[Marxism] Science Under Attack: How Trump Is Sidelining Researchers and Their Work

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 29 09:56:43 MST 2019


NY Times, Dec. 29, 2019
Science Under Attack: How Trump Is Sidelining Researchers and Their Work
By Brad Plumer and Coral Davenport

WASHINGTON — In just three years, the Trump administration has 
diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or 
disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the 
federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the 
influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases 
pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has 
particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment 
and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal 
mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, 
which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.

But the erosion of science reaches well beyond the environment and 
climate: In San Francisco, a study of the effects of chemicals on 
pregnant women has stalled after federal funding abruptly ended. In 
Washington, D.C., a scientific committee that provided expertise in 
defending against invasive insects has been disbanded. In Kansas City, 
Mo., the hasty relocation of two agricultural agencies that fund crop 
science and study the economics of farming has led to an exodus of 
employees and delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in research.

“The disregard for expertise in the federal government is worse than 
it’s ever been,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for 
Climate Change Law at Columbia University, which has tracked more than 
200 reports of Trump administration efforts to restrict or misuse 
science since 2017. “It’s pervasive.”

Hundreds of scientists, many of whom say they are dismayed at seeing 
their work undone, are departing.

Among them is Matthew Davis, a biologist whose research on the health 
risks of mercury to children underpinned the first rules cutting mercury 
emissions from coal power plants. But last year, with a new baby of his 
own, he was asked to help support a rollback of those same rules. “I am 
now part of defending this darker, dirtier future,” he said.

This year, after a decade at the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. 
Davis left.

“Regulations come and go, but the thinning out of scientific capacity in 
the government will take a long time to get back,” said Joel Clement, a 
former top climate-policy expert at the Interior Department who quit in 
2017 after being reassigned to a job collecting oil and gas royalties. 
He is now at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.

Mr. Trump has consistently said that government regulations have stifled 
businesses and thwarted some of the administration’s core goals, such as 
increasing fossil-fuel production. Many of the starkest confrontations 
with federal scientists have involved issues like environmental 
oversight and energy extraction — areas where industry groups have 
argued that regulators have gone too far in the past.

“Businesses are finally being freed of Washington’s overreach, and the 
American economy is flourishing as a result,” a White House statement 
said last year. Asked about the role of science in policymaking, 
officials from the White House declined to comment on the record.

The administration’s efforts to cut certain research projects also 
reflect a longstanding conservative position that some scientific work 
can be performed cost-effectively by the private sector, and taxpayers 
shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill. “Eliminating wasteful spending, 
some of which has nothing to do with studying the science at all, is 
smart management, not an attack on science,” two analysts at the 
conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in 2017 of the administration’s 
proposals to eliminate various climate change and clean energy programs.

Industry groups have expressed support for some of the moves, including 
a contentious E.P.A. proposal to put new constraints on the use of 
scientific studies in the name of transparency. The American Chemistry 
Council, a chemical trade group, praised the proposal by saying, “The 
goal of providing more transparency in government and using the best 
available science in the regulatory process should be ideals we all 
embrace.”

In some cases, the administration’s efforts to roll back government 
science have been thwarted. Each year, Mr. Trump has proposed sweeping 
budget cuts at a variety of federal agencies like the National 
Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science 
Foundation. But Congress has the final say over budget levels and 
lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have rejected the cuts.

For instance, in supporting funding for the Department of Energy’s 
national laboratories, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, 
recently said, “it allows us to take advantage of the United States’ 
secret weapon, our extraordinary capacity for basic research.”

As a result, many science programs continue to thrive, including space 
exploration at NASA and medical research at the National Institutes of 
Health, where the budget has increased more than 12 percent since Mr. 
Trump took office and where researchers continue to make advances in 
areas like molecular biology and genetics.

Nevertheless, in other areas, the administration has managed to chip 
away at federal science.

At the E.P.A., for instance, staffing has fallen to its lowest levels in 
at least a decade. More than two-thirds of respondents to a survey of 
federal scientists across 16 agencies said that hiring freezes and 
departures made it harder to conduct scientific work. And in June, the 
White House ordered agencies to cut by one-third the number of federal 
advisory boards that provide technical advice.

The White House said it aimed to eliminate committees that were no 
longer necessary. Panels cut so far had focused on issues including 
invasive species and electric grid innovation.

