Catalyst Spring 2018

Science Advocacy That Gets Results

Decades since it began, the UCS Science Network showcases its activist side
By Elliott Negin

Photos (left to right): MediaPunch Inc/Alamy Stock Photo; ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo; Alex Edelman/CNP/Alamy Stock Photo

To appreciate the growing strength of the UCS Science Network, consider the key role it played in blocking President Trump’s nomination of industry-friendly toxicologist Michael Dourson to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety division.

Even in an administration rife with controversial appointments, Dourson stood out as an appalling choice to head a division tasked with protecting the public from toxic chemicals. Since its founding in 1994, his nonprofit consulting firm has been representing the interests of EPA-regulated chemical companies including Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Koch Industries, and Monsanto by downplaying their products’ risks and advocating for weaker government safeguards.

Given the mounting opposition to Dourson’s nomination, UCS realized that it only needed to convince a few additional senators to block his confirmation and identified lawmakers in Arizona, Maine, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennessee as the top targets. And thanks to the UCS Science Network, with its nearly 24,000 members nationwide, scientists in every one of those states were ready and eager to help.

In Tennessee, biologist and Science Network member Cliff Cockerham got straight to work, eventually hand-delivering 75 letters from network members opposing Dourson to the in-state offices of Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and helping to enlist more than 100 scientists to make follow-up phone calls.

In Maine, a UCS alert about Dourson spurred biologist and Science Network member Dianne Kopec to take action. She coauthored a letter with physicist Martha Dickenson and Colby College toxicologist Gail Carlson urging Maine Senators Susan Collins and Angus King to oppose Dourson. Signed by 85 Science Network members and UCS supporters in the state, the letter brought the issue home by including details about how some of the chemicals Dourson had exonerated on behalf of his clients threatened the health of Maine residents.

When Kopec personally delivered the letter to the senators’ in-state offices, she was pleasantly surprised by the experience. “I had never spoken with either senator’s staff members before, and they were informed and interested in what I had to say,” she says. “They were both grateful for the input and said they would act on it.” The very next day, Collins announced she would oppose Dourson’s nomination.

Collins’ opposition was enough to sink Dourson’s candidacy. A month earlier, North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis had pulled their support, and without them and Collins, Dourson recognized that he didn’t have enough confirmation votes and withdrew his name from consideration.

Transforming Concerns into Action

Defeating Dourson’s nomination is just one of several campaigns in recent months in which the Science Network played a decisive role. More on those in a minute. But first, it’s worth noting just how actively engaged many UCS Science Network members have become and what an important development that represents.

The UCS Science Network’s origins date to the 1990s when the organization established several environmental and security networks of scientists across the country. These efforts consolidated in 2004 as a means of rallying the scientific community to blunt the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to undermine science and roll back public health and environmental protections. Previous efforts had rallied scientists around particular issues such as climate change and nuclear weapons; now, we were organizing scientists to defend the scientific process itself.

In sounding the alarm, UCS issued a groundbreaking report, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking, that exposed the ways in which the Bush White House was manipulating and distorting the work done by scientists at federal agencies and stacking scientific advisory panels to favor industry—a precursor to what we are witnessing today.

At the same time, UCS mobilized more than 15,000 scientists, including Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, and senior science advisors to both Republican and Democratic presidents, to sign on to a public statement denouncing the administration’s then-unprecedented politicization of science.

The network has come a long way since then, from a group of scientists willing to sign a letter or send an email to a far more engaged coalition spanning the country.

“Over the years, we’ve upped our game to offer more dynamic ways for scientists to transform their concerns into action,” says Shreya Durvasula, UCS senior outreach coordinator for the network. “In addition to email petitions and other online actions, we now encourage network members to make phone calls and organize in-district meetings with elected officials and their staffs. Our members’ growing capacity to lead actions and mobilize their peers has shown there is a real appetite for this sort of organizing.”

Scientists + Activists = A Force for Change

Durvasula reels off an impressive list of recent initiatives. Scientists at Indiana University, for example, have organized their own group, Concerned Scientists @IU, which now has 700 members. It has held a number of events, including a meeting with Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly’s staff, and participated in last year’s March for Science.

