Science Under Siege

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith speaks on Capitol Hill. 

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

The HONEST Act may be one of the most perversely named pieces of legislation ever. Sponsored by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee and one of the most fervent climate-science deniers in Congress, the acronym stands for Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment. Smith, who is retiring this year, attempted to get the legislation through Congress in the past two sessions. Both times, it barely passed the House and failed in the Senate. That would usually be the end of it, but in line with the Trump playbook, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, announced he would issue most of the “HONEST” agenda as a proposed rule retitled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.”

The proposed “HONEST” rule sounds ever so reasonable. It would require that EPA’s scientific decisions rely only on research where all the data are transparent and available for public view. The problem is that the definition of transparency cripples much of the ability to regulate. The EPA would be prohibited from using critical epidemiological studies of human subjects because access to the data would violate the privacy of those in the study. Under the rule, the EPA could hypothetically decide that air pollution causes no death or illness because the major studies that proved it already could not be used as evidence.

Despite the opposition of dozens of medical and science organizations, the new rule could go into effect soon. Pruitt, in fact, made it even more extreme than the original legislation by inserting language that would lower the threshold at which the EPA could limit doses of radiation and some dangerous toxins. That policy emanates from the highly controversial views of University of Massachusetts Amherst toxicologist Edward Calabrese that a little bit of some poisons may be good for us. Calabrese often remarks that we live in a “radiation-deficient environment.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines science as “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.” This hardly describes the type of thinking most congenial to the man now sitting in the Oval Office, who is barely able to utter a few words by mouth or tweet without lying. Donald Trump himself clearly cares or knows little about science. His tweet this past summer, for example, that water that could be used to fight wildfires in California was being diverted into the Pacific Ocean, displayed profound confusion and ignorance. But many professionals in the conservative think tanks that influence his policies understand science well. Starting from the days of fending off regulation of tobacco in the 1950s, the scientists employed by industry and right-wing think tanks have been working to find clever ploys such as the HONEST Act to sow doubt about science and undermine it to protect industry profits.

From the perspective of business, the most important policy choices center, as they have for generations, on where to draw the line on government regulations that seek to limit harm to public health and the environment from toxins, pollutants, and other hazards. Even before his inauguration, Trump signaled his intentions on those policies by appointing officials to regulatory agencies who have long vowed to undo the agencies’ rules. Unsurprisingly, Trump has issued orders to allow increased use of asbestos, to open ever more public lands to mining and logging, to weaken enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and to halt a consumer-friendly update of food nutritional labels. The administration has cut off funding entirely for a planned study by the National Academy of Sciences of the health effects of mountaintop mining and another of the health effects of oil drilling in the Arctic. It has been stuffing scientific advisory bodies, especially at the EPA, with more industry-friendly scientists. This list grows by the week. In many cases, trade associations or corporations have not only lobbied for the regulatory rollbacks but written the newly relaxed rules.

To satisfy the Republican base, a recent draft strategic plan from the Department of Health and Human Services defines human life as “beginning at conception.” Vice President Mike Pence has voiced his doubts about Darwin’s theories, while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family generously support organizations that oppose teaching evolution in schools. Trump has repeatedly shouted his support for the National Rifle Association and its long-standing opposition to studying the public health effects of gun violence.

Human-induced climate change, the major environmental concern of our time, has been the target of Trump’s most savage assaults on science. As has been widely reported, his administration scrubbed mention of climate change from most government websites and documents and prohibited scientists in federal agencies from discussing the subject at public meetings. The administration is also in the process of withdrawing Obama-era restrictions on emissions from power plants and trying to roll back the ability of states to impose tighter restrictions on auto emissions standards. It has transferred several scientists at the Department of Interior away from climate-related research.

