Over a decade ago, George W. Bush’s presidency attracted plenty of attention for charges that it had all-too-often mistreated scientific information. By the middle Bush years, reports were rampant that the administration had presented inaccurate or incomplete information on issues such as climate change and stem cell research, edited scientific reports to skew their contents, or had prevented scientists on the government payroll from speaking with the media about their findings and knowledge.
These problems didn’t appear immediately — they snowballed over the course of the Bush administration. By contrast, in the Trump administration, concerns about the treatment of science have emerged in just days, especially at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump administration officials are exerting more control over the agency’s outward communications, according to multiple reports, including those by the Washington Post. Scientists have been alarmed by these moves, as well as the overall tenor of the administration on scientific issues like climate change (Trump has not yet appointed a White House science adviser) and some are even now planning a march on Washington, D.C.
Yet we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves here. There has been no specific claim of an Environmental Protection Agency scientist being prevented from communicating or accurately conveying information to the public (yet). There is also reason to think that what’s happening now may only be temporary, and attributable to the transition that’s currently happening, rather than representing a permanent new setting for the science-politics relationship in government.
But if it turns out that the scientific community’s worst fears are realized, it’s important to recognize that they will also have more tools to counter politicization today than they did a decade ago.
The first such tool is the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which “now provides protections for scientists who are being pressured to either change their results or downplay them or manipulate them in some way. So you essentially can’t do that,” explains Louis Clark, chief executive and director of the Government Accountability Project, an advocacy group that works to protect whistleblowers.
The group in fact just released a case study of one of the most famous examples of a politics-and-science clash during the Bush administration — namely, one involving the National Climate Assessment, a federal report that assesses the impact of climate change in the United States, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the federal body that produces it. Attempts to remove or minimize mentions of the document including in other climate program reports, were exposed by the late Rick Piltz, a federal whistleblower who had worked at the Global Change Research Program until he departed in 2005, in the process sharing, with the press, copies of documents that he said had been edited by the Bush White House. Piltz’s revelations ultimately led to a major article in the New York Times with the headline, “Bush aides softened greenhouse gas links to global warming.”
Piltz dubbed the undermining of the National Climate Assessment the “central climate science scandal” that occurred during the Bush years. When it came to edits of one federal climate science program report, Piltz charged that “taken in the aggregate, the changes had a cumulative effect of shifting the tone and content of an already quite cautiously worded draft to create an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty about climate change and its implications.”
The Government Accountability Project report calls what happened with the Bush Global Change Research Program a “cautionary tale” and suggests that similar things couldn’t happen so easily today.
“Agencies cannot pass rules or regulations that will restrict federal employees about speaking out about what they consider to be abuses of authority or illegal actions, or public health and safety issues,” Clark said, citing the 2012 enhanced whistleblower act. “The agencies themselves cannot pass rules restricting the ability of federal employees to raise those concerns…So it’s pretty well established that it’s a new day in terms of the ability of federal employees and scientists and engineers and the like to be able to speak out. All those things were not in place when Bush was president.”
And that’s not the only tool favoring scientists in any conflict with political appointees that may ensue in the science-focused agencies of the federal government.
The second reason scientists may be in a better position to resist politicization is a government-wide institution of scientific integrity policies adopted during the Obama years. For instance, politically vetting the communications of EPA scientists would likely violate that agency’s 2012 policy, which “facilitates the free flow of scientific information” and “prohibits all EPA employees, including scientists, managers, and other Agency leadership, from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions.”
That policy also says that scientists should “be available to answer inquiries from the news media regarding their scientific work.”
For now, this scientific integrity policy remains operational. And while it certainly may be tested, undoing it entirely is likely to bring new controversy.
“Let’s be clear that if removed that would be an explicit statement that the integrity of the science was not to be respected, that no safeguards will be in place against political manipulation of scientific evidence in this administration,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But the third and perhaps most important reason has nothing to do with the law or policy, and has everything to do with mindsets in the scientific community itself.
Scientist marches on Washington, creation of alternative Twitter accounts, legal defense funds, and much more — these are signs of a much more engaged, and politically realistic, scientific community than the relatively reticent one that existed in George W. Bush’s day. This is the consequence of scientists experimenting for more than a decade with blogging and social media, of their focus on scientific communications to the public, and of their growing awareness of political attacks on science and the need to counter them.
In this context, it is far more likely that any scientist who feels the need to speak out will find a ready support structure, both within the community and also in social media — including legal aid if necessary. In other words, researchers have more protections, but they also are better networked and have more social support. Both are crucial.
So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, it certainly remains to be seen. But if the Trump administration tries to prevent scientists from sharing information, or to alter or remove such information, the response is likely to be more bold and amplified.
More from Energy and Environment: