'He's Created a Culture of Fear': How Trump Has Politicized Science in an Unprecedented Way

The Trump administration is undermining scientists by disparaging the scientific process, says Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Author:
Publish date:
Updated on
President Donald Trump speaks before signing a memorandum on increasing access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the Oval Office of the White House on September 25th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump speaks before signing a memorandum on increasing access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the Oval Office of the White House on September 25th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

During last week's State of the Union address, President Donald Trump took time to celebrate the United States' production of fossil fuels. "We have unleashed a revolution in American energy," Trump said, noting that "the United States is now the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world."

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Trump would take pride in presiding over such an astonishing contribution to climate change. Trump has been spouting off against climate science for years, and his administration has been dutifully operating from this grim denialist premise since his inauguration, through actions like barring scientists from advising the Environmental Protection Agency and banning the phrase "climate change" within federal agencies.

This administration has driven a rapid and unprecedented wedge between science and policy—and the damage could prove to be lasting, says Gretchen Goldman, who directs research on the relationship between science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Goldman recently spoke with Pacific Standard about the erosion of scientific integrity in the government, the effects of the government shutdown on federal scientists, and what Congress can do under a climate-skeptical president to save science.

Ideas Page Break

Has the White House's relationship with scientists changed between this presidency and the last?

Up until the Trump administration, we mostly saw presidents have respect for process. They would follow the appropriate process that included being informed by science, but then they would manipulate the science within the process to justify their political positions; examples would be like interfering with a report that's coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency and talking about climate change, editing the report, editing the press release to match the policy goal you have. That's the kind of thing we saw a lot of under the Bush administration. We saw a little bit of that under the Obama administration.

The Trump administration is actually disparaging the process. They're not worrying about whether or not the science backs up their public position at all. A good example of that: The National Climate Assessment is something that we might see get tampered with under a previous administration. But the Trump administration just let it come out completely untouched—which is great. It came out, it's solid science, it's from a whole slew of agencies, and that's great. But then he just disparages it on Twitter and finds other ways to not take seriously the recommendations of the report and then the threat of climate change more broadly.

There's not as much concern about whether or not you're following the appropriate process, or what the optics are of doing that, whereas past administrations would try to make it look like they were following the science or following process. It's a different dimension to the problem.

Gretchen Goldman.

Gretchen Goldman.

Has that been having tangible effects?

It's certainly having tangible effects on government scientists, because they're seeing that happen. They're seeing they're working hard on a report, and then seeing the president openly disparage it and not take it seriously. So that's very demoralizing. We did a survey in the summer and showed that federal scientists do feel demoralized. And then, more concerningly, we also saw on that survey that a really high number of scientists had reported censorship around climate change. They were either told directly to not work on climate change or not use the word "climate change" in their work. And then, disturbingly, we saw a lot of scientists that said they weren't directly told, but they had been choosing not to talk about climate change or work on it.

And that's really concerning to me, and one thing that I think is a bigger problem under the Trump administration is that self-censorship. He's created a culture of fear, partially because he can just simply attack things and people on Twitter. So I think that sends a message to people about what they should work on, and what the risks are working on a politically contentious topic like climate change. I think that that's having a tremendous chilling effect on those in the government, and will ultimately have a huge impact on our nation's ability to address climate change.

They're self-censoring for fear of losing their jobs, or for fear of their research not being published, or what?

It's hard to know. We know there is fear of retaliation, so the idea of being targeted by the administration—"If we talk about climate, is Congress going to try to cut our funding, or is the president going to earmark our program to be eliminated?" I think it's fear of that. The thought is sort of, "OK, if we keep our head down, and we just quietly do our work, maybe they won't notice and we can continue to do things."

I should be clear: It's fine, of course, for administrations to have different policy priorities and to redirect stuff. And that's something we would expect under any administration. But what they should not be doing is shutting down projects and programs abruptly and suppressing scientific information that's coming from federal agencies. And that's unfortunately some of what we're seeing under the Trump administration.

It's been hard, recently, to think about federal science without thinking about the harm that the government shutdown has caused. What effect has the shutdown had on the scientific community?

In the long term, it has a huge impact on the morale of federal scientists, and that's going to affect recruitment and retention. We need smart people to go into government service to be working on some of the tough problems that our nation faces, like climate change, like security issues, like agricultural systems. And it's going to be harder for the government to recruit the best and the brightest if there are shutdowns frequently happening, if scientific work is being disparaged by the administration.

I think of the shutdown as adding to several factors under this administration that are hurting the ability of federal scientists to do their job. And that will have long-term impacts on the public health and safety of Americans—because we need these people to be on the inside and working to solve these problems and doing good work.

How does the exclusion of science within federal agencies affect their ability to regulate?

I'm really worried about the impact of corporate capture of federal agencies, because this has a really big impact on the way that policies do or don't happen coming out of the agencies. And we've seen that in the past, even before the Trump administration. The best examples are some of the cases of this happening at the Food and Drug Administration. There's a revolving door of people that go between the agency and the pharmaceutical companies. And that affects how effective the agency can be in regulating drugs. One recent example is the opioid epidemic. Part of the reason for the huge explosion of the opioid prescriptions was due to language that was in what the FDA regulates about the product of Oxycontin. And the person who signed off on that at the FDA went to go work for a pharmaceutical agency afterwards. That's a recent example of one.

But we've seen this time and again in other cases. Right now, at the EPA, a woman named Nancy Beck—who worked for years for the American Chemistry Council, which is the chemical manufacturer industry lobby—she's now writing the rules about chemicals in consumer products. And so that's going to have a huge impact on how effective that law can be if we allow those with obvious conflicts of interest, with obvious connections to companies that have a direct stake in the outcome of all policy, to be the ones writing the policy. It's very clearly the fox guarding the henhouse, and it's going to hurt people.

 Is there a way to undo these long-term effects of the industry-lobby creep into federal agencies?

We periodically survey government scientists. On our 2015 survey, well into the Obama administration, a scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that, even though we're in the Obama administration, a lot of our treatment of science is as if we're still in the Bush administration—because there were people that got hired under them that were essentially political people that burrowed into the agency and are now running the show, even though we're not operating under that administration. I thought that was hugely alarming, that, even at the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is somewhere you'd think wouldn't be a place where there was a lot of politicals implanted. Even in 2015, well after the end of the George W. Bush administration, we still heard from scientists that the political influence was the problem. I think that is a bigger problem that we need to shine a light on.

There's actually a specific rule that would address this very problem. It is a proposal that's been proposed in Congress particularly to address this issue of political appointees being given the career staff positions at agencies. There's a lot of legislative solutions to this, and one sort of promising one that's been proposed right now is H.R. 1, the For the People Act. I think it's very promising. It deals with a lot of ethics issues and interference issues with government agencies and Congress. That's a great start.

But broadly, the way that we fix this is transparency and clear ethics rules. We need clear rules about who can deal with what policy issues given any conflicts, or potential conflicts, or recent conflicts they've had. We need more transparency in the process, so that people can watch what agencies are doing and hold administrations accountable for times that they do sideline science.

It's difficult to focus on longer-term, big-picture legislation like that with everything else going on with this administration on a daily basis. What path is there to get this done?

The engagement side has been really incredible to see. At the start of the Trump administration, I would never have predicted that there would be scientists marching in the streets, and there would be that many people following this issue and engaged and willing to step into the political realm. That, to me, was incredibly inspiring to see. It gives me hope for how we can funnel that engagement into getting change, and how we can protect science.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ps-ideas-logo-alone

Pacific Standard's Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.

Related