At a time when the United States is pulling back from world leadership 
in other areas like human rights or diplomatic accords, experts warn 
that the retreat from science is no less significant. Many of the 
achievements of the past century that helped make the United States an 
envied global power, including gains in life expectancy, lowered air 
pollution and increased farm productivity are the result of the kinds of 
government research now under pressure.

“When we decapitate the government’s ability to use science in a 
professional way, that increases the risk that we start making bad 
decisions, that we start missing new public health risks,” said Wendy E. 
Wagner, a professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin who 
studies the use of science by policymakers.

Skirmishes over the use of science in making policy occur in all 
administrations: Industries routinely push back against health studies 
that could justify stricter pollution rules, for example. And scientists 
often gripe about inadequate budgets for their work. But many experts 
say that current efforts to challenge research findings go well beyond 
what has been done previously.

In an article published in the journal Science last year, Ms. Wagner 
wrote that some of the Trump administration’s moves, like a policy to 
restrict certain academics from the E.P.A.’s Science Advisory Board or 
the proposal to limit the types of research that can be considered by 
environmental regulators, “mark a sharp departure with the past.” Rather 
than isolated battles between political officials and career experts, 
she said, these moves are an attempt to legally constrain how federal 
agencies use science in the first place.

Some clashes with scientists have sparked public backlash, as when Trump 
officials pressured the nation’s weather forecasting agency to support 
the president’s erroneous assertion this year that Hurricane Dorian 
threatened Alabama.

This year, for instance, the National Park Service’s principal climate 
change scientist, Patrick Gonzalez, received a “cease and desist” letter 
from supervisors after testifying to Congress about the risks that 
global warming posed to national parks.

“I saw it as attempted intimidation,” said Dr. Gonzalez, who added that 
he was speaking in his capacity as an associate adjunct professor at the 
University California, Berkeley, a position he also holds. “It’s 
interference with science and hinders our work.”

Curtailing Scientific Programs

Even though Congress hasn’t gone along with Mr. Trump’s proposals for 
budget cuts at scientific agencies, the administration has still found 
ways to advance its goals.

One strategy: eliminate individual research projects not explicitly 
protected by Congress.

For example, just months after Mr. Trump’s election, the Commerce 
Department disbanded a 15-person scientific committee that had explored 
how to make National Climate Assessments, the congressionally mandated 
studies of the risks of climate change, more useful to local officials. 
It also closed its Office of the Chief Economist, which for decades had 
conducted wide-ranging research on topics like the economic effects of 
natural disasters. Similarly, the Interior Department has withdrawn 
funding for its Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, 22 regional 
research centers that tackled issues like habitat loss and wildfire 
management. While California and Alaska used state money to keep their 
centers open, 16 of 22 remain in limbo.

A Commerce Department official said the climate committee it 
discontinued had not produced a report, and highlighted other efforts to 
promote science, such as a major upgrade of the nation’s weather models.

An Interior Department official said the agency’s decisions “are solely 
based on the facts and grounded in the law,” and that the agency would 
continue to pursue other partnerships to advance conservation science.

Research that potentially posed an obstacle to Mr. Trump’s promise to 
expand fossil-fuel production was halted, too. In 2017, Interior 
officials canceled a $1 million study by the National Academies of 
Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the health risks of “mountaintop 
removal” coal mining in places like West Virginia.

Mountaintop removal is as dramatic as it sounds — a hillside is blasted 
with explosives and the remains are excavated — but the health 
consequences still aren’t fully understood. The process can kick up coal 
dust and send heavy metals into waterways, and a number of studies have 
suggested links to health problems like kidney disease and birth defects.

“The industry was pushing back on these studies,” said Joseph Pizarchik, 
an Obama-era mining regulator who commissioned the now-defunct study. 
“We didn’t know what the answer would be,” he said, “but we needed to 
know: Was the government permitting coal mining that was poisoning 
people, or not?”

While coal mining has declined in recent years, satellite data shows 
that at least 60 square miles in Appalachia have been newly mined since 
2016. “The study is still as important today as it was five years ago,” 
Mr. Pizarchik said.

The Cost of Lost Research

The cuts can add up to significant research setbacks.

