Catalyst Winter 2019

Protecting Science’s Role in Democracy: It’s Why We’re Here

Interview with Gretchen Goldman

Photo: Rick Ciaburri

The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS released a report last month titled The State of Science in the Trump Era. What new conclusions have you and your team drawn?

Gretchen Goldman: In the beginning of the Trump presidency, we were certainly worried about the likely rollback of public protections, but also a variety of other issues. For example, the possibility that scientists’ ability to speak to the media would be restricted. There was also a lot of concern about federal data being deleted or taken offline. Some of those things did happen. But some did not happen to the degree we feared, partly because people mobilized around them.

But now the administration is changing its tactics. They’ve started to interfere more with the process by which science informs decisionmaking. We have long-standing environmental laws that require us to use science to make policy decisions that protect public health, safety, and the environment. And they’re basically chipping away at the foundation of these science-based laws. If they’re able to change the process by which we use science to make decisions, we’re in trouble. That will have long-lasting impacts and set a really dangerous precedent.

How is UCS responding to these changing tactics?

Gretchen Goldman: It’s a hard question: what do you do when the administration doesn’t care about following policies, or care about its public image when it ignores or attacks science? We’ve done a lot of work to respond and put a lot of thought into how to get out of this mess, including thinking about the kinds of policies that will undo the damage done and prevent future damage. The best method we have to fight back right now is to take advantage of opportunities with the new Congress to create better accountability and restore some checks and balances.

We’ve put together a long list of different oversight activities that fall into three categories. One is promoting public health and safety. Another is fighting corruption, which we wanted to include specifically because this administration’s corruption scandals have affected its ability to make science-based decisions. The last is protecting scientific integrity within agencies; in other words, ensuring that agencies’ work is carried out without undue influence.

Which of these categories do you see as offering the best oversight opportunities?

Gretchen Goldman: I think we have a great opportunity to address the corruption issues, because a lot of the science-based attacks are related to the fact that we have agency leaders with significant conflicts of interest, who came from or lobbied on behalf of industries they now regulate. We should be pushing our members of Congress to think about how we can fight that corruption, if new rules should address whether registered lobbyists can work in government, and if there’s sufficient transparency about potential conflicts of interest.

Personally, I’m most excited about the ability of the new Congress to hold hearings. These issues haven’t gotten a lot of airtime or transparency. Some instances of corruption have been covered in the media, but then that was sort of the end of the story. Now Congress can hold investigations. They can call people to the stand and ask them why they made certain decisions. They can look at impacts and hear from scientific experts about what this all means. It seems like a small thing, but I’m excited that some of these decisionmakers can now be held accountable.

Are there certain aspects of the problem you are less optimistic about?

Gretchen Goldman: I think I’m most pessimistic about how long-lasting some of the damage is likely to be. We can reverse policies; we can ameliorate some of the things the Trump administration has done once we have a new Congress in charge. But, unfortunately, some of the things they’re doing are going take a long time to walk back—like the loss of agency expertise and capacity. They’re trying to encourage people to leave the EPA, for example, with buyouts and early retirement. They’re decimating federal employees’ morale and agency reputations, and that’s a big problem. We need good people to work in federal government. If people don’t want to be there, or the people who have been there a while are leaving, that leaves a huge capacity gap, and we’ll lose a lot of institutional knowledge, as well as public trust in these agencies. That problem won’t be solved overnight.

You and your team at the Center for Science and Democracy have been scrupulously documenting and resisting every attack on science and scientists since President Trump took office. How do you stay motivated to keep fighting back?

Gretchen Goldman: Honestly, what motivates me the most is that our Center for Science and Democracy was created for this work. UCS began focusing on scientific integrity in the federal government during the George W. Bush administration, and launched the Center during the Obama administration. And sometimes, prior to President Trump’s election, people would ask, “Science and democracy, what do those have to do with each other?” Now, it’s so clear what our purpose is, what we’re doing, and why it matters to the world. I feel like we were created for the moment when President Trump was elected—because by that point, we had gotten important protections in place, like whistleblower protection for government scientists, and media policies at certain agencies that protected scientists’ ability to speak to the press. These have held us in good stead in the Trump years.

What should UCS members do now that there’s the promise of oversight?

Gretchen Goldman: I think it is hugely important that members of Congress hear that their constituents care about science and scientific integrity, because when science is sidelined, people get hurt. New House members especially are figuring out what they’re going to prioritize. They have a big menu of issues they could work on, but limited time and capacity. So, people who care about science should tell their representatives what they want to see them work on. Look for issues you care about, issues that affect you locally, and share those with your elected officials, along with the solutions we’ve proposed in our new report. This is certainly a time to stay engaged. There are a lot of things we can and should get started on if we want to make progress.

Gretchen Goldman is the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she leads research efforts on the role of science in public policy, with a special focus on public health impacts. Goldman currently serves as the chair of the Air and Climate Public Advisory Committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and sits on the advisory board of the nonprofit InfluenceMap, which tracks how corporations influence public policy.