Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Fri, 19 Jan 2018 20:55:03 +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 Standing Ground: The State of Voting Rights in Year One of the Trump Administration https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/standing-ground-the-state-of-voting-rights-in-year-one-of-the-trump-administration https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/standing-ground-the-state-of-voting-rights-in-year-one-of-the-trump-administration#respond Fri, 19 Jan 2018 20:42:45 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56101
Flickr/Michael Fleshman

On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of these United States.  By the time the president-elect had actually taken office, he had already put into motion his intent to see through a radical transformation of the nation’s electoral laws.  Mr. Trump’s nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, his collaboration with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to establish an “electoral integrity” commission, and his nomination of a series of controversial judicial appointees soon after inauguration, all reflected an extension of his campaign’s attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections.

Fears of non-citizens voting and election rigging emerged as a major pillar of candidate Trump’s nativist agenda, and its emphasis on the contamination of our institutions by outsiders.  Having already established his legitimacy-bashing credentials as a leader of the conspiracy to question President Obama’s citizenship, Mr. Trump regularly attacked electoral institutions, once tweeting “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.”  He even went so far as to declare at a rally, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win!”  Not more than a few weeks after his Electoral College victory, Mr. Trump re-initiated his attack, claiming, as usual without any evidence, that he would have won the popular vote, were it not for “millions of people who voted illegally.”

Total retaliation

Hunter S. Thompson once referred to the sort of vengeful resentment that characterizes Trumpist politics as an “ethic of total retaliation.” That sounds like an accurate account of this administration’s attempts to dismantle voting rights this year.

First came President Trump’s appointment of Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions, who applauded the 5-4, 2013 Supreme Court decision overturning the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act, had previously been called “a disgrace to the Justice Department” by Senator Ted Kennedy during a failed appointment for a federal judgeship.

Under Sessions, the Department of Justice has reversed position in several major voting rights cases. It has urged that a Texas voter identification law that it previously deemed racially discriminatory remain in effect.  Sessions has similarly reversed the Department’s interpretation of the National Voter Registration Act, and is now defending an Ohio voter list purge case where thousands of eligible voters were removed from the polls.

Next, and after the Trump team legally acknowledged that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake,” came the “election integrity” commission lead by Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence.  Kobach had previously pushed illegal citizenship and identification requirements on voters in Kansas, but was successfully sued multiple times by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating federal voting rights.  In his new role, he sought to dismantle those protections.

Instead of recruiting actual election experts, the commission looked like the S-Men of voter suppression, with members like Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams, and Ken Blackwell.  The first substantive act of the commission was to try to collect sensitive voter list information from states, an act that the Election Privacy Information Center referred to as “without precedent and crazy.”  The mere threat of the Kobach commission acquiring control over private electoral data initiated a never-before-seen voter deregistration, at the same time that election administrators wasted precious resources addressing commission concerns.

Finally, judicial appointments have initiated a more subtle but certain erosion of voting rights. President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has already provided a 5th vote to protect a racial gerrymander in Texas.  Lower level nominees like Thomas Farr, referred to as the “legal architect of North Carolina’s voter suppression” who built a career defending the state against voting rights claims, has been nominated, rejected, and renominated to a district court there.  Mark Norris, a Tennessee legislator who has similarly promoted “proof of citizenship” requirements at voting precincts, was nominated to the Western Tennessee district court.  The list goes on, demonstrating the president’s intent to use the judiciary as a stronghold, from which to beat down and destroy the legacy of voting rights that has been built over the last half century.

This year also saw the House Administration Committee try to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, the only federal agency charged with improving electoral integrity.  Similarly, the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to investigate violations of the (Watergate-inspired) Federal Election Campaign Act, has been rendered so dysfunctional from stalled appointments and partisan stalemate that it will never investigate potential violations of the 2016 Trump campaign.

Standing ground

Nevertheless, the story of voting rights in 2017 is one of mobilized resistance and cautious optimism. From its inception, civic journalism and organized resistance have kept public attention focused on both the Justice Department and the Kobach commission.  Excellent reporting by ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman revealed that von Spakovsky had authored a memo received by the Attorney General before he was even on the commission, arguing for the exclusion of any Democrats, academics or moderate Republicans from the commission.  A White House official recently acknowledged that the commission was a “shit show” after it was dissolved, in part because a federal court had ordered that Kobach release internal communications from which one of its Democratic members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, had been excluded.

Voting rights groups ranging from Hip Hop Caucus’s Respect My Vote! campaign, to the A.C.L.U., Common Cause, and Democracy Initiative rallied to protest the commission at the few public meetings that it held.  Nearly every state refused to hand over at least some of the sensitive data that Kobach had requested, and multiple lawsuits were filed by voting rights litigators to protect voter information.  News organizations also analyzed the numerous problems with flawed data being presented at commission meetings.

Also leading by example, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine established its own Committee on the Future of Voting, which has so far held four easily accessible, public meetings, bringing together the nation’s top election law experts, political and computer scientists, security advisors and administrators to address very real challenges to free and fair elections.  They have shown what a real electoral integrity commission looks like.

Moreover, there is hope that the Supreme Court, having heard its first partisan gerrymandering case in a decade last year, will establish a constitutional standard for identifying redistricting plans that violate political equality.  The Supreme Court is set to hear a similar case against a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland this Spring, and there are a host of other cases from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas that could result in stronger redistricting and voter eligibility requirements across the country.  These and related cases highlight the advances that social scientists have made in the measurement and estimation of constitutional standards.  None of these cases would have moved forward last year without the commitment of mobilized citizens, the research of impartial social scientists, and the legal assistance of voting rights advocates fighting on their behalf.

Looking back, the state of voting rights one year into Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired fear, as intended, but also confidence in the use of evidence-based arguments to hold government accountable.  That’s good, because 2018 is going to be a voting rights battle, given the November opportunity to replace Congressional leadership with actors who will bring the president to heel.  Citizens must be ever more vigilant in protecting their electoral institutions, and demand that integrity, rather than ideology, be the guiding principle of election law.

Michael Fleshman
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From National Parks to the EPA, Trump Administration Stiff-Arms Science Advisers https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/from-national-parks-to-the-epa-trump-administration-stiff-arms-science-advisers https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/from-national-parks-to-the-epa-trump-administration-stiff-arms-science-advisers#respond Fri, 19 Jan 2018 15:29:24 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56089
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to meet with National Park System Advisory Board members last year, prompting most of them to quit. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration’s testy relationship with science reminds me of that old saying: Advice is least heeded when most needed.