For years, the E.P.A. and the National Institute of Environmental Health 
Sciences had jointly funded 13 children’s health centers nationwide that 
studied, among other things, the effects of pollution on children’s 
development. This year, the E.P.A. ended its funding.

At the University of California, San Francisco, one such center has been 
studying how industrial chemicals such as flame retardants in furniture 
could affect placenta and fetal development. Key aspects of the research 
have now stopped.

“The longer we go without funding, the harder it is to start that 
research back up,” said Tracey Woodruff, who directs the center.

In a statement, the E.P.A. said it anticipated future opportunities to 
fund children’s health research.

At the Department of Agriculture, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue 
announced in June he would relocate two key research agencies to Kansas 
City from Washington: The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a 
scientific agency that funds university research on topics like how to 
breed cattle and corn that can better tolerate drought conditions, and 
the Economic Research Service, whose economists produce studies for 
policymakers on farming trends, trade and rural America.

Nearly 600 employees had less than four months to decide whether to 
uproot and move. Most couldn’t or wouldn’t, and two-thirds of those 
facing transfer left their jobs.

“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” he said in videotaped 
remarks at a Republican Party gala in South Carolina. “But by simply 
saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the 
bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, 
D.C., and move you out in the real part of the country,’ and they quit. 
What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we 
haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

The White House declined to comment on Mr. Mulvaney’s speech.

The exodus has led to upheaval.

At the Economic Research Service, dozens of planned studies into topics 
like dairy industry consolidation and pesticide use have been delayed or 
disrupted. “You can name any topic in agriculture and we’ve lost an 
expert,” said Laura Dodson, an economist and acting vice president of 
the union representing agency employees.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture manages $1.7 billion in 
grants that fund research on issues like food safety or techniques that 
help farmers improve their productivity. The staff loss, employees say, 
has held up hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, such as planned 
research into pests and diseases afflicting grapes, sweet potatoes and 
fruit trees.

Former employees say they remain skeptical that the agencies could be 
repaired quickly. “It will take 5 to 10 years to rebuild,” said Sonny 
Ramaswamy, who until 2018 directed the National Institute of Food and 
Agriculture.

Mr. Perdue said the moves would save money and put the offices closer to 
farmers. “We did not undertake these relocations lightly,” he said in a 
statement. A Department of Agriculture official added that both agencies 
were pushing to continue their work, but acknowledged that some grants 
could be delayed by months.

Questioning the Science Itself

In addition to shutting down some programs, there have been notable 
instances where the administration has challenged established scientific 
research. Early on, as it started rolling back regulations on industry, 
administration officials began questioning research findings 
underpinning those regulations.

In 2017, aides to Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator at the time, 
told the agency’s economists to redo an analysis of wetlands protections 
that had been used to help defend an Obama-era clean-water rule. Instead 
of concluding that the protections would provide more than $500 million 
in economic benefits, they were told to list the benefits as 
unquantifiable, according to Elizabeth Southerland, who retired in 2017 
from a 30-year career at the E.P.A., finishing as a senior official in 
its water office.

“It’s not unusual for a new administration to come in and change policy 
direction,” Dr. Southerland said. “But typically you would look for new 
studies and carefully redo the analysis. Instead they were sending a 
message that all the economists, scientists, career staff in the agency 
were irrelevant.”

Internal documents show that political officials at the E.P.A. have 
overruled the agency’s career experts on several occasions, including in 
a move to regulate asbestos more lightly, in a decision not to ban the 
pesticide chlorpyrifos and in a determination that parts of Wisconsin 
were in compliance with smog standards. The Interior Department 
sidelined its own legal and environmental analyses in advancing a 
proposal to raise the Shasta Dam in California.

Michael Abboud, an E.P.A. spokesman, disputed Dr. Southerland’s account 
in an emailed response, saying “It is not true.”

The E.P.A. is now finalizing a narrower version of the Obama-era water 
rule, which in its earlier form had prompted outrage from thousands of 
farmers and ranchers across the country who saw it as overly restrictive.

“E.P.A. under President Trump has worked to put forward the strongest 
regulations to protect human health and the environment,” Mr. Abboud 
said, noting that several Obama administration rules had been held up in 
court and needed revision. “As required by law E.P.A. has always and 
will continue to use the best available science when developing rules, 
regardless of the claims of a few federal employees.”

Past administrations have, to varying degrees, disregarded scientific 
findings that conflicted with their priorities. In 2011, President 
Obama’s top health official overruled experts at the Food and Drug 
Administration who had concluded that over-the-counter emergency 
contraceptives were safe for minors.

But in the Trump administration, the scope is wider. Many top government 
positions, including at the E.P.A. and the Interior Department, are now 
occupied by former lobbyists connected to the industries that those 
agencies oversee.

Scientists and health experts have singled out two moves they find 
particularly concerning. Since 2017, the E.P.A. has moved to restrict 
certain academics from sitting on its Science Advisory Board, which 
provides scrutiny of agency science, and has instead increased the 
number of appointees connected with industry.

And, in a potentially far-reaching move, the E.P.A. has proposed a rule 
to limit regulators from using scientific research unless the underlying 
raw data can be made public. Industry groups like the Chamber of 
Commerce have argued that some agency rules are based on science that 
can’t be fully scrutinized by outsiders. But dozens of scientific 
organizations have warned that the proposal in its current form could 
prevent the E.P.A. from considering a vast array of research on issues 
like the dangers of air pollution if, for instance, they are based on 
confidential health data.

“The problem is that rather than allowing agency scientists to use their 
judgment and weigh the best available evidence, this could put political 
constraints on how science enters the decision-making process in the 
first place,” said Ms. Wagner, the University of Texas law professor.

The E.P.A. says its proposed rule is intended to make the science that 
underpins potentially costly regulations more transparent. “By requiring 
transparency,” said Mr. Abboud, the agency spokesman, “scientists will 
be required to publish hypothesis and experimental data for other 
scientists to review and discuss, requiring the science to withstand 
skepticism and peer review.”

An Exodus of Expertise

“In the past, when we had an administration that was not very 
pro-environment, we could still just lay low and do our work,” said 
Betsy Smith, a climate scientist with more than 20 years of experience 
at the E.P.A. who in 2017 saw her long-running study of the effects of 
climate change on major ports get canceled.

“Now we feel like the E.P.A. is being run by the fossil fuel industry,” 
she said. “It feels like a wholesale attack.”

After her project was killed, Dr. Smith resigned.

The loss of experienced scientists can erase years or decades of 
“institutional memory,” said Robert J. Kavlock, a toxicologist who 
retired in October 2017 after working at the E.P.A. for 40 years, most 
recently as acting assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of 
Research and Development.

His former office, which researches topics like air pollution and 
chemical testing, has lost 250 scientists and technical staff members 
since Mr. Trump came to office, while hiring 124. Those who have 
remained in the office of roughly 1,500 people continue to do their 
work, Dr. Kavlock said, but are not going out of their way to promote 
findings on lightning-rod topics like climate change.

“You can see that they’re trying not to ruffle any feathers,” Dr. 
Kavlock said.

The same can’t be said of Patrick Gonzalez, the National Park Service’s 
principal climate change scientist, whose work involves helping national 
parks protect against damages from rising temperatures.

In February, Dr. Gonzalez testified before Congress about the risks of 
global warming, saying he was speaking in his capacity as an associate 
adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also 
using his Berkeley affiliation to participate as a co-author on a coming 
report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United 
Nations body that synthesizes climate science for world leaders.

But in March, shortly after testifying, Dr. Gonzalez’s supervisor at the 
National Park Service sent the cease-and-desist letter warning him that 
his Berkeley affiliation was not separate from his government work and 
that his actions were violating agency policy. Dr. Gonzalez said he 
viewed the letter as an attempt to deter him from speaking out.

The Interior Department, asked to comment, said the letter did not 
indicate an intent to sanction Dr. Gonzalez and that he was free to 
speak as a private citizen.

Dr. Gonzalez, with the support of Berkeley, continues to warn about the 
dangers of climate change and work with the United Nations climate 
change panel using his vacation time, and he spoke again to Congress in 
June. “I’d like to provide a positive example for other scientists,” he 
said.

Still, he noted that not everyone may be in a position to be similarly 
outspoken. “How many others are not speaking up?” Dr. Gonzalez said.


Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and 
other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer

Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on 
climate change, from the Washington bureau. She joined The Times in 2013 
and previously worked at Congressional Quarterly, Politico and National 
Journal. @CoralMDavenport • Facebook



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