Members of the public health community are aware of many of the ways the Trump administration and the 115th Congress are hindering and reversing evidence-based actions for public health – from an executive order requiring agencies to scrap two regulations each time they create a new one to advancing legislation that would make it harder for EPA to obtain and use the most up-to-date science in its work. With so many threats to public health arising each month, it can be hard to catch all of them, though. The Union of Concerned Scientists has performed a tremendous service by producing the report Sidelining Science from Day One: How the Trump Administration Has Harmed Public Health and Safety in Its First Six Months.
The authors of the UCS report – Jacob Carter, Gretchen Goldman, Genna Reed, Peter Hansel, Michael Halpern, and Andrew Rosenberg – remind us it’s so important for the US government to encourage, conduct, and make use of science:
Research in the 1970s about the neurological effects of lead on children resulted in policies to phase-out its use in paint and gasoline. Research on chemicals and metals has improved the quality of our air, water, and soil. Research on infectious diseases has saved innumerable lives by helping governments prevent or anticipate responses to future outbreaks. Advancements in technology have made household appliances, automobiles, and other consumer products safer, cleaner, and more cost-effective and energy-efficient. Government science has improved weather predictions, and climate studies have helped communities across the United States prepare for rising sea levels, drought, extreme heat, and other impacts of climate change.
All modern presidents have politicized science to some degree, they write, but “these threats to the federal scientific enterprise have escalated markedly” under the Trump administration. Here’s their summary of the current situation:
President Trump and his advisors and appointees, along with allied members of Congress, have willfully distorted scientific information, targeted scientists for doing their jobs, impeded scientists’ ability to conduct research, limited access to taxpayer-funded scientific information, disregarded the science in science-based policies, and rolled back science-based protections aimed at advancing public health. They have appointed officials with severe conflicts of interest to oversee industries to which they are tied, and, in some cases, they now lead agencies they have previously disparaged or even sued. They have dismissed climate science despite overwhelming evidence of the devastating impacts of climate change. And they have restricted agencies from considering scientific evidence fully in the decision-making process. Further, the president’s budget blueprints reveal the administration’s desire to scrap investments in basic data collection and research at major agencies, threatening the government’s ability to enforce our nation’s public health and environmental laws.
Attacking work on climate and other aspects of public health
It’s not a surprise that many of the harmful actions the report describes focus on climate change. These include the cancelation of CDC’s Climate and Health Summit; temporary media blackouts focused on agencies doing climate work; instructing employees at the Energy Department’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy to avoid using the term “climate change” in written communications; removing language on climate change and sea level rise from a press release on new work by US Geological Survey scientists; failing to link greenhouse gas emissions and human activity in a NOAA news release; and an executive order reversing and stalling multiple climate-related policies from the Obama administration. And, of course, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement will have grave consequences for public health.
The UCS report also catalogs some of the many public-health regulations that the Trump administration has delayed, with serious consequences for those who work with hazardous substances and live in communities with high levels of pollution. For instance, the administration is re-reviewing regulation of vehicle emissions standards; delayed implementation of the Risk Management Plan program intended to prevent disasters like the deadly fertilizer facility fire in West, Texas; put off the effective date of a regulation to better protect workers exposed to beryllium; rejected a petition to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which studies have linked to neurodevelopmental problems; delayed enforcement of a rule to reduce workers’ exposure to lung-destroying crystalline silica; delayed implementation of a 2015 ozone pollution rule; and made chemical-industry-friendly changes to EPA rules implementing the updated Toxic Substances Control Act.
Although environmental and occupational health got the brunt of anti-regulatory fervor, other aspects of public health haven’t gone unscathed. The Department of Health and Human Services quietly removed a question about sexual identity from a survey of older individuals and abruptly terminated multi-year projects on teen pregnancy prevention. FDA has indefinitely delayed rollout of a nutrition label that reports added sugars. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declined to renew the National Commission on Forensic Sciences that the Obama administration created in 2013.
Executive Order 13771, which instructs federal agencies to rescind two existing regulations each time it adopts a new one, considers the financial costs of regulations without appropriately recognizes their public-health benefits – and will mean fewer health-protective regulations overall. Public Citizen, NRDC, and Communications Workers of America have sued to block it.
In some cases, Congress and the administration have worked together to roll back public health protections and make it harder for public health agencies to do their jobs. Congress passed and Trump signed laws rescinding the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which limited the dumping of coal mine waste into streams, and Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which sought to reduce the extent to which federal contracts are awarded to companies engage in wage theft or violate laws on workplace safety.