Earlier this week, three-quarters of the members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to hold a meeting with them last year. The board was established more than 80 years ago so scientists and former elected officials could advise the Department of the Interior on a variety of national park and monument issues, including the designation of national historic and natural landmarks.

With zero input from the 12-member board, Zinke dramatically reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah to open them up to grazing and mining; arbitrarily increased park visitor fees; and reversed a ban on plastic water bottles in the park system.

Their resignation should not come as a surprise. Zinke’s cavalier treatment of the National Park System Advisory Board is just the most recent example of an administration-wide rejection of independent scientific expertise, according to a report released Thursday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

After reviewing the status of 73 science advisory boards at six federal agencies and interviewing 33 current and former board members, UCS researchers found that last year the boards met less often than in any year since the government started keeping records in 1997. They also found that nearly two-thirds of the boards met fewer times than their charters recommend, and board membership dropped 14 percent from the previous year, twice as much as during the first year of the Obama administration.

Some of the meetings that did take place, meanwhile, could hardly be designated as such. Panel members told UCS researchers that several in-person meetings were replaced by perfunctory telephone conference calls, some lasting for as little as 15 minutes.

The boards UCS included in its analysis advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration, and provide a good representative sample of the 218 scientific and technical panels currently serving the federal government. Generally comprised of volunteer experts from academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments, these committees keep federal agencies abreast of the latest, cutting-edge research and make recommendations on short-term challenges, such as epidemic outbreaks, and ongoing issues, such as nuclear safety.

Besides Interior, one of the biggest offenders is the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the agency 14 times on behalf of his campaign contributors to try to block air and water protections. Last October, Pruitt issued new rules barring anyone who receives EPA grants from serving on agency advisory panels. Remarkably, he maintained that those scientists have a conflict of interest, regardless of the fact that the EPA does not dictate the outcome of its grantees’ research. He then packed the agency’s Science Advisory Board with industry scientists with clear conflicts of interest.

Perhaps most emblematic of the Trump administration’s contempt for science is the fact that the president has yet to appoint his science adviser, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Last October, The Washington Post reported that Trump has taken longer than any president in modern times to name his science adviser. That was three months ago, and the position is still open, as are the posts of deputy director and four congressionally mandated associate directors. In the meantime, the president has made a string of “unadvised,” ill-advised science-related decisions, most notably pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and appointing Pruitt, a climate-science-denying attorney, to run the EPA.

When the nine National Park System Advisory Board members quit last Monday, former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, the head of the board, explained their rationale. “We resigned because we were deeply disappointed with the [Interior] Department and we were concerned,” he said. “[Zinke] appears to have no interest in continuing the agenda of science, the effect of climate change, [or] pursuing the protection of the ecosystem.”

The same holds true for the entire Trump administration, and that doesn’t bode well for public health or the environment.

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New Report Reveals Trump Administration Is Abandoning Science Advice https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/new-report-reveals-trump-administration-is-abandoning-science-advice https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/new-report-reveals-trump-administration-is-abandoning-science-advice#respond Thu, 18 Jan 2018 11:56:09 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56074
Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

Unease. Frustration. Indignation. Experts serving as members of federal advisory committees are being frozen out of the very avenues that were designed to encourage external input on scientific issues to the federal government.

A new Center for Science and Democracy report released today, Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees, reveals the Trump Administration’s widespread under-utilization of science advice in its first year.

In an effort to cut science out of the equation, this sidelining has taken different forms: Meetings have been postponed, cancelled, or abbreviated. Experienced experts have been dismissed. Rules governing committee membership have been altered to ease the stacking of committees with industry-affiliated scientists, and to crowd out independent experts. In some cases, committees have been disbanded entirely, or placed in limbo for agency-wide “review.”

What we found

In this report, we analyzed the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Interior (DOI), Food & Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Commerce (DOC). We also interviewed more than 30 current and former advisory board members.

We found that last year, the DOE, EPA, and DOI met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997. At the DOE, DOC, and EPA, fewer experts are serving on advisory committees than at any time since 1997. And nearly two-thirds of the 73 committees surveyed are meeting less than they are directed to in their own charters.

And this decrease in activity isn’t just as a result of it being the first year of a new administration. Membership on advisory committees decreased 14 percent from 2016, while membership only decreased 7 percent in the first year of the Obama administration and less than 1 percent in the first year of the Bush administration.

Neglect, disregard, and egregious politicization

This blatant neglect of committees at the DOI made headlines this week when 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board at the Department of Interior resigned due to frustration that the Secretary had failed to meet with them or schedule a single meeting for the committee in 2017. Its members were not consulted when making important decisions about our national parks, just as DOI’s resource advisory councils, including one in Utah, were not consulted when deciding to shrink monuments in those jurisdictions.

The disregard of science advice has gone well beyond neglect. The Food and Drug Administration completely disbanded the 25-year-old Food Advisory Committee that examined issues like nutrition and food safety and was the agency’s only committee dedicated solely to food issues. And members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report no contact at all from the administration over the past year, with “no plans to reconstitute it.”

And in the most egregious politicization of science advisory boards, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has pushed a new policy banning any scientist who currently receives a research grant from the EPA from serving on advisory committees. Pruitt’s directive has radically reshaped the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientifically Counselors (BOSC), and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), breaking precedent by refusing to renew terms of committee members and tripling the representation of industry-affiliated scientists on the EPA SAB.

Experts are clamoring to be heard

Advisory committees operate differently across agencies and for good reason. They have different missions and require expertise spanning disciplines and fields. The one thing that all of these committees have in common is that they are composed of highly distinguished experts that are eager to get to work. In over 30 interviews held with members of a range of advisory committees, there was a resounding interest in resuming advisory activities and discussing the pressing issues under the relevant agencies’ authority that require their attention. Why waste the time of these individuals unless their time and potential science-based recommendations aren’t of any interest?

This suppression of information at this level makes it easier for Trump and his political appointees to make progress at deconstructing the administrative state, removes a vital check on the work being done at agencies, and prevents the best available science from being considered in the first place.

