There is a “culture of fear, censorship, and suppression” within the Trump administration that is impeding government scientists from doing their best work, former Interior Department policy director and scientist turned whistleblower Joel Clement warned on Wednesday.
Speaking to lawmakers on the House Science Committee, scientific experts spoke about the need for stronger rules to support the integrity of their research and ensure that political agendas don’t dictate or interfere with the data.
“There is not Democratic science, there is not Republican science, there is just science,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Halpern pointed to instances under current and previous administrations, including under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, of scientific assessments being either watered down or language softened. He pointed to past research on lead in school lunchboxes and on the impact of fracking on drinking water.
But the scientists said that under President Donald Trump, political interference had reached a new level.
As Clement highlighted, a study into the rules needed to protect the health and safety of offshore oil rig workers was canceled right before a set of measures to protect the workers was rolled-back. Similarly, a study into the health impacts of surface coal mining was canceled right before making moves to support the coal industry.
Other studies have been delayed, such as one on the health impacts of PFAS chemicals in drinking water for fear of a “public relations nightmare,” while agencies have seen some scientists self-censor their work out of fear, such as removing the words “climate change” from reports.
“The American people lose when we end up with manipulated, suppressed, or distorted information,” Halpern said. After all, as multiple experts testified, it’s taxpayer money that funds government scientists — the public paid for that research and deserves to see it.
The result is “dirtier air, dirtier water,” added Clement, who resigned from his post at the Interior in July 2017 after being reassigned to “an unrelated job” by former Secretary Ryan Zinke. Clement saw the move as an attempt to push him out for speaking out about the impacts of climate change on Alaskan native communities.
The hearing on Wednesday follows the release of a bill by committee member Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), called the Scientific Integrity Act, earlier this year. The bill, which has the support of nearly 200 House members, is intended to insulate “public scientific research and reports from the distorting influence of political and special interests” according to Tonko.
While Tonko reminded everyone at the hearing that he began working on the bill in 2016 under the Obama administration, he added, “The abuses directed by this President [Trump] and his top officials have brought a new urgency to the issue.”
While more than 20 federal agencies have some type of scientific integrity policy, not all of these policies are successfully or fully implemented. As an April report by the Government Accountability Office found, of the nine agencies reviewed, seven have “specific, documented procedures” for identifying and addressing alleged violations. The report also made 10 recommendations to agencies for addressing the need to better educate staff on the issue, provide greater oversight, and develop procedures to identify and address potential violations.
Last year, the EPA announced it would begin an investigation to see whether its scientific integrity policy was being properly implemented. This came after a survey was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which showed that government scientists across 16 agencies and departments had concerns with the degree of political influence over their work.
Specifically, the annual survey for 2018 showed that a third of the nearly 449 EPA respondents worried about the “influence” of political appointees or White House officials over “science-based” decisions. Less than 30% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “My agency adheres to its scientific integrity policy.”
In addition, roughly a third of EPA respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had either been asked directly to omit or independently decided to avoid the use of the term “climate change” in their work.
There is technically nothing stopping an agency from dismantling its scientific integrity policy, said Halpern. That’s why a bill such as the one proposed by Tonko would go a long way to buttress, or add “statutory heft,” to agency policies as Clement described.
Clement called the Scientific Integrity Act a good first step, but noted that in order to be truly effective, broader ethics and integrity standards were needed across agencies.
Indeed, many of the individuals overseeing agencies come from the industry they are now responsible for regulating. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Interior (DOI) have faced numerous ethics scandals regarding potential conflicts of interest and alleged industry influence.
In March, for instance, The New York Times revealed documents showing DOI Secretary David Bernhardt intervened to block a study showing pesticides might threaten the existence of 1,200 endangered species; Bernhardt has a history of lobbying against the Endangered Species Act.
But due to the “hostile leadership situation,” there are many scientists who are simply keeping their heads down and staying quiet about issues surrounding scientific integrity under the current administration.
“I’d love if every policymaker thought of science as the North Star,” said Clement, “but I hope it’s part of the constellation.”