February 9, 2020 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

A new three-part series from Robin Young and Serena McMahon for WBUR’s Here & Now delves into ways the Trump administration is silencing science. It basically comes down to ignoring scientists’ input when it demonstrates the need for regulation, and making scientific work for the federal government miserable.  As a result, public health suffers.

In the first “Silencing Science” segment, Young and McMahon interview Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. Together with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, the Sabin Center runs the Silencing Science Tracker, which compiles information on “government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information.” As of this writing, it contains 392 incidents, ranging from “CDC Employees Prevented from Speaking to Reporters” to “References to ‘Climate Change’ Removed from EPA Document.” Young and McMahon report Gerrard’s summary of what all these disturbing incidents add up to:

The government has diminished some scientific committees and replaced them with industry representatives, which has caused “an enormous amount of distress” in the scientific community, he says. People who have dedicated their lives to environmental research and education are being “squelched,” leaving some — especially young scientists he works with at Columbia — to pursue opportunities outside of the federal government.

And increasingly, scientists are being told not to write certain articles or appear at certain events, he says. For example, last year, U.S. National Park Service’s principal climate change scientist received a cease-and-desist letter after he testified about the adverse impacts of human-caused climate change in national parks.

These tactics tend to be effective in muzzling scientists, he says.

The result is that industries like coal can now pollute with fewer consequences — but, as Gerrard points out, many businesses will also lose out as the climate crisis continues and the toll from wildfires, hurricanes, and floods mounts.

The second segment focuses on USDA and features Rutgers history professor Jamie Pietruska. She tells Young and McMahon about the agency’s decision to abruptly move its Economic Research Service from DC to the Kansas City area, which resulted in two-thirds of its employees quitting. The move was billed as something that would save money while bringing USDA resources closer to stakeholders, but acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has also characterized it as a way to get rid of federal employees (more on that here and here). Pietruska explained to Young and McMahon why some critics see the move as retaliatory and why it’s harmful to all of us:

Today, she says the ERS has been able to show Obama-era policy that increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits actually had “long-lasting positive effects on rural communities” and created local jobs. This report “directly undercuts” the Trump administration’s argument that increased SNAP benefits were depleting the country’s resources, she says.

Because the ERS works closely with lawmakers, oftentimes face-to-face, the distance between Washington and the Midwest hurts that connection on crucial discussions involving the U.S. economy, she says.

Losing civil servants in the ERS — many who have years of experience working across political party lines and have invaluable “institutional memory” — has caused delays in reporting, she says. Some projects have been put on hold because the expertise is lacking.

Who fills the void left in Washington? Corporate lobbyists, Pietruska says.

The Trump administration doesn’t seem to value the wealth of expertise that civil servants bring. As with climate change, the short-term gains for a few industries pale in comparison to the population-wide harm that will occur if the quality of our entire food supply suffers.

For the third “Silencing Science” segment, Young and McMahon spoke to Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He gives several examples of EPA actions that sideline science, out of many attacks on science detailed at the UCS website. When EPA rolled back the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, it ignored a 2017 EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers assessment of the impacts of shrinking the waterway areas protected under the Clean Water Act (and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has lodged a formal complaint about the process having violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy). EPA still hasn’t released a highly anticipated report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde, which is widely used in household products, and it disregarded its own scientists’ advice when releasing an asbestos rule that stopped short of banning the carcinogen. Halpern explains to Robbins and McMahon that these incidents are part of a larger pattern:

But Halpern says asbestos isn’t the only issue at play. The Trump administration has chosen to disregard certain policies, such as the Clean Air Act, in order to pursue their own agenda, he says.

“But the amount of air pollution that’s going to sicken you or kill you doesn’t depend on who wins an election or who is filling a seat at the top of the EPA,” he says. “That’s why we need the scientists to be able to tell us what the threats are and respond appropriately.”

Scientists are feeling this neglect, he says. The Union of Concerned Scientists conducts surveys, and Halpern says recent feedback found that EPA scientists are “worse off than they’ve ever been” and “report significant political interference in their work.”

The survey found they are also discouraged by workplace reductions, and feel the need to self-censor on topics such as climate change or chemical safety, he says. Their contentious work environment ultimately makes it challenging to report the facts back to the public on critical health hazards, he says.

The immediate impact of this science-silencing trend will soon become apparent as we’re all exposed to more pollution thanks to regulatory rollbacks that ignore evidence of harms. The effects of agencies losing out on scientific talent may be more subtle, but public health will also suffer as a result.

One solution, of course, is to elect a president who values science and public health. Another is to erect more guardrails to protect scientific work at federal agencies even when science-unfriendly administrations are in charge. Halpern highlights the Scientific Integrity Act as one such opportunity. He testified in favor of it at a recent hearing, and it now has bipartisan support in House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. As the “Silencing Science” series makes clear, we desperately need such protections in order to protect public health.

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