Policy decisions are based on a variety of factors, but if independence scientific analysis isn’t included as a consideration, then we’re flying blind—which might in fact be the actual goal for this administration. Why else would you neglect your own science advice infrastructure? Imagine a high school basketball coach unwilling to listen to 20 Steph Currys waiting eagerly on the sidelines with a slate of play options that would easily win his team the game. Why not listen unless your plan was to lose all along?

We can’t afford to let the Trump administration continue to make regulatory decisions without taking the time to analyze impacts. And, no, evaluating just the costs to oil companies, chemical companies, and developers is not sufficient. Experts are clamoring to be heard and members of the public would prefer that policymakers make fully-informed decisions that protect our health, rather than half-baked decisions informed by politics alone.

We must all fight to raise the political price of sidelining science and scientists. Because when policymakers don’t have access to the best independent scientific input, they can’t effectively protect all of us.

Scientists serving on federal advisory committees or working in the government who perceive that their work is being sidelined should get in touch with the UCS Science Protection Project to get confidential advice on strategic action. And we should all continue to call on our elected officials to further investigate the ways in which this administration is disregarding the government’s own scientists and external advisors, and what its squandering of this resource means for public health and safety.

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Five Lessons Our Science Network Watchdogging Teams Have Taught Us https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/five-lessons-our-science-network-watchdogging-teams-have-taught-us https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/five-lessons-our-science-network-watchdogging-teams-have-taught-us#respond Tue, 16 Jan 2018 21:12:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56038

It is one year since the Presidential inauguration, though to many of us it now seems like time is measured in dog years—each approximates seven in our own lifetimes. The election really energized the science community and many others to push back against the hateful rhetoric and frightening agenda of the president and his administration.

That rhetoric too often embodies racism, misogyny, homophobia, and divisiveness. And the agenda has valued big business interests over the public interest across the board, withdrawing public health, safety and environmental protections to boost corporate profits.

Here at UCS, we called on our Science Network to help us respond to a broad range of attacks on science as part of the new Administration’s agenda. The response has been wonderful and we have a lot to show for it. Not everyone has the time or inclination to take on the challenges of advocating for science on a regular and sustained basis, but over 1,000 of our Science Network members have so far stepped up for this higher level of engagement. I don’t mean to say they are the only ones fighting back, but these individuals have agreed to be on “watchdogging” teams around the country to speak out at a local level, engage their elected representatives, and serve as focal points for bringing science into the debates over public policy.  These teams have become partners in the fight, and from them we have learned many important lessons. Here are my top five:

Constituency and local knowledge matter

Our watchdogging team members speak to their elected officials, and to their communities, as neighbors and constituent voters. And despite all the concerns that people may have about our political culture, constituency still matters to elected officials. That doesn’t mean that an official will always do what you ask, but you will at least be heard.

Team members also understand local issues and challenges, as well as local politics, that it would be hard for a national organization like UCS to gather in any other way. That local and regional perspective helps everyone in the science community to build our knowledge and our story-bank of the impacts of attacks on science on people all across the country.

Our neighbors, too, are often more receptive to information over the back fence or on the front steps from someone who lives nearby than from the expert from far away. Letters to the editor in a local paper can have as much or more impact than pieces published in national press. More than 80 of our watchdogging Science Network members have published letters or op-eds, and that is building more recognition of key science issues at a local level. Letters to elected officials in various states (Maine, Montana, Missouri, Nevada, and North Dakota) and nationally have had over 5,000 signatories. And hundreds of personal calls have been made to Senate and House members offices.

UCS Legislative Associate Amy Gutierrez and Campaign Manager Danielle Fox guiding summit participants in finding connections between local issues and federal policy (Missoula, MT), August 25, 2017.

So, when our watchdogging team members meet with their representatives—dozens of times now over the last six months—they have a chance to get up close and personal. With a little support from us, they are delivering strong messages to fight those attacks on science that might seem obscure, but when brought into a local setting can really take on new importance. Like the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would so bog down the regulatory process that even if new threats to the public are identified, it would be almost impossible to develop new protections. Or defeating really terrible nominations to science positions in key agencies, like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Letters and emails from more than 4,000 scientists and calls from hundreds more helped turn the tide against these appointments.

Scientists have a lot to say

In our training as scientists we tend to focus on gaining fundamental skills in our discipline, but along the way, we all build our knowledge of how science itself works.  That means, as a marine scientist, I can certainly talk about my area of expertise, but I can also talk about the process by which science informs policy broadly across many science disciplines. And I can explain what the scientific method means, how peer review and other quality control and feedback mechanisms work, and why scientific evidence is so very different from a political opinion. More than that, it is pretty easy for me to look at data, graphs and evidence in a variety of fields and understand the basic messages even if I am not deeply engaged in that field of research.

All of that can be helpful in talking to officials and fellow residents, and in writing for a broader audience. The point is, scientists can speak out knowledgeably on issues beyond our own fields of study and have a lot to bring into a discussion of public policy. Many scientists are learning for themselves how helpful their voices can be in the public debate. For example, when Sen. Blunt (R. MO) introduced a bill to roll back progress on vehicle fuel economy standards, scientists and other concerned citizens went to meet with Sen. Donnelly’s staff (D. IN) to voice their opposition. They weren’t all automotive engineers or air pollution scientists, but they could talk about the bills misguided approach to fuel economy.

A little training goes a long way

For many experts, skills such as communicating with non-scientists, the media and a broader public don’t come naturally. We are trained to communicate to scientific audiences in our own fields. But in a public or political setting, the challenge is to be clear about the major lines of scientific evidence and their broader meaning or implication. That’s a skill we can learn, much as we have learned the other skills that make for good scientists.

So too is learning how to engage with elected officials, or journalists or media editors, or community organizations. We have been offering training and mentoring in all of these topics, and Science Network members have responded. Our 12 training workshops have reached 1184 members this past year. Our monthly calls regularly have 50 or more participating. Our state scientists’ summits in Montana, Nevada, Maine and Missouri, collectively had more than 100 participants.

Outreach Coordinator Jessica Thomas explaining the UCS Watchdog campaign with summit participants (Reno, NV), September 23, 2017.

While the summits included training in political advocacy, these workshops primarily served as opportunities for participants to learn from each other and plan actions to take on the state level. With that beginning, the sky’s the limit. Science Network members have co-authored compelling op-eds on the importance of science in our democracy, and held effective meetings with their Congressional delegations, despite doing it for the first time.

