Trump tactically eroding science
WASHINGTON - In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts said, could reverberate for years.
Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Donald Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.
But the erosion of science reaches well beyond the environment and climate: In San Francisco, a study of the effects of chemicals on pregnant women has stalled after federal funding abruptly ended. In Washington, D.C., a scientific committee that provided expertise in defending against invasive insects has been disbanded. In Kansas City, Missouri, the hasty relocation of two agricultural agencies that fund crop science and study the economics of farming has led to an exodus of employees and delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in research.
Hundreds of scientists, many of whom said they are dismayed at seeing their work undone, are departing.
Trump has consistently said that government regulations have stifled businesses and thwarted some of the administration’s core goals, such as increasing fossil fuel production. Many of the starkest confrontations with federal scientists have involved issues like environmental oversight and energy extraction - areas where industry groups have argued that regulators have gone too far.
“Businesses are finally being freed of Washington’s overreach, and the American economy is flourishing as a result,” a White House statement said last year. Asked about the role of science in policymaking, officials from the White House declined to comment on the record.
The administration’s efforts to cut certain research projects also reflect a long-standing conservative position that some scientific work can be performed cost-effectively by the private sector, and taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill.
In some cases, the administration’s efforts to roll back government science have been thwarted. Each year, Trump has proposed sweeping budget cuts at a variety of federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. But Congress has the final say over budget levels, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have rejected the cuts.
As a result, many science programs continue to thrive, including space exploration at NASA and medical research at the National Institutes of Health, where the budget has increased more than 12% since Trump took office.
Nevertheless, in other areas, the administration has managed to chip away at federal science.
At the EPA, for instance, staffing has fallen to its lowest levels in at least a decade. More than two-thirds of respondents to a survey of federal scientists across 16 agencies said that hiring freezes and departures made it harder to conduct scientific work.
At a time when the United States is pulling back from world leadership in other areas like human rights or diplomatic accords, experts warn that the retreat from science is no less significant. Many of the achievements of the past century that helped make the United States an envied global power - including gains in life expectancy, lowered air pollution and increased farm productivity - are the result of the kinds of government research now under pressure.
Skirmishes over the use of science in making policy occur in all administrations: Industries routinely push back against health studies that could justify stricter pollution rules, for example. And scientists often gripe about inadequate budgets for their work. But many experts said that current efforts to challenge research findings go well beyond what has been done previously.
This year, for instance, the National Park Service’s principal climate change scientist, Patrick Gonzalez, received a “cease and desist” letter from supervisors after testifying to Congress about the risks that global warming posed to national parks.
“I saw it as attempted intimidation,” said Gonzalez, who added that he was speaking in his capacity as an associate adjunct professor at the University California, Berkeley, a position he also holds. “It’s interference with science and hinders our work.”