Picture of Emily Marquez

Emily Marquez

These are dark days for science

I try to be optimistic, but the past year hasn’t been a great one for science.

The “war on science” you hear people talking about? It’s real, and we’re already seeing its results. Without input from researchers on the leading edge of science, policymakers are less equipped to make informed decisions — and it’s easier for industry lobbyists to get their way.

Vacant posts, less advice

The numbers tell the story well. The Trump administration has filled only 20 of 83 top scientific posts as of the end of 2017, far fewer than the Obama or G.W. Bush administrations at the same point (63 and 51, respectively). The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has shrunk from 135 staffers under Obama to 45 under Trump. Most of the current OSTP staffers don’t even have backgrounds in science.

Meanwhile, scientific advisory panels have been sidelined. According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), advisory committees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy and Department of the Interior (DOI) met less often in 2017 than at any time since 1997 — which is when the government began tracking these meetings. Just over 200 of the approximately 1,000 existing federal advisory committees across 24 agencies are scientific or technical, and UCS found that dozens of scientific advisory committees actually met less often than their charters directed in 2017.

Then there’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a man who apparently doesn’t want the agency to have any regulatory authority at all, and has repeatedly ignored recommendations of his own scientists. Pruitt recently banned advisors who receive EPA grants from serving on scientific advisory boards — industry scientists have always served on these panels, but with this change, the balance will be shifted towards a stronger industry presence.

We know that the “funding effect” has been observed across fields (e.g., pharmaceuticals, nutrition, tobacco, biotechnology), and that this can influence the outcome of research. I’m of the opinion that industry scientist-heavy advisory committees are not a good trend.

Scientists under attack

Individual scientists and scientific agencies are under attack as well. Last month, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Representative Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) asked Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, because of a PLoS Biology editorial she co-authored. The piece discussed barriers to health-protective policy, and after examining several peer-reviewed studies of federal toxics regulation concludes that:

  Closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence.”

Representatives Smith and Biggs are concerned because Dr. Birnbaum (who didn’t receive any funding to write the editorial and didn’t make any policy recommendations in the piece) may be “encourag[ing] citizens to petition government officials” — and thus lobbying. They’d like HHS to consider a full-scale review, and they want to conduct their own review in the committee too. Excuse me, but yuck.

In addition, Representative Smith conducted a committee hearing this week on the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in a clear attempt to discredit and defund the agency. Dr. Jennifer Sass, a colleague at the Natural Resources Defense Council, did an amazing job representing the public interest as the only non-industry scientist on the panel.

IARC has become a target for Representative Smith since the agency’s 2015 determination that the herbicide glyphosate was a “probable” carcinogen. According to a document recently released as part of litigation, Monsanto — the maker of glyphosate-based RoundUp — had a hand in orchestrating the attacks on IARC.

Keep on trackin’

Public access to scientific information is being undermined too. The new Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI) has been relentlessly tracking changes in agency web content under this administration. There’s also the Silencing Science Tracker, a joint project from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

In their most recent report on changes to climate change data on federal websites, EDGI found that:

These changes are limiting the public’s access to information, much of which is information from taxpayer-funded research on science or policy. Access to this kind of data is increasingly important as state, local, and tribal governments work to address the impacts of climate change.

I have to say, it wasn’t all roses before the Trump administration was in power. Anti-science bills have been introduced and re-introduced over the years. Dr. Birnbaum was attacked by the House Science Committee back in 2013, over comments she wrote about endocrine-disrupting compounds.

But in the current climate I’m very glad we have groups like EDGI and UCS watchdogging these issues.

Will science survive?

Yes, it will. One good thing about the large number of Ph.D.’s in science is that there are just a LOT of scientists — people who have been trained to think critically, and who much of the time are very good at it. There are too many scientists around for science and scientific thinking to just peter out.

But science shouldn’t merely survive. It should thrive, and it should help us make smart policy decisions.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: the public is more aware that politics affects science, and that science is political — because of these very clear attacks on science. The ultimate outcome? It’s hard to know. But I hope that it leads to more civic engagement, like Dr. Birnbaum called for in her PLoS Biology piece.

Photo: Joe Brusky | Flickr

Picture of Emily Marquez

Emily Marquez

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