Trump administration is fighting a war against science

United States government actions violate and deny bona fide science on an “almost weekly” basis, according to a report released in early October.

This rapid acceleration of political interference in science came to worldwide attention when a senior weather official was pressed to defend US President Donald Trump’s incorrect ‘Sharpiegate’ assertion that hurricane Dorian would threaten Alabama.

However, a long list of other governmental actions that are ignoring or undermining legitimate science have now been documented.

The Proposals for Reform Volume II: National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy focuses on the need to keep government science research free from partisan influence and the importance of filling senior governmental positions in scientific agencies with qualified people.

This National Task Force is a non-partisan committee that includes former government officials under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Their long-standing experience with working on government and policy issues is apparent in the detailed violations of science ethics they describe and the 11 proposals they offer.

This taskforce, formed by the Brennan Center for Justice, cites some violations of science norms going back to much earlier administrations. But under President Trump, the attack on science and the erosion of objective science research has led major world newspapers to declare the US government is conducting a “war on science”.

The importance of impartiality

The need for impartial and transparent science was first voiced by Vannevar Bush, who directed the US Office of Scientific Research and Development in the 1940s. Whether science results supported or opposed the politics of the time, it was considered critical to perform science in “an environment of free scientific inquiry”.

Research and supporting data must also be accessible to the public. This transparency “...gives the public a chance to test and assess the data on which policy decisions are based, and to improve the quality of that information”.

This report describes the relatively few distortions and cover-ups of prior administrations. “The Nixon administration suppressed a government report that criticised the cost of a project to develop a high-speed passenger jet, as well as the performance of the aircraft. After a physicist on the PSAC [President’s Science Advisory Committee] testified to his technical reservations about the project before Congress, President Richard Nixon dissolved PSAC and abolished the office of the presidential science adviser,” the report says.

President Ronald Reagan’s Defense Department delayed the release of an expert congressional report that exposed the technical infeasibility of the administration’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence proposal.

“George W Bush administration officials suppressed and undercut the findings of a leading climate change expert,” it reports.

Obama administration officials inserted a misleading phrase into a public draft report on fracking that downplayed the impact on drinking water, a move that was protested by members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board, a panel of independent scientists.

However, these are trivial compared to the actions that have politicised government science and research under the Trump administration.

In the case of Trump’s false hurricane warning, “the acting White House chief of staff reportedly instructed the secretary of commerce to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA – a part of the Department of Commerce – issue a misleading statement...” in support of the president. “The secretary of commerce reportedly threatened to fire top NOAA officials in pressuring them to act.”

Attempts at influence

When US farmers and ranchers began suffering from the president’s tariff battle with China, “the Department of Agriculture relocated economists across the country after they published findings showing the financial harms to farmers of the administration’s trade policies”.

With President Trump being a defender of coal and pulling the US from the Paris climate accord, “the Interior Department reassigned its top climate scientist to an accounting role after he highlighted dangers posed by climate change”.

In addition, “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted rules that prevent leading experts from serving on science advisory boards and encourage participation by industry-affiliated researchers”.

No sooner had this report gone to press than EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proclaimed that the EPA would reduce and eventually eliminate the use of mammals in toxicity tests. This was justified on the claims from animal rights groups that computer simulations and cell culture methods can fully achieve the same results.

Actual biologists, such as Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that ending genuine animal testing “is going to allow potentially dangerous chemicals to get out there into the environment and into consumer products”.

Wheeler was not a scientist but a lawyer who represented coal interests. That is why the second half of this report focuses on the breakdown of processes for filling key government positions.

Restoring integrity

The report lists how “at least a dozen agencies – including two cabinet departments – are run by non-Senate-confirmed acting officials two years into this administration; and the Senate confirmation process takes five times longer than it did 40 years ago”.

The prior governmental experiences of these committee members comes into play in providing 11 proposals outlining actions that can be taken to restore the integrity of science in government and ensure that government agencies with scientific functions are run by qualified professionals.

This report’s appendix includes a more extensive list of violations. More than 500 footnotes at the end provide further documentation – characteristic of good science.

Scientists with a sense of history will recognise that this new political corruption of science is not unprecedented. We currently cannot eradicate polio because of conspiracy beliefs that vaccination is actually an attempt at genocide. AIDS was initially discredited by the government of South Africa.

Most classic was Trofim Lysenko’s rise in the then Soviet Union; his opposition to Mendelian genetic inheritance theory fitted with a political philosophy that overthrew a hereditary monarchy. They suggested, for instance, that a young couple who worked hard and developed their muscles would give birth to a stronger baby.

Geneticists such as Nikolai Vavilov ended up dying in gulags as a result, while Lysenko’s false science held back Russian genetics for decades.

India’s former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said that “the future belongs to those countries that make friends with science”. This new report documents a science-unfriendly United States administration.

John Richard Schrock is editor of the Kansas School Naturalist at Emporia State University in the United States and also teaches various classes at universities in China.