To find the best recruiters, look in the mirror

Having 1,000 scientists watchdogging is great, but the network needs to grow with a substantial capacity to self-organize to take action. That’s because to have a sustained impact on our democracy, scientists need to be active and engaged in the public discourse in as many places, in as many communities and issues as possible, not just while Trump is in office but going forward too. We are here to provide resources on issues where we can, as well as financial support through our Science for the Public Good small grants, and our Science and Democracy Fellowships (coming soon).

But it is Science Network members themselves that can help recruit more colleagues, in their states, to Stand Up for Science. They are best placed to know who has the passion and the commitment to be involved in this work, and they have made connections with wonderful local advocates we might never have known. They know how to reach the people in their states who make the decisions that affect their communities. And since the election, 4500 new members have come into our network looking for ways to get involved. We need everyone to get involved and to learn from each other. It’s about the role of science in democracy—and that impacts every person in the country.

Advocating for science feels good too

I hope we are past the old debates about whether advocating for what you believe compromises your ability to do science. It doesn’t. A friend of mine, a scientist deeply involved in the fight for environmental justice, once said, “You need to feed that other part of your brain too. The part that cares about the world, your neighbors, and the legacy we leave. That part that makes you want to advocate for what’s right.” We can still do our work as scientists and at the same time stand up for science. Everyone’s action may not look the same, but everyone needs to speak up.

We’ve heard from Science Network members how exciting it was to speak up for their community’s best interests in the public realm—and that it was easier than they had thought. And we have to admit that during a sometimes frustrating year, our watchdogging members consistently reminded us that this country is made up of its people, not just its politics.

So to our Science Network partners in watchdogging, thank you for all you do. Please stay involved, engaged and keep teaching us every day. Not signed up to watchdog with UCS? Join now.

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Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/why-engineers-should-refuse-to-work-on-trumps-wall https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/why-engineers-should-refuse-to-work-on-trumps-wall#comments Tue, 16 Jan 2018 20:48:31 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56046

When it comes to President Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (never mind the fact that many such physical barriers already exist), many people have focused on two questions: Shouldn’t there be comprehensive immigration reform instead? And who’s going to pay for it?

But there’s another question we should ask. Who is going to build it?

I’m referring to the engineering companies that will actually design and construct “the wall.” Whatever form it takes (a monolith or a mishmash), hundreds of companies are lining up to build it—and that reflects the willingness of many companies to profit from divisive politics. Unfortunately, engineering education, practice, and ethical codes provide engineers almost no guidance on the broad political implications of their work.

The presidential administration has only just begun the lengthy process of building the wall. First, on Feb. 24, the Customs and Border Protection office issued a pre-solicitation to gauge interest from companies. (The response was overwhelming, with more than 600 companies submitting proposals, of which, according to a CNBC analysis, “[a]t least 133 companies were listed as owned by minorities—including 39 by Hispanics.”) Then, on March 17, CBP issued two detailed solicitations—one for designing and building a concrete wall and another using other structures. These solicitations will really set in motion the engineering process.

Before any concrete is poured, within companies, there will be spirited discussion and debate among engineers and managers about design and costs. Memos will be written, and company leaders will be briefed. The administrative work of contracting will take shape. If a company doesn’t have the expertise or skills to do a particular task, it may join forces with another company or group of engineers who do. In short, the wall will be a product of engineering decision-making.

But how much of the decision-making process will discuss the ethics of being involved with building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?

When big contracts are on the table, there can be very little incentive for a company to refrain from doing the work in the name of good moral behavior or the public welfare. For instance, leading engineering companies are involved in designing and building pipelines to bring more tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., in spite of the negative social and ecological impacts.

Social justice advocates see the wall within a broader discussion about immigration, and engineers should, too. Engineers have a moral responsibility to understand the context of their work. The federal judge who recently blocked the Trump administration’s second immigration-related executive order put it in the context of language used by the president over the past several months. Similarly, engineers cannot and should not view the wall as a singular engineering project. Instead, they should think of the social and political implications of the barriers that already exist between the U.S. and Mexico, and they should evaluate the social, political, and humanitarian implications in the context of another wall born of divisive politics—the one between Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Among a host of humanitarian and human rights issues, the wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has created incredible animosity. The wall has become a symbol of conflict for so long that both Israeli and Palestinian children “grow up feeling that they are destined for conflict with their neighbors,” according to Laurel Holliday, author of Children of Israel, Children of Palestine. But for companies bidding on the U.S.-Mexico wall, the politics of the project have been stripped away and translated into technical specifications.

In today’s political climate, engineers cannot remain passive and allow legislators and politicians to decide what the “public good” is. All members of a community must be engaged and responsible in deciding what the public good is and how to create it—and that goes especially for engineers and the companies they work for, because they can have a disproportionate and lasting impact on a community.

But the engineering community’s response thus far has been divorced from these important issues. Here’s what representatives of three bidding companies have said:

  • “We’re not into politics. We’re not left or right. We’re a construction company and that’s how we survive. … We don’t see it as politics. We just see it as work,” Jorge Diaz, who manages De la Fuente Construction Inc. in California, told the Guardian.
  • “We’re focused on the work, we’re not a political body, left or right or what have you. We go after the job and provide high-paying jobs for our workforce and great opportunities for our company,” Ralph Hicks, vice president of governmental affairs for R.E. Staite Engineering in California, said to KPBS.
  • “There could be a political backlash, but we are in business to make money and put people to work and provide a good service, whether it’s a wall or substation or airport or prison. We don’t want to approach it from a political standpoint, only from a business standpoint,” George Ishee, national sales manager for Cast Lighting, based in Hawthorne, New Jersey, told a local newspaper.

Another engineering company owner, Patrick Balcazar, who owns San Diego Project Management in Puerto Rico, went even further, suggesting that building a wall will provide a future economic opportunity to employ engineers to tear it down: “My goal is to build a wall so I can make enough money so we can turn this thing around and tear down the wall again.”

Not every company bidding for the wall will share these points of view, but they highlight a particular problem with how many engineers and companies see their role in the world and how their work is valued. As it stands, much of engineering is focused more on financial incentives than social impact and human welfare.

Further, the reality is that engineers and companies always work with or for someone with particular political motives, and so their work is always political. By saying building a wall is “just work,” engineers and companies shift the moral burden from themselves—those who actually design and build these projects—to those who order and pay for them. But people, politicians, and governments can talk all they want about doing something; they do not have the skills to actually do it.

