Catalyst Spring 2018

Surveying Federal Scientists about Political Interference

Photo: skynesher/iStockphoto

This spring, the Union of Concerned Scientists sent surveys to some 63,000 government scientists at 16 federal agencies to get their perspective on the state of scientific integrity across the government.

This effort is the 10th in a series of surveys of federal scientists UCS has been conducting since 2005. Our partner in this latest survey, Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, has deep expertise in the technical and operational aspects of sample surveys and the steps needed to ensure respondents’ anonymity.

Past results have proved useful in assessing federal scientists’ work environment and, in some cases, have paved the way for improvements in scientific integrity policies and government transparency. The current survey seeks data on questions such as: Are scientists being inhibited from conducting and communicating their work? How common are incidents of political interference? Are problems more widespread at some agencies than others?

Anecdotal concerns about the Trump administration’s attacks on science and scientists make the timing particularly opportune for such questions. Federal scientists have already blown the whistle on the Trump administration for reassigning them to do tasks for which they do not have expertise, for prohibiting them from speaking to the press, and for discouraging the use of terms such as “climate change” and “evidence-based” in some agency documents. Our survey should provide more evidence about the extent of such problems.

EPA Discourages Participation

In one notable glitch in the dissemination of the survey, Environmental Protection Agency computer administrators reportedly designated the emails from UCS as spam, and recommended that EPA staff delete them—despite the fact that UCS had notified the agency that the survey was coming. After the incident received press coverage, the EPA General Counsel's Ethics Office notified agency employees that they were allowed to participate as long as they did so on their own time and did not use a government computer. Nonetheless, as a result some EPA employees may have gotten mixed signals about their ability to participate in the 2018 survey.

The survey fared markedly better at other agencies, however. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, acting undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, even encouraged NOAA staff to respond, pledging his personal commitment to integrity and “world class science” at his agency.

UCS had received more than 4,000 responses as Catalyst went to press, for a response rate of nearly 7 percent. For our analysis of the results in the months to come, visit our 2018 federal scientists survey FAQ.

UCS Helps Expand Investigation of EPA Practices

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s watchdog agency, announced this spring that it would expand an ongoing investigation of the EPA, to determine whether political appointees at the agency improperly influenced the selection of science advisory committee members and other staff scientists.

The announcement comes less than two months after the UCS report Abandoning Science Advice documented that the Trump administration was neglecting expert advice from science advisory committees across the government and, in some instances, politicizing the selection of committee members.

The GAO was responding to a request from Delaware Senator Tom Carper and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (both senior members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee), who noted that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his subordinates had rejected the advice of career employees in making appointments to the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

As a result, the investigation is now reportedly examining the actions of Pruitt and his staff not only with regard to the CASAC appointments but also to the EPA’s 21 other science advisory committees.

Our New Spanish-Language Website

In mid-February, we launched UCS en español, our new website for Spanish speakers, establishing UCS as a reputable and accessible source for analyses and information on issues of interest to Latino communities in the United States, especially those working to confront environmental injustice.

12,000 Partners: Celebrating a Milestone in Monthly Giving

Since President Trump took office, UCS has stepped up our work to defend science and government scientists like never before. Monthly gifts from supporters like you make it possible for us to fight off attacks on science on multiple fronts. That’s why we’re pleased to announce that over the past year, more than 6,000 UCS members have become new Partners for the Earth, committing to defend science by making regular, dependable monthly gifts. We now have more than 12,000 loyal Partners making monthly gifts that provide UCS with the resources we need to push back against the Trump administration and seize every opportunity for positive change.

You can become a Partner with a monthly gift of as little as $10, either automatically charged to your credit or debit card or deducted directly from your checking account. To learn more, or become our newest Partner, join online or call (800) 666-8276.

Photo: USDA

Sidelining Science at the USDA

There’s something rotten at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under President Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, the department responsible for assisting American farmers, improving child nutrition, maintaining food safety, protecting food system workers from job-related illness and injury, and alleviating hunger is reversing progress on many of these goals. A recent UCS report, Betrayal at the USDA: How the Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science and Favoring Industry over Farmers and the Public, documents numerous examples in which the USDA has ignored the best available research and its own scientists’ recommendations—in favor of special interests.

“From farm to fork, our nation’s food system should help farmers succeed, protect our environment, and improve access to healthy food for all Americans. And the USDA should rely on science to carry out this mission,” says report coauthor and UCS Senior Analyst Karen Perry Stillerman. “Unfortunately, this administration is prioritizing the bottom line of big agricultural companies over the needs of farmers, rural economies, consumers, and even schoolchildren.”

Stillerman points to the Trump administration’s rollbacks of evidence-based standards for healthy food in American schools, and Perdue and other USDA leaders’ refusal to acknowledge that climate change threatens the livelihood of American farmers and our future food supply.

Perdue made headlines recently by suggesting that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as food stamps) be at least partially replaced with one-size-fits-all “harvest boxes” filled with canned food. This is just one of a series of uninformed proposals that would hurt millions of people across the country, Stillerman says.

“As a pretext for cutting benefits and tightening restrictions, Perdue has raised the bogeyman of ‘waste, fraud, and abuse.’ But evidence shows that SNAP is one of our country’s most effective social programs, with very low rates of any such problems,” she explains. “Rather than allowing special interests to dictate how our food system functions, the USDA would do better basing policies on science and evidence.”

You can find the full report—including recommendations for keeping science central to the USDA’s policies here.

Delaware resident Kenneth Dryden leads a tour of toxic facilities that are polluting neighborhoods in New Castle County.
Photo: Gretchen Goldman/UCS

Partnering for Environmental Justice in Delaware

Along the industrial corridor in Delaware’s New Castle County, pollution emitted from chemical facilities and waste sites creates health risks for people living nearby, including certain cancers and respiratory illnesses.

“Environmental justice advocates in New Castle County have been pushing back and demanding real protections,” says Jessica Thomas, outreach coordinator with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. To help strengthen their case, Thomas and her team used EPA data to show conclusively that African American, Latino, and low-income New Castle County residents face greater health risks than wealthier white Delawareans who live further from polluting industries and waste sites. The data are compiled in the report Environmental Justice for Delaware: Mitigating Toxic Pollution in New Castle County Communities, a collaboration with the Environmental Justice Heath Alliance and several affiliated EJ organizations.

“In the battle for better policy, residents are too often dismissed by decisionmakers if they don’t have access to technical data that support them,” Thomas says. “UCS doesn’t try to speak for communities; we speak with them, and offer the scientific backing they need to make their case.” Learn more.

Video Still: Audrey Eyring and Chris Bliss/UCS

The Truth about Coal

Facts and evidence are important to us at UCS. That’s why we felt motivated to counter misinformation from President Trump and other administration officials that they are reviving the coal industry. Such propaganda is dangerous because it encourages false hope—leading some coal workers to even refuse training opportunities in other industries due to their mistaken belief that more mining jobs are sure to materialize.

Our new video “Everything to Know about Coal (in under Three Minutes)” offers a quick, accurate, and accessible explanation of why coal has been on the way out for a while now—and is highly unlikely to stage a comeback. Watch it here.