Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion chooses ‘si­lence over science’. Sci­en­tists choose to speak out

Gov­ern­ment re­searchers urged to act to en­sure find­ings are pre­served. Jon Mar­cus re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

When a US gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist named Joel Cle­ment spoke at a United Na­tions con­fer­ence in June, his sub­ject was one that has be­come a light­ning rod in a po­lit­i­cally po­larised na­tion.

Mr Cle­ment read from a re­port that he had au­thored dur­ing the Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion: it chron­i­cled coastal ero­sion in the Arc­tic so se­vere that en­tire vil­lages in Alaska had al­ready cho­sen to pack up and re­lo­cate. That sit­u­a­tion re­sulted from the melt­ing of per­mafrost, which has af­fected schools and homes built over it and also led to a loss of wildlife habi­tat, all of which have forced the north­ern­most Amer­i­cans to be­come what Mr Cle­ment called refugees in their own coun­try.

Within days of his ad­dress, Mr Cle­ment was re­as­signed by Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion from his high-pro­file job as di­rec­tor of the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s Of­fice of Pol­icy Analysis to a po­si­tion as an ac­coun­tant in a branch of the agency that pro­cesses roy­al­ties paid by log­ging and fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies for leas­ing pub­lic land.

The in­tent of the shift, made by of­fi­cials of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has down­played the ef­fect of cli­mate change, was to com­pel him to quit, Mr Cle­ment said. In­stead, he spoke out pub­licly, writ­ing in The Wash­ing­ton Post that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has cho­sen “si­lence over science”.

It’s one of sev­eral ways in which US sci­en­tists are be­gin­ning to push back hard against pol­icy de­ci­sions in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that ap­pear to ig­nore science.

“More and more sci­en­tists are say­ing, ‘I just can’t sit back and hide in my lab and hope it will all pass,’” said An­drew Rosen­berg, di­rec­tor of the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists’ Cen­ter for Science and Democ­racy.

The cen­tre has be­gun a project to help safe­guard re­search sub­jected to po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence. The Science Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram en­cour­ages gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists to re­port any in­ter­fer­ence and to send their re­search through en­crypted chan­nels to be pre­served. It also of­fers free and con­fi­den­tial le­gal ad­vice.

Don’t know, won’t ask

That ef­fort, which Dr Rosen­berg de­scribed as tech­ni­cally po­lit­i­cally ag­nos­tic, is among a grow­ing num­ber of re­sponses to a Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tion that has dis­counted not only cli­mate science but also em­pir­i­cal con­clu­sions about such things as the dan­ger of pes­ti­cides.

“There’s an at­ti­tude in­side the [gov­ern­ment] agen­cies of, ‘If we want to know some­thing from you sci­en­tists, we’ll ask you,’” Dr Rosen­berg said. “The law says you can’t do that. The law says you’ll use the best avail­able science, not that you’ll find a con­ve­nient col­lec­tion of no­tions, facts and po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions.”

Yet so far, in sev­eral agen­cies whose newly ap­pointed lead­ers align with Mr Trump, that is ex­actly what has hap­pened. Ref­er­ences to cli­mate change have been stripped from gov­ern­ment web­sites, cuts have been pro­posed in fund­ing for cli­mate re­search, and a fed­eral ad­vi­sory panel on cli­mate change has been dis­solved.

Mr Cle­ment’s boss, Ryan Zinke, the sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior, said dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that the ex­tent to which cli­mate change was caused by hu­mans re­mained an open ques­tion, as did what might be done to ad­dress that. His depart­ment has asked the Na­tional Academies of Science to stop a study of the health ef­fects of a coal-min­ing tech­nique that the se­nior Demo­crat on the House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee said has been shown to cause lung can­cer, heart dis­ease and other med­i­cal prob­lems.

Scott Pruitt, the head of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, has halted a pro­posal to ban chlor­pyri­fos, a pes­ti­cide that agency sci­en­tists say af­fects peo­ple’s brains.

“The cul­ture and cli­mate in fed­eral agen­cies is re­ally dis­miss­ing sci- ence and sci­en­tists,” Dr Rosen­berg said. “Peo­ple are self-cen­sor­ing in even us­ing the term ‘cli­mate change’ be­cause they know that’s un­ac­cept­able and that some­one [who uses it] might be tar­geted and fired.”

Other sci­en­tific bod­ies that his­tor­i­cally have been apo­lit­i­cal are also step­ping into the breach. “Now is not the time to si­lence science,” the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Health As­so­ci­a­tion pro­nounced. The Amer­i­can Geo­phys­i­cal Union is part of a coali­tion work­ing to keep data find­able, ac­ces­si­ble, in­ter­op­er­a­ble and re­us­able, or FAIR. It is an “in­te­gral re­spon­si­bil­ity of sci­en­tists, data stew­ards and spon­sor­ing in­sti­tu­tions to en­sure the preser­va­tion of those data”, said Chris McEn­tee, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the AGU.

The Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil is su­ing over the chlor­pyri­fos de­ci­sion. And the Cen­ter for Science and Democ­racy has be­gun rais­ing cash for a Sci­en­tists Pro­tec­tion Fund to de­fend sci­en­tists who speak out.

“There are some peo­ple who might say sci­en­tists should hold them­selves apart as if we’re all monks and nuns. I think we’re be­yond that,” Dr Rosen­berg said.

He also ac­knowl­edged the frus­trat­ing, fore­head-slap­ping na­ture of this work.

“I have a big bruise on my fore­head from do­ing that ev­ery day,” Dr Rosen­berg said. “It’s re­mark­able to me that we even have to have these con­ver­sa­tions. Never in my wildest imag­i­na­tion did I think I’d have to make the case that we should base de­ci­sions on what we ac­tu­ally know.”

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