The fundamental canon of the Code of Ethics by the National Society of Professional Engineers states, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Unfortunately, there is only vague guidance given to engineers on how to implement this canon, with emphasis more on client relationships rather than social good. The American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics does a better job here. It says: “Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes and devices,” thus pointing to the political implications of engineering work.

For engineers working on politically charged projects, there can be friction between their professional obligations and their moral obligations, dilemmas they are untrained to grapple with. While an engineer may raise concerns about the safety of a project (to make sure, for example, the wall won’t collapse and hurt a border patrol officer), there tends to be little to no support for engineers who question the morality of the project they work on.

But just because a project is politically and professionally justified and economically feasible does not make it ethically or morally justified. That’s why it’s frustrating that most engineering education programs across the country provide only scant ethical training, particularly in the context of social good; there are few resources, examples, and role models for ethically conflicted engineers to turn to. Engineers have incredible power, but if they aren’t managers or company leaders, it can be difficult to speak up about the ethics of particular projects. Historically, engineers have been routinely ostracized and silenced when questioning leadership decisions. For example, engineers predicted the failure of the O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters yet NASA proceeded with launch. We all know what happened next.

Look through most engineering programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. and you’ll see very few courses dedicated to ethical training. Frequently, those that are offered aren’t required, or ethics forms a two- or three-week component of other classes, either at the beginning or the tail end of an undergraduate career. Efforts to infuse ethical training deeply in engineering education struggle against already packed course schedules, and ethical issues are rarely discussed at engineering conferences. So those of us who are engineers have to take it upon ourselves to deeply engage with the ethical challenges and dilemmas we face. Engineers should constantly ask themselves (adapted from the founding document of Science for the People): Why are we engineers? Who do we work for? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?

If engineering is only about making money, then let’s not call it engineering; profiteering would be a more appropriate description. But if engineering is “rooted in a goal to improve our societies by producing structures that render them more just, more equitable, and more beautiful,” as the Architecture Lobby writes, we—engineers—need to do a better job at thinking about who and what is affected by the choices we make. If engineering is about working on technical projects that “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” then a thoughtful, compassionate, and contextual reading of this fundamental canon cannot justify engineers giving their expertise, time, and resources to a border wall that will embolden and embody divisive politics.

“We’re just doing our job” just does not cut it with morally challenging, hot-button issues. It never has, and it never should.

Originally appeared on Slate.com.

Darshan Karwat is an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a former AAAS fellow in Washington.

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The Science of Sovereignty: Two Cases Show How the Future of Voting Rights Depends on the Integrity of Data https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/the-science-of-sovereignty-two-cases-show-how-the-future-of-voting-rights-depends-on-the-integrity-of-data https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/the-science-of-sovereignty-two-cases-show-how-the-future-of-voting-rights-depends-on-the-integrity-of-data#respond Thu, 11 Jan 2018 04:43:45 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56001

This week, two major court cases concerning the right to an equal and effective vote revealed how crucial scientific integrity in the courts is going to be if voting rights are to be secured for all Americans. On Tuesday, a federal court threw out North Carolina’s Congressional districting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, relying on extensive empirical models and statistical evidence that demonstrated both discriminatory intent and effect. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments regarding Ohio’s “use-it-or-lose-it” voter list purging process, during which considerable time was dedicated to issues of data integrity and availability. Both cases illustrate the growing importance of our ability to measure equal justice under law, and the degree to which claims of voting rights violations are based on quantitative arguments.

Measuring intent and effect in gerrymandering

The North Carolina decision handed down Tuesday included an extended discussion of the courts’ “obligation to keep pace with the technological and methodological advances so it can effectively fulfill its constitutional role to police ever-more sophisticated modes of discrimination.” In their 205-page opinion, the court reprimanded defendants for arguing that claims should be dismissed simply because they “rely on new, sophisticated empirical methods that derive from academic research.”

The opinion explicitly relied on such methods for establishing the intent of the North Carolina legislative leaders to discriminate against voters of the opposing party. They did this through a combination of computer simulations that showed the near impossibility of the adopted plan being chosen without intending to discriminate, given the traits of that map compared to alternatives, and data visualizations that experts say illustrate the “signature” gerrymandering effect of partisan vote shares being non-linearly distributed across districts.

In finding a discriminatory impact, the court relied on both simulations and statistical tests of partisan asymmetry to demonstrate the near certainty that the governing party engineered itself at least one additional seat, and likely several additional seats, through the adopted plan.

Does a non-response “count” as a signal of any relevance?

In the Ohio voter list purge case, Justices repeatedly asked about available data from both sides that would provide an empirical context for the legal arguments. In particular, Justice Sotomayor asked about estimates of how many of those purged from voter lists had actually changed residence out of their districts, as the state assumes. Similarly, Justice Breyer stated that they were looking at “an empirical question” and inquired about the availability of “numbers, or surveys” of residential movement within the state, as well as estimates of what percentage of residents typically throw away mailed notifications, so as to get some grasp of what it means when a voter does not respond to a notification.

Indeed, a crucial challenge to the defense revolved around just what information was obtained from the notifications. Justice Alito pushed Plaintiff’s counsel to assess whether nothing additional was learned, such that the removal was based purely on non-voting, which is prohibited.  Alito suggested that the state learned something, non-response, from the unreturned notifications, but counsel countered that no information about residency was obtained.

Neither side claimed that they could provide accurate numbers of the total disenfranchised, even though the arguments critically turn on the extent of discrimination taking place, and how those who do not return notifications should be classified so as to estimate what percentage of non-respondents had actually moved. Plaintiff’s argument rested partly on the claim that, because the percentage of Americans who move every year is low relative to the share of non-respondent voters in Ohio who were purged, the Ohio process necessarily results in false-positives, and must “vastly over purge” voters from registration lists.

An arms race: the technology of discrimination v the technology of empowerment

The amount of time spent on such questions in the Ohio arguments reaffirms the extent to which the identification and measurement of voter behavior is going to be central to challenging voting rights as we move forward. Further, estimating the impact of administrative procedures and eligibility requirements, while statistically difficult, is going to be of even greater importance, if we need to untangle compound effects in order to assess their performance.