In Oregon, eight local climate scientists and experts visited more than two dozen legislators at the state capitol on behalf of the UCS Science Network to promote the Clean Energy Jobs bill under consideration this session.

Left: Science supporters take action at the People’s Climate March. Right: Science Network members meet with Senator Angus King.
Photos (left to right): Megan Rising/UCS; Yogin Kothari/UCS

In Illinois, network members pressed their legislators to support clean energy through letters to the editor, media appearances, community town hall presentations, and in-person visits at the state capitol. Thanks in part to these efforts, UCS and its Illinois allies persuaded lawmakers to pass the biggest clean energy bill in state history. Among other things, it will provide new investment for renewable energy, access to solar power for low-income residents, and a clear path to meeting the state’s goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Also, during the “Science Week of Action” UCS organized last year, some 50 network members from 11 states traveled to Washington, DC, for the March for Science; the March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice; and more than 75 meetings with lawmakers or their staffs on Capitol Hill. It was the largest science lobbying effort in UCS history.

Equally important, Durvasula says, UCS greatly augments the work of scientists in the Science Network through the active engagement of other concerned members and supporters through initiatives such as the UCS Science Champions and Science Watchdogs. “Our Science Network plays an important role, but you certainly don’t have to be a scientist to engage in UCS advocacy—all UCS members and supporters have a vital role to play and can help make a difference.” See the box to find out how you can get involved in these efforts.


Resisting Unqualified Nominees

For all its disparate projects, the UCS Science Network has won its most tangible victories by raising the alarm and working with other UCS activists to block egregious Trump nominees.

Besides its successful campaign against Michael Dourson, the network actively opposed Sam Clovis, President Trump’s pick to be the chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture. Clovis—a climate science denier and former radio talk show host—has no background in science, let alone agriculture or food.

Last October, UCS sent a letter signed by more than 3,100 network scientists who opposed Clovis to the Senate Agriculture Committee’s chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Mike Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University, helped draft the letter. “I was happy to do it because Sam Clovis was as unqualified as one could imagine for that position,” Hamm says. “Kudos to the team at UCS for getting it out.”

Two days after UCS released the letter, Clovis withdrew his name from consideration.

The network also sprang into action to help block the confirmation of Kathleen Hartnett White as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House office whose job is to ensure federal agencies meet their obligations to uphold environmental laws.

As head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White had a track record of making scientifically indefensible claims about climate change. But it was her display of raw ignorance during an early November Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee hearing that pushed climate scientist Amanda Lynch “over the edge,” as Lynch puts it.

Left: Dianne Kopec (right) presents a letter opposing Michael Dourson's nomination to Senator Susan Collin's office. Right: Participants in a UCS Science Watchdog workshop hone their engagement skills
Photos (left to right): Dianne Kopec; Yogin Kothari/UCS

“Hartnett White couldn’t answer fundamental questions about environmental science that would affect her ability to do her job,” says Lynch, a professor at Brown University. “She didn’t even understand that water expands when it is warmed.”

Lynch was inspired to write a letter opposing Hartnett White’s nomination and reached out to UCS to help find cosigners. In short order, more than 300 scientists signed, and UCS—in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council—sent it to the Senate and placed a full-page ad featuring it in Politico. Other news organizations, including Inside Climate News and the Weather Channel, ran stories about the letter, and Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate EPW Committee, promoted it on Twitter. Ultimately, Science Network pressure combined with the efforts of other concerned UCS members and supporters raised enough opposition to Hartnett White’s confirmation that the White House withdrew her nomination in February.

The Dourson, Clovis, and Hartnett White victories all demonstrate the powerful role the UCS Science Network plays. Armed with the expertise to fully understand and clearly explain the ramifications of government policy on public health and the environment, scientists’ views can prove particularly effective in commanding the respect of elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

Durvasula emphasizes that UCS sees the Science Network as “a long-term, enduring community that engages in local, state, and national issues.” If this past year is prologue, though, the Trump administration will likely provide more immediate opportunities for the network to demonstrate just how engaged it is.