February 10, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Six months after Donald Trump took office, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report on the many ways his administration had already “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.” Now, after two years of the Trump administration, the organization has released a new report documenting the continuation of that disturbing anti-science trend. But it isn’t uniformly grim: The many distressing examples are accompanied by stories of how scientists and science supporters are pushing back, and specific recommendations for the 116th Congress on ways to respond.

The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damage Done, Lessons Learned, and a Path to Progress documents 80 separate attacks on science, including the early termination, editing, or suppression of studies; anti-science rules, regulations, and orders; and censorship. Jacob Carter, Emily Berman, Anita Desikan, Charise Johnson, and Gretchen Goldman write:

The administration has compromised our nation’s ability to meet current and future public health and environmental challenges, and it continues to erode science across the federal landscape. Administration officials are undermining the use of science in making policies designed to protect the public health and our environment. They are excluding scientists from decisionmaking processes, compromising or disbanding science advisory committees, leaving scientific political-appointee positions vacant, and reducing the voice and effectiveness of agency professional staff. Further, the administration is radically weakening processes that guide the use of science in policymaking: it is limiting what scientific evidence policymakers can and cannot use, politicizing the scientific grant-review process, reducing data collection, and weakening enforcement of science-based public health and environmental laws. Leading these efforts are individuals with limited scientific credentials and significant conflicts of interest, including direct ties to the industries that agencies are supposed to regulate.

Throughout the report, readers can also find stories of how supporters of evidence-based policymaking pushed back against attempted Trump administration moves that would have sidelined science and imperiled public health. These include:

  • Preventing a conflicted individual from heading the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention at the EPA: Scientists, activists, environmental groups, and public health advocates protested the nomination of Michael Dourson to oversee EPA’s chemical safety program. Dourson not only had a long record of helping companies that use toxic compounds fight EPA regulatory efforts; he had also had a history of failing to appropriately disclose or manage conflicts of interest. Following the public outcry in response to his nomination, it became clear that even a Republican Senate majority might not be enough to get Dourson approved, and he withdrew his nomination.
  • Retaining sexual orientation question in National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants: In 2017, the Administration on Community Living, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was set to quietly remove questions addressing sexual orientation and gender identity from an annual survey of people who receive services such as meals and transportation under the Older Americans Act. The LGBTQ and public health communities forcefully opposed the change, and ACL received comments from 89 organizations and more than 13,900 individuals, nearly all of them urging that the questions remain on the survey. The agency ultimately retained the survey question on sexual orientation, though it did not keep a follow-up question on gender identity (which was only asked if a respondent answered “don’t know” or “something else” in response to the sexual orientation question).
  • Bringing a chemical hazard to light: An analysis by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl substances), a class of hazardous chemicals found in water supplies near several military bases and other contaminated sites, to pose risks to sensitive populations at levels far lower than EPA had previously reported. As ATSDR prepared to publish the PFAS draft toxicological profile, EPA intervened and warned that the report would cause a “public relations nightmare.” When EPA’s role in suppressing the document came to light, the Trump administration faced pushback from the public and members of Congress, and ultimately released the report.

The UCS report ends with a chapter full of detailed recommendations for Congress on how they can promote public health and safety, fight corruption of science-based decisionmaking, and protect science and scientists at federal agencies. One particularly promising option is passing legislation such as the Scientific Integrity Act to require that agencies have strong scientific integrity policies and mechanisms to enforce them. I look forward to hearing more from Congress about how they plan to stop the sidelining of science that threatens public health.

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