Does it feel like science has been under attack in federal policy lately? It isn’t your imagination. As of this month, the Trump administration has attacked science more than 100 times—more than any other administration since the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) began tracking.
Before Donald Trump came along, George W. Bush’s administration posed the biggest threat to public health and safety, with a documented 98 attacks on science, according to our count. But while those attacks happened over eight years, the Trump administration topped them in a mere two and a half years. The Bush administration was no friend to federal scientists or their work. Indeed, for a long period of time, it was widely regarded by many to be the most antagonistic administration toward science and science policy in modern history.
Only three years into Bush’s first term, his administration’s assaults on science prompted a group of senior scientists who had advised every Republican and Democratic administration dating to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s to pen a letter protesting these actions., which was entitled “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making The statement accumulated signatures by around 15,000 scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, over the next four years. The antiscience actions taken by the Bush administration are largely why science-based federal agencies now have scientific-integrity policies in place to deter political interference in federal science.
The 98 political attacks that UCS documented on the federal science apparatus during the Bush years run the gamut from censoring the ability of federal scientists to speak about their work, to altering scientific information in reports and government Web sites, to downplaying the effects of climate change, to disbanding scientific advisory committees.
These strategies are not new. We have seen nearly every administration in modern history politicize science to promote its own political agenda. This politicization has occurred because science is powerful. It is easier to win political arguments if science is on your side. But that benefit makes science vulnerable to interference and misuse for political purposes. President Barack Obama’s administration, for example, failed to set a science-based ozone standard and defied its own Food and Drug Administration scientists’ judgment by restricting access to emergency contraceptives.
Even though we expected the Trump administration to be destructive to federal science, we had no idea that the size of the wrecking ball would be this big. While we have now documented 100 attacks on science under the Trump administration, it is difficult to know if Presidents Bush and Obama were subject to the same level of scrutiny and whether the exact same lens was applied for all administrations with different political contexts and decisions in our count, it is clear that President Trump and his political appointees have escalated their attacks on science by making them in a mere fraction of the time it took the Bush administration.
And the worst is probably yet to come. The administration is likely to sideline science and push antiscience actions through the federal government’s bureaucratic process at an even greater rate as President Trump’s first term comes to an end in January 2021.
The Trump administration’s unprecedented record on science will harm people across the country, especially the most disenfranchised. While the sheer number of attacks on science is shocking, what a lack of science-informed policy means for our country is even more shocking. The administration’s rollback of protections from exposure to dangerous chemicals means that more people will become ill, develop chronic diseases or die from encountering these hazardous substances.
The safety of workers is at risk as the administration ignores scientific evidence showing things such as the fact that making people conduct work faster on poultry lines results in more workplace injuries. More children are likely to suffer from asthma and respiratory illnesses as the administration sidelines epidemiological evidence that air pollution has negative effects on our health.
It’s no surprise that millions of scientists and supporters have taken to the streets to push back against these attacks on science. The scientific community has stood up to the Trump administration’s antiscience actions with much success. A good example comes from an early 2018 issue when Trump administration officials blocked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) from publishing a draft toxicology report on a class of potentially hazardous chemicals commonly found in drinking water and groundwater. The chemicals, known collectively as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are linked with numerous adverse health effects, including liver damage, kidney cancer and increased cholesterol.
We obtained e-mails showing that the White House purposefully blocked the report’s release because of concern about a “potential public relations nightmare.” The report found that the current standards of risk for this class of chemicals was outdated. After the story broke, UCS and other nonprofits organized scientists and supporters to deliver 18,000 messages to their representatives to put a spotlight on the issue. Thanks to this pressure, the ATSDR released the report in June 2018. The report suggested a much more stringent standard for PFAS exposure, citing health concerns for even low levels of the chemicals.
This unprecedented milestone means there is more work to do. Congress should join with scientists and their supporters to stop the Trump administration’s antiscience actions. One way for congresspeople to do so is to place their support behind the Scientific Integrity Act, which would codify many provisions within scientific integrity policies maintained by federal agencies with science-based missions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. The act could prevent many of the attacks on science that we have seen from the administration to date, meaning it could stop many unforeseeable ones from this and future administrations. This safeguard will help us better protect the health and safety of people and our environment.