Space & Innovation

Don't Politicize Government Research, Says Union of Concerned Scientists

Facing attacks from the Trump administration on the integrity of government science, the organization has put forward guidelines for upholding scientific standards.

Concerned that a Trump administration could walk back federal protections on scientific integrity established over the past eight years, prominent scientists are mobilizing their colleagues in defense of facts-based public policies.

"We are living in a unique moment in time," said Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists. With several agency heads in apparent opposition to the mission of the agency they've been appointed to lead, Goldman said, "[it] has never been more urgent than it is now for us to fight to make sure that science is informing policy decisions."

Goldman and other members of the UCS have put forward guidelines for protecting scientific integrity during the Trump administration. They urge the White House to recognize the value of federal scientists and the importance of science-based policies, while encouraging more collaboration between scientists and decision makers. Their recommendations appear in an article published today in Science.

The authors offer examples of how the health, well being and safety of Americans were compromised by past public policies - Democratic and Republican - that knowingly diverged from scientific findings.

Following a 2010 memorandum from presidential science advisor John Holdren, under orders from President Obama, 24 federal agencies and departments have implemented science integrity policies aimed at safeguarding the federal bureaucracy against political interference in science ­- all agency reports must be reviewed and authorized by the authoring federal scientist, for example, not political appointees.

These specific policies, according to Goldman, came in direct response to the unprecedented levels of scientific interference that occurred during the administration of George W. Bush. In 2002, fact-based information about the efficacy of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS on the Center for Disease Control's website, for example, was replaced with a document emphasizing condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.

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In 2008 the head of the Department of the Interior doctored the official grouse population in order to remove the bird's protected status and keep their habitat open for oil and gas development.

Under Obama, however, there were also notable moments of scientific interference. In 2011, for example, Health and Human Services director Kathleen Sebelius shot down the recommendation from Food and Drug Administration scientists that emergency contraceptives be made available over-the-counter for all ages. Last year, documents revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency had downplayed the risks of fracking to drinking water.

The administration of George W. Bush was seen as particularly "adversarial to science" on a number of fronts, specifically in the realm of stem cell research and climate change, according to Gordon Gauchat, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee who studies the politicization of science.

"Conservative administrations tend to be more critical of federal spending on science," he said. "With Trump, we might be seeing an acceleration of these tendencies and a willingness to add new science controversies to the mix."

Shortly after Trump was sworn in, departments were ordered to freeze communication with the press and through social media. Goldman described federal scientists as "spooked," adding that no previous administration had issued such a widespread of long-term freeze on agency communications.

The EPA, for example, an agency that Trump has said he would like to eliminate, has not issued a single Tweet or Facebook post since the inauguration. On Thursday, sources inside the agency have told Reuters that they were advised to prepare for a handful of executive orders that would reshape the agency.

Considering such actions, and worrying that current whistleblowing guidelines may not be respected by the current administration, the Union for Concerned Scientists has also set up a webpage with instructions on how federal scientists can safely report abuses. Former EPA employees - seldom involved in political demonstrations - have also rallied to defend the agency's work and denounce former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the nominated head of the agency.

While Trump may present a unique threat to the agencies that shape science-based policy in the United States, Israeli political science professor Yaron Ezrahi says this is the latest affront in a series of demotions of science and the scientific community in the country's policy-making process.

"It has reached its dramatic climax in the campaign and style of government of Donald Trump," said Ezrahi, who has spent the better part of his career studying the role of science in modern political systems. "But the process of the decline of science in American culture is already a matter of 40 or 50 years."

If Trump intends to "make America great again" with powerful weapons systems and cutting-edge technology, Ezrahi said, he has continued to delegitimize the country's scientific culture.

"Science is based on organized skepticism and the questioning of dogmas so that one can have new knowledge and insight," he said. "But when the skeptic becomes an enemy, when investigative reporters are bashed by a president, it is another pillar of scientific culture that is falling."

Trump may value science as a source of power, but not as a tool for public policy, he added. "A successful business is a business based on science - but in this case, science is at the service of capitalism, not democracy."

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But Ezranhi and Goldman are both optimistic that the current political climate could serve to mobilize the scientific community. In fact, Goldman's final suggestion for protecting scientific integrity is directed not at the Trump administration, but at the scientific community itself, urging scientists to take responsibility for better communicating the importance of its work.

She has reason to believe that the scientific community will rise to the occasion.

"This is a level of engagement [by scientist] that we haven't seen before," said Goldman, who is working to get scientists across the country into town hall meetings, to write letters to the editor and to call their own meetings with local officials.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a partner on the March for Science, slated for April 22 in Washington, and will participate in the Climate March, scheduled for the following weekend.

"I think this has been a wake up call to the scientific community that we can't expect society to respect science without our help."

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