifically targeted for voter suppression in a number of states by excluding student identification as an acceptable form of voter identification, tightening up residency requirements, and selectively spreading misinformation. Fortunately, in several states, campus-wide and student-led movements are organizing and mobilizing college voters in a recognition of the historic role that students have played in the civil and voting rights movements in the United States and abroad.

New hurdles for students

Many states still do not allow absentee voting, often preventing students from outside of their birth states from casting a ballot.  More specifically, and more frequently since the Supreme Court overturned sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, dozens of states have implemented voter identification requirements, some of which either exclude student identification as a valid form of ID, or require proof of residency with forms (electric bills, etc.) that students living on campus are less likely to have.  A University of Michigan study has demonstrated the recent decline of drivers’ license ownership among college students, a form of identification frequently used in states with strict voter ID laws.

Perhaps most notoriously, the state of New Hampshire recently legislated the equivalent of a poll tax on out-of-state students, a residency requirement that includes registering one’s vehicle with the state and getting a New Hampshire driver’s license, which can cost several hundred dollars.  New Hampshire students have one chance , this November, to overturn the law: because it does not go into effect until 2019, they have an opportunity to mobilize and change the leadership in the legislature, a legislature that intentionally targeted them.

Direct, intentional targeting of students to suppress their votes in not solely the province of legislatures.  For example, in 2016, campuses in Maine were targeted with flyers providing false information about voting and registration requirements, and past elections have seen campuses targeted by organizations that fraudulently register students without completing their registration.

Nevertheless, students organizing to protect voting rights  in other states have achieved significant victories.  North Carolina’s strict voter ID law, which excluded student IDs as valid, was struck down in 2016 before the general election, after a group of college students, along with the Department of Justice, the North Carolina NAACP, the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters filed lawsuits against the state of North Carolina.  Just this month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker sided with students and struck down Florida’s ban on early voting sites on college campuses as “facially discriminatory on account of age.”

Of course, the struggle continues.  A newly refurbished voter ID law is actually back on the ballot this November in North Carolina, with no mention of whether student IDs would be a valid form of identification.

Voter ID is also back on the ballot in Arkansas, and restrictive election laws already on the books weaken electoral integrity and threaten to disenfranchise voters across the United States.

Student organizing brings ballot access

For decades, student movements have been critical to expanding and defending ballot access throughout the United States. We need students to fulfill their historic role as agents of change in the expansion and protection of voting rights, from the Women’s Suffrage movement to Selma, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been organizing since 1963.

Organizing is already under way.  Across the country, campaigns like The Big Ten Voting Challenge are working to increase the number of eligible registered students across the country, through an extension of the Turbo Vote Challenge.  Student groups like Turn Up Turnout have a straightforward, non-partisan approach to political action: sign students onto Turbovote; organize turnout initiatives; administer workshops to explain the importance and effectiveness of voting, especially in midterm and local elections; and provide workshop materials that other campuses can use to develop their own initiatives.  The goal is not just to increase on-campus voting, but “that students should vote where they want—at home or at school—that it should be their choice” according to professor Edie Goldberg, who helped initiate the group at the University of Michigan.

The freedom to choose.  That is ultimately what students are fighting for this election cycle.  Not just for the right to free, fair and competitive elections, but for the ultimate ends of political action: the health of their communities, the health of the planet, as well as the academic means, the science that supports the sorts of policy that will get us there.  Science Rising is one such effort, a coalition of scientists, students, and activists fighting to ensure that knowledge generated for the public good continues to play a central role in policymaking, despite recent attacks on science and the scientific community.

Organizers and activists are creating windows of opportunity this election season. Opportunities to ensure that our democracy has an adequate supply of its two basic components: the energy of citizens, equally empowered to associate and express their collective goals; and the knowledge required to make informed, ethical and humane choices about what those goals are.  Ultimately, democracy depends on “strong people” in the words of SNCC organizer, advisor, and mentor Ella Baker; “Strong people don’t need leaders…we were strong people.  We did strong things.”

Preliminary data look promising. Record turnout among young people in Virginia helped to unseat dozens of incumbent state lawmakers in 2017.  While Millennials are still less likely to register than older Americans, their share among newly registered voters indicates a significant increase, especially in battleground states.  Additionally, the number of young people running for office is surging across the country at every level of government. But we won’t know until November, just how many students are stepping up to take on their historic responsibility as agents of change, and showing it at the ballot box.

Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr
]]>
https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/as-states-target-university-students-for-voter-suppression-student-groups-are-fighting-back/feed 0