What was the point at which industry influence got the upper hand over science in the federal government?
Was it on day one of the Trump administration, when a man who once claimed that asbestos is “100 percent safe, once applied” and described himself as “not a believer in man-made global warming” became Mr. President?
Perhaps it began on week one, when the Trump Administration issued an executive order that made ethics agreements less transparent?
Or was it shortly after Devon Energy’s favorite Oklahoman, Scott Pruitt, was appointed as EPA administrator, when the EPA decided to overrule its own scientists and allow the continued use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a chemical known to damage the brains of young children?
In an ideal world, executive branch agencies implement laws that the elected Congress passed to create a level playing field for both industry and the public. These laws are most effective when decisions are fully informed by the best available science. That means safeguards must be in place to protect both science and scientists from political influence, and appointed officials should stay at an arm’s length from the companies they are charged with regulating.
But under the Trump administration, we’re seeing these best practices flipped upside down. Independence seems to be a disadvantage, and many appointees have built careers around undermining science at the agencies they are now being asked to lead. Many special interests are taking advantage of the opportunity to operate without adequate checks on irresponsible behavior.
What we’re seeing at work is a strategy plucked from the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, refined over the past several decades by companies seeking to avoid public scrutiny and pad their bottom lines. By pushing back against inconvenient science and sowing disinformation about products, companies can ultimately delay or otherwise obstruct science-based policies intended to protect the public.
The disinformation playbook
The tactics used to sideline science and derail science-based policies follow recognizable patterns—a “disinformation playbook” we’ve seen deployed again and again. And today, many appointees at federal agencies are playing along.
The first play, “The Fake,” involves passing counterfeit science off as legitimate, undermining the objectivity of the scientific process on which our public safeguards should rely. (See Georgia-Pacific’s seeding of literature intentionally designed to sow doubt on the link between asbestos exposure and cancer without disclosing the funding relationship.)
Next, “The Blitz”—silencing scientists whose research findings show that a product or a company’s action is potentially unsafe. (See the well-documented example of the lead industry attacking scientists like Herb Needleman, a Pittsburgh pediatrician who documented the impact of lead on children.)
The third play is “The Diversion,” manufacturing uncertainty in the science when little exists. (See the chemical industry’s funding[KS1] of Citizens for Fire Safety, an organization meant to convince the public that flame retardants were effective and safe.)
There’s also “The Screen”: forging relationships with academia or professional societies in order to gain credibility or improve a company or industry’s image. (See Coca-Cola’s short-lived initiative at the University of Colorado, the “Global Energy Balance Network,” to conduct research into the role of exercise in obesity prevention and shift focus off of calorie consumption from sugar-sweetened beverages.)
And finally, “The Fix:” going on offense to manipulate government officials or processes and inappropriately influence science-based policy decisions. The revolving door between industry and government is one of the most common examples of “The Fix,” and it’s one that has been embraced by President Trump and his cabinet.
Despite having previously held a senior position at the largest trade association representing chemical companies, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Nancy Beck was named deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in the EPA, presumably without having to file a waiver to work on issues she has previously worked on for the chemical industry—namely, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Soon after Beck assumed her position, new rules from the EPA meant to protect the public from toxic chemicals came out far weaker than those developed by the professional staff at the agency and remarkably similar to industry-favored positions.
Michael Dourson has been nominated to be EPA assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, which would oversee the implementation of the amendments to TSCA. He has spent years working as a toxicologist-for-hire for industries from tobacco to pesticides and other chemicals. Dourson has argued that the pesticide chlorpyrifos is safe despite a large body of science to the contrary. He has been paid to advocate for far less stringent safety standards on three of 10 priority TSCA chemicals. His ethics agreement states that he will recuse himself for a year from agency decisions pertaining to his work at the University of Cincinnati, but it does not provide details on whether he can still participate in evaluations of chemicals manufactured by companies that have paid his bills. His testimony during his nomination hearing did not provide any reassuring clarity, either. Even if that’s the case, he only has to wait for one year before diving in on working to roll back progress on issues that the chemical industry has been attempting for years.
William Wehrum is a lawyer and lobbyist nominated to lead the EPA Office of Air and Radiation (OAR). His corporate clients include Koch Industries, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and others in the auto and petrochemical industries. He has been a vocal spokesperson against addressing climate change under the Clean Air Act, which would be part of his responsibility as OAR director. Just a week before his nomination hearing, Wehrum argued on behalf of construction industry interests against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s more protective silica dust standard, absurdly claiming that “People are designed to deal with dust. People are in dusty environments all the time and it doesn’t kill them.” (Scientists estimate that the new rule would save over 600 lives every year.)
This trend is not limited to the EPA. David Bernhardt was confirmed as the deputy secretary of the Interior Department spinning the revolving door from government to industry lobbying and back again. His career outside of government was representing the very energy and mining companies that he will be overseeing within it. Then there’s the nominee for assistant secretary of the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, coal industry executive David Zatezalo. He would be responsible for administering policies designed to prevent mining injuries, even though he was chairman of Rhino Resources’ board of directors during a period checkered with safety violations and an accident that led to the death of a miner.
Collectively, these appointments threaten our public health and safety.
But this playbook, while powerful, is not unstoppable. The best defense is a good offense in the form of advocacy and careful oversight, grounded in both transparency and evidence. Regardless of whether these individuals are confirmed, revealing these conflicts can guide journalists, congressional oversight committees, and the public to know where to look and inform how to push back and raise the political cost of sidelining science.
Undue and inappropriate corporate interference in science is a huge problem with tentacles in every aspect of federal science-based decision-making. Ultimately, we bear the costs, in public health, environmental cleanups, sometimes even in lives lost. Transparency and public oversight are essential to ensure that independent science is used to inform our governmental decisions. That’s why we must continue to raise the alarm when conflicted characters in powerful positions enable some companies to sow disinformation and threaten to weaken scientific integrity in our government. Our lives depend on it.