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Federal Scientists Are Worried About Policies That Harm America's Most Vulnerable Populations

In an anonymous survey, government scientists expressed concerns about plans to reduce focus and research on racial and sexual minorities and the poor.
The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Some federal employees working in science-related jobs say they've seen policy shifts in the past year that harm America's most vulnerable populations, from the reorganization of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice to the reported focus on "all Americans" (rather than specific risk groups, a common practice in public-health research).

These results come from a survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that has opposed several Trump administration decisions recently. The Union of Concerned Scientists has run similar, though smaller, surveys every few years since 2005.

Aimed at checking whether federal scientists feel free to do their work without political interference, the anonymous survey was sent to more than 63,000 federal employees in 16 science agencies; when the information was available, the surveyors targeted folks whose job titles showed they worked in research, inspections, or science policy. Only about 7 percent answered.

Near the end of the questionnaire, survey-takers were asked: "In particular, have you observed any potential impacts of policy actions on low-income communities, sensitive subpopulations and people of a minority race/ethnicity?"

Most respondents left the question blank, and many said no, they hadn't seen any policy changes expected to hurt vulnerable Americans. Some scientists left worrisome answers, however. Several respondents from the EPA pointed to changes to the Office of Environmental Justice, which focuses on poor communities of color that are affected by pollution. In 2017, the Trump administration proposed defunding the office altogether. It's now a part of the EPA's Office of Policy, which one respondent said would disempower it: "[T]his move seems designed to control the message and minimize embarrassment more than increase the effectiveness of this work," they wrote. Another respondent said: "We were told verbally to omit the term 'environmental justice' in all our documents."

Two respondents defended the EPA's environmental justice work, despite policy changes. "Just because Environmental Justice isn't a buzzword any more that is thrown about as an end unto itself doesn't mean that decisions are being made to screw the poor," one wrote.

Other troubling responses came from those affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One wrote: "We are being informally influenced to focus more on projects and activities that investigate disease risk or help 'all Americans', not just those in specific risk groups (economically disadvantaged, LGBTQ, people of color, etc.)." Such a policy would be out of step with common practice in public-health research, which often studies specific groups that are at higher risk for certain health problems and tries to develop targeted interventions for them.

Most commonly, however, scientists worried about policies that don't seem to be targeted at particular groups, at first blush, but seemed likely to disproportionately affect them. Many wrote to say the EPA's interest in easing environmental regulation might hurt low-income and minority communities more, because they more often live near polluting facilities. Many National Park Service employees wrote that a proposal to more than double entrance fees would keep low-income families from visiting. After the survey was completed, the Park Service announced more modest fee hikes.