Together, this week’s cases show that scientists, the courts, and the public need to advocate for greater scientific integrity, not only in the domain of legislative policymaking, but throughout the policy making process, including litigation, where improved methods and models can “provide a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

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Trump Political Appointees Interfere in Scientific Grants Process Take Two: The Department of Interior https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/trump-political-appointees-interfere-in-scientific-grants-process-take-two-the-department-of-interior https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/trump-political-appointees-interfere-in-scientific-grants-process-take-two-the-department-of-interior#respond Wed, 10 Jan 2018 20:33:04 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55987

The Department of Interior (DOI) has directed political appointees to begin reviewing discretionary grants to make sure that they align with the priorities of the Trump administration. The discretionary grants include any grants worth $50,000 or more that are intended to be distributed to “a non-profit organization that can legally advance advocacy” or “an institution of higher education.” The memo detailing the directive was sent by Scott J. Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget.

The directive is being strictly enforced. Cameron’s memo notes that “Instances circumventing the Secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.” The sentence is not only bolded, it’s italicized as well. To explain why the new grants process was needed, Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said that “the new guidance continued the responsible stewardship of tax dollars.”

Remember when this happened at the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) basically instituted the same process of grant review last year. While it is not uncommon for political appointees to get involved in the grants process, their involvement is generally limited to broadening solicitations for grant proposals. The US Federal Government refers to these solicitations as “Funding Opportunity Announcements” or FOAs. These FOAs include information about what type of work the agency is expecting and whether or not the applicant would be eligible for funding. Thus, an FOA is extremely important for both the government and the applicant because it highlights the agency’s priorities for the funding, which also serves as a guideline for an applicant’s proposal. Political appointees have generally broadened FOA’s in the past so that they are more inclusive, not restrictive to an administration’s priorities as is being seen here with DOI’s new process.

Agencies have grant review systems already in place

DOI already had a grant review system in place before this new system came along that worked just fine. This begs the question: why they are changing it? Part of the grant review system is that discretionary grants are reviewed by independent experts who assess grant proposals using a uniform rating or scoring system established by the awarding agency. The proposals are evaluated based on criteria specific to the grant—for some programmatic grants these criteria are dictated by statutory authority (e.g., grants in the brownfields program at the EPA). Therefore, as former Secretary of Interior David J. Hayes noted, “Subjugating Congress’s priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.”

Based on expert criteria, or those set out by statutes, a panel of experts will assign a score to each reviewed proposal and then meet to discuss the merits of each. The proposals that receive higher scores are deemed more competitive relative to those with lower scores. Depending on the amount of funding available for a grant program, the panel will recommend a percentage of the top scoring grants to be funded.

A list of recommended grants for funding are then sent to the head of the program, who may or may not be a political appointee, for review. The amount of information on recommendations that the appointee might receive varies. Sometimes the appointee might receive abstracts of proposals or they might just receive a list of the institutions or researchers recommended for funding. However, what is common practice when a head of a program receives this list is that they generally agree with the expert’s recommendations. Former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, Christine Todd Whitman, chimed in on this issue when it happened at EPA, “We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background.”

Will DOI use this new process to delete science?

In the case of EPA political appointees reviewing grants, scientifically defensible language was removed from many descriptions of grant projects, and some grants were rescinded that were already recommended by a panel of experts. It was clear that the new process was specifically set up to undermine science and scientific experts at EPA, especially those working on climate change related issues.

DOI doesn’t have a good track record of supporting science lately, having halted two important studies by the National Academies of Science, and completely scrapping climate change work from its new strategic plan. It has yet to be seen if the new grant review process will result in scientifically defensible language being deleted from grant descriptions at DOI, or if the agency will rescind important scientific work like was done at EPA. However, the scientific community will be watching for such attacks on science and we’ll fight back against them if this administration continues this appalling tactic.

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One Year of Attacking Science: How the Trump Administration Measures Up https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/one-year-of-attacks-on-science-by-trump-administration https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/one-year-of-attacks-on-science-by-trump-administration#comments Tue, 09 Jan 2018 21:15:58 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55933

Having collected evidence on the multiple ways that the Trump administration has been attacking science over the past year, it is becoming clear that this administration doesn’t just want to hide or ignore the facts. This administration is attempting to decimate the scientific process.

At the six-month mark of this administration holding office, we documented 44 attacks on science in our report, Sidelining Science Since Day One—that number has now jumped to 64. The implications are frightening.

An open letter to the Trump administration

Prior to the Trump administration taking office, more than 5,500 scientists signed an open letter asking then president-elect Trump and the 115th Congress to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being. There are now more than 6,000 signatories on the letter.

These scientists called on the Trump administration and Congress to take several actions to strengthen the role that science plays in policy making. So how has the Trump administration measured up against the demands of thousands of scientists?

Appointing unqualified agency heads

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that science-based agencies be led by officials with a strong track record of respecting science as a critical component of decision making. Yet the Trump administration has often chosen leaders for science-based agencies that are unqualified, conflicted, and/or openly hostile to the mission of their agency.

For example, Kathleen Hartnett-White was just re-nominated to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the office in charge of overseeing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Hartnett-White’s anti-science views on climate change, air pollution and health, clean and renewable energy, and the role of science in public policy suggest she would do little but harm our environment and public health. She is unfit for the position.

Other government leaders now in charge of overseeing the regulation of industry have come directly from those industries – a clear conflict of interest. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has financial interests that are not severable to the agency’s work on cancer detection and opioid addiction treatment. Therefore, the director of the CDC has had to recuse herself from discussions and decisions regarding this work even though they are important issues the US needs to address. Without leadership on these issues, will the CDC be able to properly address these health challenges?

Some leaders also have been openly hostile to scientists. For example, Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was recently entangled in a decision to hire Definers Public Affairs to handle the agency’s press coverage. However, there is evidence that Definers was also involved in targeting EPA staff who have expressed personal views not in line with those of the Trump administration by submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for their emails. This sends a chilling signal to staff to not speak out against any wrongdoing within the EPA.

Dismantling science-based policy-making

Scientists also called upon the Trump administration and Congress to ensure that our nation’s bedrock public health and environmental laws—such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act—retain a strong scientific foundation, and that agencies are able to freely collect and draw upon scientific data to effectively carry out statutory responsibilities established by these laws. They should also safeguard the independence of those outside the government who provide scientific advice.

