The Trump administration’s order that all presentations and publications by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency be vetted by political appointees before their release to the public sent a shot of pain down my neck.
Doug Ericksen, the EPA’s communications director during the transition, explained the policy in a Jan. 24 NPR interview. “We’ll take a look at what’s happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that’s going to reflect the new administration,” Ericksen said.
Whenever a government agency conducts research and publishes the data, I think of the results as quality … with an agenda. I wonder which parts of a study were left on the cutting room floor, what laws may have stopped an agency short of coming to more damning conclusions, and whether there were any questions the researchers weren’t allowed to explore due to political policy. To balance this out, I look at data from watchdog groups and non-government sources.
But Ericksen’s words, combined with Trump’s pledge to abolish the EPA — or just leave a “little” bit behind — really freaked me out. This is a far more explicit and aggressive attempt by politicians to control science. Can I trust the EPA under Trump?
The answer I got back from members of the Pioneer Valley science community were all along the same line: Sure, why not?
It seems that fears about the fate of the EPA have been a bit overblown. It’s not like this is the first time a government science agency has had all its work put under political review. It’s not even the first time the EPA has had to deal with this exact same attempt at politicizing science.
Under President George W. Bush, seven agencies, including the EPA and NASA, had their reports censored by government officials. Scientists were put under gag orders and warned not to use terms like “global warming” in their reports.
And Obama did it, too.
“Under the previous administration, USGS [the U.S. Geological Survey] scientists, for example, had to have their publications cleared through an internal vetting process before they could be submitted to scientific journals and be peer-reviewed,” said John McDonald, Jr., interim chair of the environmental science department at Westfield State University.
The data produced by the EPA will continue to be conducted by dedicated environmental scientists employed by the agency. The raw data will be fine.
The press releases and executive summaries of the research, however, may shape the information to fit an agenda, noted Alexander Barron, Smith College professor of environmental science and policy.
“They can misrepresent scientific information to suit a situation or they can sit on reports, delete or remove publications and fund science based on politics instead of what the public wants,” he said.
People shouldn’t worry about the data so much as they should worry about whether good research can be conducted at all. One of the prime ways governments leave their political grease on academics is by funding some research focuses over others. For example, Trump may invest EPA money in “clean coal” research, said Jack Finn, a UMass Amherst professor of environmental conservation.
“The simplest way for the EPA to be controlled, besides eliminating it, would be to change where the funding goes,” Finn said. “Avoiding studies on climate change and pollution effects on human and ecosystem health would allow policy makers to plead ignorance about these topics.”
And as far as Trump abolishing the EPA except for the little bits: that would be near impossible — at least in the immediate future. The EPA is charged with enforcing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Superfund program, among other laws that can’t just be scrapped on a whim. The Trump administration could try to place the responsibility of enforcing these laws on the state, which is a diabolical and real possibility — a patchwork of environmental standards isn’t an effective way to protect the nation’s land, air, water, and food.
Science is under pressure and in danger of losing funding under Trump, who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax. Politicians trying to horn in on reality to make it fit their own narratives is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it right.
Trump may not be the first president to want to control the scientific message of government researchers, but he’s being the loudest about it. Perhaps that is one thing to appreciate about the president — he lays out his agenda with all the subtlety of a 2 a.m. text to an ex. He blunders and blurts and whips up ire with his ham-fisted attempts at change issued without diplomacy — the actions of an old tyrant. And it’s woken many of us up to what is happening to the scientific process in America.
On April 22, national organizers are planning a March for Science on Washington, D.C., with sister marches in other major cities in the U.S. and around the globe, a la the Women’s March. Organizers explain the need for the event on the website, marchforscience.com: “Mischaracterized of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
If you can’t make a march, or just don’t want to go, but still want to support science, follow the hashtag #marchforscience.
Contact Kristin Palpini at firstname.lastname@example.org.