Make no mistake: These actions are despicable. Some will cost lives and degrade the environment. But, for now, despite all of Trump’s bluster and the marches and petitions from scientists protesting “the war on science,” the scientific enterprise is not just surviving—it is vibrant. To be sure, the potential for future mischief remains vast—“a scary situation,” as Neal Lane, science adviser to President Bill Clinton, puts it. So the questions are, how have scientists been coping with the pressures from the Trump administration? And what is the risk to science of real and lasting harm?

 

LET’S START WITH GOVERNMENT funding. Science as a whole has never had more support than it has right now, but even before Trump, the federal share of total funding for basic science was on the decline. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government provided more than 70 percent of the money for basic science, but by 2015 that proportion was down to 44 percent, as private funds grew more rapidly. If Trump had had his way, federal money would have fallen in absolute terms. In his first budget, he asked for huge cuts to many agencies with science components, including the EPA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of the Interior. It added up to a 4.6 percent reduction in R&D overall. Congress replied with the bureaucratic equivalent of laughter. It restored it all and added more. There is both massive popular support for most of the scientific work of these agencies and enough pork in most districts to make members of Congress allergic to cuts. Trump’s 2019 budget includes an overall 4.1 percent increase in R&D.

“Viewed from many perspectives, the science enterprise is flourishing,” Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former Democratic congressman, told me. “The quality of the research and the papers coming to our journals is terrific.”

Hundreds of thousands of scientists, almost all civil servants, inside the federal government and many more on the outside with government support, continue their work unimpeded. This pattern of continuity might not be surprising at NIH, which carries out the basic research to cure disease, including helping pharmaceutical companies find new drugs. Nor might it be surprising at the CDC, which is our primary defense against epidemics. The protected position of basic research supported by the NSFmight not be unexpected either.

But according to dozens of others I spoke to, continuity prevails even in climate science. For example, I asked Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, one of the world’s top climate scientists, whether the quality and quantity of climate research in the United States has changed since Trump assumed office. “Not yet,” he said. “The only changes are within agencies as they shift science priorities to avoid angering Trump. Thus, there has been some relabeling programs to avoid using the word ‘climate’ and some shifts out of climate-related activity but nothing cataclysmic ... yet.”

As those comments reveal, fear is pervasive, stemming from unknowable future budgets and policies and because of the administration’s actions so far.

Recently, the EPA ruled that all grants of $100,000 or more must be approved by a political appointee. The EPA, however, awards a tiny number of grants compared with NIH, NSF, and many other agencies. Republicans over the years have made noises about getting involved in the granting process, especially for the social sciences, but so far have refrained from interfering. It is a good bet that if the administration inserted politics into the study sections of the big agencies that award many grants, it would arouse a response even from the current Congress.

Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a liberal pro-science group, together with researchers from Iowa State University sent anonymous surveys to scientists working at 16 federal government agencies. Of the more than 63,000 contacted, 4,211 responded. Although some said that political appointees were making their jobs more difficult, the numbers who said so ranged from fewer than 5 percent at the FDA to just over 20 percent at the EPA.

“Of course, we can never measure how much self-censorship there is,” Jacob Carter, head of the project at UCS, told me. There is no disputing that. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the vast majority of the thousands of scientists employed by the federal government, most of them civil servants, are continuing to do their jobs as before.

“That’s why we have a civil service,” says Andrew Rosenberg of UCS and a former top scientist at NOAA. “Enormous amounts of work need to be done, and [that work] is getting done.”

The vast majority responding to the survey in all the agencies agreed that the agency continued to adhere to its scientific integrity policy but complained of a lack of resources. The problem, according to Rosenberg, is that cutbacks in hiring and the perception of Trump as anti-science are impeding recruitment. “We are deterring the next generation of bright young scientists from careers in government, and that will hurt in the long run.”

In contemplating the future of the scientific enterprise, it is important to keep in mind that what Trump is doing for the most part is rolling back Obama-era regulations. Republican members of Congress are not standing up to Trump’s directives, but they evidence little desire to legislate away years of progress in science and environmental policy. The House did pass the HONEST Act, but it was a symbolic gesture since its future death in the Senate was assured.