Yet, we’ve not seen the Trump administration or Congress protect the scientific backbone of these bedrock laws. The 115th Congress introduced 63 separate pieces of legislation to undermine the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, we have seen Congress attempt to include harmful anti-science policy riders in negotiations around the federal budget, all aimed at gutting the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

President Trump also began the process to rescind the US involvement in the Paris Agreement, which will have lasting effects on the planet’s atmosphere and air quality. Furthermore, this administration has made it more difficult for the public to access information and data that science-based agencies provide.

There are multiple other examples of how the Trump administration and the 115th Congress have and continue to undermine science…

Targeting government scientists

The scientific community called upon the Trump administration and Congress to allow federal agency scientists the freedom and responsibility to:

  • conduct their work without political or private-sector interference
  • candidly communicate their findings to Congress, the public, and their scientific peers
  • publish their work and participate meaningfully in the scientific community
  • disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science
  • ensure that scientific and technical information coming from the government is accurate

Since the Trump administration has taken office, we have seen federal scientists attacked. Federal scientists have been censored. They have been reassigned to undertake tasks not affiliated with their expertise. They have been prevented from attending conferences.

At the EPA, it is possible that some scientists may have been targeted for their personal views of the Trump administration. Additionally, the Trump administration is using various strategies to hollow out agencies by diminishing their scientific workforce.

Perhaps the most devastating impact of all, however, is that these actions create a hostile work environment for agency scientists that stokes fear, results in self-censorship, lowers staff morale, and sends a chilling message to scientists across the country that their work is not valued.

Slashing science funding

Lastly, the scientific community asked President Trump and Congress to provide adequate resources to enable scientists to conduct research in the public interest and effectively and transparently carry out their agencies’ missions.

Instead the Trump administration has proposed to cut a number of key research programs and slash substantial amounts of funding from science-based agencies. The administration has even withheld funding from research programs illegally. Congress also has attacked the funding of graduate students.

But when it comes to science funding, the true measure of the administration and Congress will be judged when a final decision on FY18 funding is made over the coming weeks, and a decision on FY19 funding is made over the coming months.

Scientists are keeping their word

The letter that scientists penned to President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress was an assurance that the scientific community would hold them accountable for the misuse of science in policy-making decisions.

Scientists have kept their word and are not taking these attacks on the scientific process lightly. They have successfully pushed back against and defeated anti-science nominees like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Graduate students mobilized like we’ve never seen before to defeat a provision in the new tax reform law that would have prevented poor and middle-class Americans from pursuing scientific careers. Scientists are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to march and let this administration know that they’re not scared to use the powers bestowed upon them in this country to fight back. And more than one thousand scientists have stepped up to watchdog the administration by speaking to the media, delivering testimony and public comments, reporting on missing data, creating sign-on letters to officials, exposing misinformation on social media, showing up at town halls, and building relationships with their legislators’ offices. You can learn more and join them here.

Science has saved many lives and provided our society with extraordinary benefits. We cannot afford to let this administration undermine it.

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Trump Administration Rescinds Fracking Rule for Public Lands: A Blow to Public Protection https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/trump-administration-rescinds-fracking-rule-for-public-lands-a-blow-to-public-protection https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/trump-administration-rescinds-fracking-rule-for-public-lands-a-blow-to-public-protection#comments Mon, 08 Jan 2018 19:34:54 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55900
Photo: Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons

At the end of last month, we saw yet another casualty in the Trump administration’s war on science-based policy. The administration announced it would rescind a 2015 rule at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development on public land. Though not unexpected, this move was disheartening. The 2015 BLM fracking rule was an important step in protecting people from many unchecked risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. To understand what we lost, let me quickly review the national setting back in 2015 when the rule was issued.

The BLM fracking rule, rescinded by the Trump Administration, was the only major federal rule governing risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development. Photo: Shutterstock.com/krivenko

A Wild West of oil and gas drilling

Around 2008, the oil and gas industry refined methods of hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling that made the process of shale oil and gas drilling more economically viable. This led to a rapid expansion of oil and gas development across the country. Many of the new places seeing oil and gas development had never experienced drilling in close proximity before, and now it was happening around them—in some cases, literally in their backyards. The nation was caught off guard. Notably, the scientific community had to play catch-up to assess risks to air and water and from occupational chemical exposure. Reports began to surface from communities complaining of drinking water contamination or poor air quality causing health concerns. But scientific studies on these subjects were limited.

One major barrier to understanding the risks associated with the new boom in fracking was a lack of transparency from industry. Researchers studying air quality around facilities were only able to take measurements from facility fencelines without closer access to emission sources on site. Researchers studying water quality were forced to analyze samples without any baseline measurements of what water quality was like before drilling started. And physicians were forced to make medical decisions about patients without knowledge of the chemicals they were exposed to because companies refused to disclose chemicals used in fracking fluid.

As a result, the public was left in the dark. The federal government failed to take a large role in regulating this Wild West of oil and gas drilling, leaving regulation largely up to states—many of which were ill-equipped to manage a new and complex industry now ever-present in their state. In some ways the federal government was limited in what it could do. The infamous “Halliburton Loophole” in the Safe Drinking Water Act prevents the EPA from protecting people from fracking risks to drinking water using the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The BLM fracking rule: the federal government steps up

But one way the federal government could take action (or at least so they thought) was by creating a rule dictating how unconventional oil and gas drilling could happen on public lands. Thus, the BLM fracking rule was developed. While modest in scope, the BLM rule was an important step toward greater regulation and disclosure of an industry unaccustomed to playing under such constraints. The rule set standards for well construction, wastewater management, and chemical disclosure. The greater chemical disclosure requirement was huge. It meant companies couldn’t continue to hide behind trade secret claims and the public, scientists, landowners, medical personnel, workers, and first responders would now have greater access to information about chemicals involved and risks to health.

The rule’s requirements about well construction and wastewater management could also have gone a long way toward minimizing risks of groundwater contamination—perhaps the issue of greatest concern for communities based on several high-profile cases of large-scale drinking water contamination. This is an area where we also saw a high degree of industry misconduct. There were cases of dumping wastewater and many accidental spills and leaks. In other cases, water was contaminated by faulty well-casings or natural and manmade fissures in bedrock that allowed fracking chemicals or naturally occurring hazardous chemicals to reach water sources. All the while, industry often hid behind their narrow definition of fracking, despite a public understanding and concern about water contamination throughout the process—from initial drilling, to oil and gas production, to transportation from the site. Setting standards, even if only for public lands, could have encouraged companies to adopt such protocols industry-wide, guarding against future water contamination.