The House has also passed the REINS Act, which would require regulations with $100 million in projected annual impact to be reviewed by a political appointee before taking effect; the HONEST Act and EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which would make it much harder for EPA to receive and use up-to-date scientific advice and information; and the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would significantly disrupt the science-based rulemaking process at all agencies.
Making life harder for federal scientists
The day before the six-month mark of the Trump administration, federal employee Joel Clement took a brave and important step. With an opinion column in the Washington Post, he blew the whistle on the Trump administration’s involuntary reassignment of dozens of senior Department of Interior employees. Clement writes:
Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.
I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up. A few days after my reassignment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before Congress that the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers. Some of my colleagues are being relocated across the country, at taxpayer expense, to serve in equally ill-fitting jobs.
I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government.
Clement has filed a complaint with the US Office of Special Counsel, but we don’t need to wait for their decision to know that the environment has grown harsher for federal employees whose work involves science. The UCS report notes that the House of Representatives’ revival of the 1876 Holman Rule, which allows members of Congress to target specific federal offices or employees for elimination and reduce an individual employee’s salary, can create a climate in which federal employees feel pressured to avoid releasing information or issuing regulations that members of Congress are known dislike. Congress may also get distorted information from federal agencies if political appointees pressure agency employees or advisors to revise their testimony – something that happened to EPA Science Advisory Board’s Deborah Swackhamer as she prepared to testify to the House Science Committee on the role of states in environmental policy. And, when scientists are told not to attend conferences – for instance, the Alaska Forum on the Environment or an international conference on nuclear energy – it makes it harder for them to stay current and connected in their fields. Throw in a few political appointees who are underqualified and antagonistic to the agency’s work, and you’ve got a climate that seems engineered to demoralize federal employees involved with science.
As the UCS report notes, members of the scientific and public-health communities are mobilizing to defend federal science and evidence-based rulemaking against recent attacks. Carter and his co-authors write:
Recognizing the stakes, scientists and science supporters are speaking up, taking advantage of the momentum of successful marches and new opportunities for political engagement. Scientists and science supporters are connecting the administration’s actions to consequences for public health and the environment. By understanding current and evolving threats and taking advantage of new vehicles for advocacy, we can defend the scientific enterprise our democracy depends on and preserve the public health, safety, security, and environmental protections that make our nation great. Scientists and science supporters, Congress, and the media can all play a role.
They make recommendations for scientists and science supporters, Congress, and the media:
Scientists and science supporters should scrutinize administration and congressional actions and sound the alarm when science is misused. They can also play a unique role in articulating to others the importance of science in our daily lives. Communicating the importance of science and science-based policies to the public and decisionmakers is crucial to fighting attacks on science in this highly charged political environment.
Congress should use its oversight authorities to investigate and hold accountable the administration for actions that threaten scientific integrity and science-based policies, and it should act to protect whistleblowers. With the growing trend of abuses against science in the Trump administration, Congress must exercise its full authority as a check against the executive branch. Also, Congress should pass legislation to better protect federal scientists and the integrity of science in our federal agencies.
Journalists must continue to hold administration officials and members of Congress accountable for their words and actions and investigate cases of suppressing, misrepresenting, manipulating, or otherwise politicizing science, along with related allegations of wrongdoing in our federal government. The media should seek out scientists as sources when possible and call out agencies that place unnecessary barriers on communications between journalists and government scientists.
Without strong action to oppose current assaults on science, it will only become harder to address threats to public health from infectious diseases, pollutants, and unsafe consumer products. Agency efforts to encourage healthier behaviors and built environments may see recent gains reversed and future progress stalled. Responding to the threats described in the the UCS reports is essential for the health of future generations.
To download a copy of Sidelining Science from Day One and see an interactive timeline of Trump Administration and Congressional Actions, visit the UCS website.
Scientists join case against Trump’s 2 for 1 regulatory order (June 6)
Paris and profits (June 6)
Sad to be an American, grieving for Mother Earth and her people (June 1)
Revolving door from chemical industry to EPA: No way to boost public confidence (April 20)
Formaldehyde, scientists, and politics (April 19)
House passes bills that will make it harder for EPA to protect public health (April 11)
Health organizations warn about “regulatory reform” bills sweeping Congress (March 8)
Scientific Integrity Act: Protecting the government science that protects all of us (February 27)
Work for an agency? Have something to leak? (February 8)
One step forward, two steps back. Dire consequences from Trump’s edict on regulations (January 30)