Some laws such as the Endangered Species Act leave significant discretion about enforcement to the agency in charge. In those cases, a president’s executive orders and other directives, including memoranda and proclamations, can make a big difference quickly. But many of Trump’s declarations will face months or years in court before they are carried out—if they ever are.

For example, soon after Trump’s election, the auto industry asked for a rollback in fuel efficiency standards. But in their Trumpian zeal, administration officials lowered the standards so drastically that even the industry asked for changes. In accord with federal law, California sets its own fuel efficiency standards. Other states can and often do follow. California wanted no parts of the latest administration proposals, and the industry wants definite standards, presumably to help with long-term planning.

“What happens next with federal or California standards is not clear,” says David Friedman, a vice president at Consumer Reports who served as acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Obama administration. “What we are looking at now is a mess that will result in court battles not likely to be resolved for years.”

 

MUCH OF WHAT WILL HAPPEN with science next depends on the budget. Congress is still funding all of government on a continuing resolution in an era when there is little agreement on anything. The deficit created by the Trump tax bill will inevitably squeeze all non-defense discretionary funding, including research.

Beyond the budgetary concerns, will the HHSdirection on life beginning at conception lead to restriction on research about birth defects and contraception, let alone abortion? How many toxins will spill if drilling and mining are resumed in response to presidential directives? During the 2016 campaign, Trump supported the discredited idea that childhood vaccines increase the risk of autism. He even talked about setting up a commission to investigate the effects of vaccines on autism, but has done nothing. Where he will go next with all kinds of science is no more clear than any of his thought patterns.

After an 18-month delay and much complaint from the scientific community, Trump named a science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, an expert on severe weather who enjoys wide backing from top scientists and has extensive experience in Washington. How much Trump will listen to him remains to be seen. A Democratic House majority next year could apply brakes to many of Trump’s science and environmental policies.

Holt, a nuclear physicist who has gone from Congress to head the world’s largest scientific organization, told me he saw a time coming soon of “a renewed appreciation of the search for truth” through greater public understanding of science. That sounds like the optimistic view of someone whose job it is to defend and promote science, but perhaps one can find a grain of truth there.

Consider the situation of the right-wing climate-change deniers. In early August, members of the Heartland Institute, one of the strongest climate change–denying think tanks, met in New Orleans for their second “America First” conference. While the group “had every reason to celebrate the unprecedented influence they enjoy in the Trump administration,” reported the publication InsideClimate News, “they found plenty of reasons for dread.”

“With carbon tax proposals floating, climate lawsuits advancing, big corporations embracing the need for action and states and cities getting into the act, many of those gathered grappled with the reality that a fossil future was not secure—despite a largely pliant White House and Congress.”

Trump and other denialists increasingly look as stupid and scandalous as tobacco company executives denying under oath in 1994 that nicotine is addictive. As a result, the future is likely to bring increasing defections from the denialist camp. Jim Bridenstine, the new administrator of NASA, which conducts enormous amounts of climate science, was an activist climate-science denier as a congressman from Oklahoma. But in May, he said his thinking has “evolved.”

“I don’t deny the consensus. In fact, I believe fully in climate change and that we human beings are contributing to it in a major way,” he told NASA workers during a televised conference. Perhaps Bridenstine sees a future for himself in a post-Trump administration.

The attitudes of the young also don’t offer much encouragement for the denialists. A March Pew survey found 53 percent of the U.S. population believes that human activity is warming the planet, but among millennials that number jumps to 65 percent.

In the chaos of the 2016 election, science and environment got scant notice. But many people, especially younger ones, could well base much of their vote on those issues in 2018 and 2020, especially with record heat waves almost daily and constantly rising coastal waters. Surveys show continuing high regard for most aspects of the scientific enterprise. Its resiliency seems assured for now, but there is little doubt that Trump and his cronies will continue attempting to degrade the environment and threaten public health in the defense of profit as long as they hold office.  

 

 

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