The rule also restricted where drilling could happen. It required companies to avoid endangered species habitats. This was important for species like the sage grouse which live in prime areas for development and need quiet spaces for mating. (Side note: This is actually one of three hits on the sage grouse by the Trump Administration. Earlier this year it reopened state management plans that were designed to ensure the species could stay off of the endangered species list. And last week, the administration rescinded an order for the BLM to prioritize oil and gas permit granting outside of sensitive sage grouse territory.)

Back to square one: leaving us in the dark

Though the rule was stayed by a court in 2016 and thus wasn’t in effect when the Trump Administration made this move, the rule did sent a signal to industry that they would soon have to accept a more transparent and safety-focused business model. Without such a rule on the books, we are now back to square one when it comes to federal protection of people against the risks of fracking. And that leaves us all in the dark.

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At the CDC, as Elsewhere Throughout the Government, Words Have Consequences https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/at-the-cdc-as-elsewhere-throughout-the-government-words-have-consequences https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/at-the-cdc-as-elsewhere-throughout-the-government-words-have-consequences#respond Mon, 08 Jan 2018 15:00:12 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55868

It does not matter who pulls the semantic shroud over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it comes to matters of science and health, any level of silence at the CDC is a declaration that saving lives is secondary to politics.

According to a recent Washington Post story, higher-ups banned from budget requests the words: “diversity,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” even “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald claimed that no words were banned, “period.” But at a minimum, multiple sources confirm that meetings were held on how to craft budget requests so as not to trigger opposition from conservatives in Congress.

Evidence-based declines

Whether ordered or voluntary, the evidence of such changes is clear: many of the above words have already been disappearing during President Trump’s first year, according to Science Magazine. Use of the phrases “diversity” and “vulnerable” are down a combined 68 percent compared to President Obama’s last budget. Use of the phrase “evidence-based” is down 70 percent.

That latter fact hardly seems to be a coincidence given a President with a documented casual relationship with the truth who, according to the Washington Post fact-checking department, has made 1,950 false or misleading claims in his first year in the White House.

The declines in the use of this terminology is consistent with other scientific erasures in the first year of Trump. An analysis this fall by National Public Radio found a major drop in the number of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation containing the phrase “climate change.” Only 302 NSF grants contained the phrase last year, compared with the annual average of 630 during the Obama administration—that’s a 52 percent decline.

NPR quoted Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, as saying, “In the scientific community, we’re very cautious people. We tend to be quite averse to notoriety and conflict, so I absolutely have seen self-censorship among my colleagues.”

Real-life consequences

The obvious question of course is whether shying away from diversity and vulnerable populations such as transgender people in budget requests, or shrinking from assuring that studies are evidence-based will result in failures to monitor disparities and effectively protect Americans’ health.

For instance, take the issue of racial health disparities. It would be tragic if the Trump administration allows a reversal of the progress that has come through decades of dedication from the career scientists and medical and public health experts at the CDC and its parent Department of Health and Human Services who have trudged on regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress.

A good example is the case of black men and women between the ages of 45 and 54, one of the most historically vulnerable groups, who have long died from chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer at far higher rates than the national average.

In 1980, according to CDC data, the death rate for black men and women in that age group was 1,480 per 100,000 people and 768 per 100,000 people, respectively. Both rates stood more than twice as high as those for their white male and white female counterparts (699 per 100,000 and 373 per 100,000, respectively).

Even during the Reagan years, in an administration frequently hostile to civil rights and friendly with apartheid South Africa, then-HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler saw fit to address these yawning racial gaps head on. In a landmark 1985 task force report on “Black and Minority Health,” she wrote that the disparities were an “affront to both our ideals and to the ongoing genius of American medicine.” She said it was time to “decipher the message inherent in that disparity.”

That report called for a dramatic increase in health studies to help devise effective, evidence-based interventions for specific racial groups. Unlike the murky controversy of the moment, the 1985 report’s language made it clear that “diversity” was a critical word. Under a section titled, “Implications of Diversity,” the report said: “This diversity among populations is reflected in language difficulties, in cultural practices and beliefs with respect to illness and health, in differences in their birth rates, in differences in the afflictions which kill them.”

Years of progress, but more work ahead

The efforts during the Reagan years set the stage for dramatic progress, even though there is plenty more work still to do.

The death rate for black men aged 45 to 54 dropped 15 percent in the 1980s during the Republican administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It dropped another 19 percent in the 1990s, and 19 percent again in the 2000s, mostly under the two terms of Democrat Bill Clinton and the two terms of Republican George W. Bush. Finally, under the two Democratic terms of Obama, the rate dropped yet another 18 percent.

The result is a current death rate for these black men of 678 per 100,000, less than half the 1980 rate. The death rate for black women in the same age group is down 42 percent from 1980.

The dramatic progress, and the obvious work left to do, is precisely why the Trump administration must not turn its back on these kinds of evidence-based accomplishments—or the forthright use of language that helped achieve them.

Besides, semantic silence has been tried before and has failed.

In one telling episode during George W. Bush’s first term, for example, HHS tried to eliminate the words “inequality” and “disparities” from a national report on health disparities.

A strong early draft had said: “Inequalities in health care that affect some racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographical subpopulations in the United States ultimately affect every American. From a societal perspective, we aspire to equality of opportunities for all our citizens. Persistent disparities in health care are inconsistent with our American values.”

That draft also said, “The personal cost of disparities can lead to significant morbidity, disability, and lost productivity.”

The final report in late 2003 erased the above, replacing it with this far more cheerful message: “The overall health of Americans has improved dramatically over the last century. Just in the last decade, the United States has seen significant reductions in infant mortality, record-high rates of childhood vaccinations, declines in substance abuse, lower death rates from coronary disease, and promising new treatments for cancer.”

The firestorm that erupted over the two versions forced then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to publish the stronger draft online in early 2004. As if to second its importance, a National Academies report that year said “widespread, reliable, and consistent data” by race and ethnicity are “critical to documenting the nature of disparities in health care and developing strategies to eliminate disparities.”

This is no time to stop developing strategies. Remaining disparities are every bit as urgent as when Margaret Heckler’s task force report said that people of color “have not benefitted fully or equitably from the fruits of science or from those systems responsible for translating and using health sciences technology.”

We can see from examples such as these that words can have serious consequences for Americans’ health. After all, you cannot determine what needs to be done without the language to speak about it.

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