War on science: Trump administration muzzles climate experts, critics say
Whistleblowers and groups tracking agency decisions say administration is ignoring science and censoring expertise
The Trump administration is disregarding science and expertise across a wide range of government work, as documented by whistleblowers and groups tracking agency decisions.
Trump officials are censoring warnings about the climate crisis, moving critical agencies out of Washington and enacting far-reaching changes in what facts regulators can consider when they choose between industry and the public good.
The White House and its agencies have kept their own experts from explaining how pollution from power plants and cars is increasing global temperatures, threatening both lives and economies.
One former climate scientist for the National Park Service, Maria Caffrey, filed a whistleblower complaint this week and testified to Congress that she was blocked from publishing data about how coastal parks could flood as the seas rise.
“Politics has no place in science,” Caffrey said in an oped for the Guardian. “I am an example of the less discussed methods the administration is using to destroy scientific research. I wasn’t fired and immediately told to leave; instead they sought retribution by discretely using governmental bureaucracy to apply pressure and gradually cut funding.”
Caffrey’s allegations follow a trend. A state department intelligence aide resigned after the White House refused to let him submit written testimony to lawmakers about “possibly catastrophic” harm from the climate crisis.
Interior department climate staffer Joel Clement was reassigned from his position, and he told lawmakers this month that there is a “culture of fear, censorship and suppression”, within the administration.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences director, Linda Birnbaum, who spoke about the need for the public and Congress to work together on stronger regulations on pesticides was accused by Republicans of violating anti-lobbying laws. She announced earlier this month that she plans to retire.
An analysis of thousands of government websites shows terms related to climate change have also dropped 26% between 2016 and 2018, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration nixed references to climate change on a page explaining how workers and managers can handle heat-related health risks.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recategorized some of its work from “climate science” to “ecosystems” and removed about 40 pages that focused on climate change. The transportation department took down most of a climate change “clearinghouse” of information.
The administration has argued that it makes sense to change its websites because it has different priorities than the Obama administration. Eric Nost, a co-author of the analysis, said that’s not fair.
“You can have different priorities related to climate and how you address it … but what we’re seeing is a lot of obfuscation of really fundamental resources and information related to the issue itself with little notice that things are changing,” Nost said.
Lauren Kurtz – who is tracking evidence of censorship for a database by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and Climate Science Legal Defense Fund – said it extends beyond the climate crisis, to pesticide safety and reproductive health.
Kurtz said the 105 public incidences of censorship the groups found are “part of a larger trend of disputing scientific realities for political reasons”.
Plans to move agencies out of Washington
Many other less obvious Trump changes are expected to minimize the importance of expertise and cripple regulators seeking to protect people and the environment, observers say.
The administration plans to move multiple agency offices out of the Washington region and into the middle of the country. Employees at the Bureau of Land Management who are willing to leave could be sent to Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona – states closer to the drilling the bureau oversees but far from the government hub in Washington.
Employees at two sub-agencies of the agriculture department that provide key data and fund emerging research will be moved to Kansas City, Missouri.
Laura Dodson, union steward for the Economic Research Service, said many of the staffers will not move and there is a small pool of people who are qualified to replace them.
“If we were to hire, say, 20% of all the agriculture economics PhDs on the market each year, it would still take us probably five to 10 years to get up to full staffing,” she said. She added that the agency would be competing against other federal agencies, land grant universities, nonprofits and corporations. And some positions are “extremely specialized”, with only a handful of qualified candidates in the country, she said.
So far, Dodson said her agency plans to cancel research projects on: rental housing in rural America, health insurance of farm households, glyphosate resistance of corn and soybeans, rural small business financial capital and healthier American diets.
The conservation and environment branch of the agency could see its numbers dwindle from 15 full-time PhDs to three, Dodson added.
An agency climate scientist will not be moving to the new office, she said. He recently published findings that taxpayers could be on the hook for significantly more spending on subsidizing crop insurance for farms as the climate crisis intensifies.
An employee with the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), who is choosing to retire early rather than move to Kansas City, said the move will hamstring the agency from identifying critical problems in agriculture and directing money to them.
“This is not what we planned when we joined NIFA,” the source said. “We still believe in our mission, we care for the people we work with but most of us have no stomach for USDA anymore.”
‘Continuous erosion of science’
At the EPA, administrator Andrew Wheeler – a former industry lobbyist – is enacting sweeping changes to which scientists the agency will consult and what research it will consider.
Under Trump, the agency dissolved an expert panel that provided advice on tiny particles of air pollution linked with earlier deaths and especially harmful for children, pregnant women and the elderly.
The EPA fired many of its science advisers, replacing them with researchers from Republican states and industry, rather than universities.
An independent government watchdog recently found the agency’s secret process for overhauling the committees ignored standard procedures.
Wheeler is also moving to prevent the EPA from considering key public health studies that don’t reveal their data, which is difficult for medical researchers for privacy reasons.
And the EPA is refusing to consider certain health benefits of rules to cut pollution when it weighs overall costs of proposals.
Wheeler is also changing how the agency releases public records through the Freedom of Information Act, giving political appointees more oversight of the process. Two environmental groups are suing over the change. Many have turned to the courts to force the EPA to hand over documents and internal records. The Environmental Defense Fund yesterday sued the agency for records on former administrator Scott Pruitt’s plans to debate the legitimacy of climate science.
“It’s the continuous erosion of science,” said Chris Zarba, the former director of EPA’s science advisory board staff. “I think it’s obvious that this, all of these changes, are all pointing in the same direction and that direction is to give special interests greater say. Science is getting in the way of what special interests want.”