A blow-by-blow of Trump's battles with scientists in 2017
Two women with posters attend with thousands of demonstrators the March for Science in Berlin, Saturday, April 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Misha Gajewski, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Friday, December 29, 2017 6:00AM EST
From refusing to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, to slashing research budgets and being accused of attempting to muzzle scientists, CTVNews.ca highlights how the Trump administration has waged what many experts are calling a battle against science in 2017.
The White House’s first list of priorities for investments in science and technology research, which was released in late August, makes no mention of climate change.
Instead, the blueprint demands federal agencies focus research on delivering short-term gains in strengthening national defence, the economy, border security, “energy dominance,” as well as improving public health.
The four-page memo also added that scientists shouldn’t need any additional spending, and should focus on basic research before, as science writer Jeffery Mervis notes, stepping aside “as quickly as possible to let industry pursue any results that show commercial promise.”
Experts say the memo not only shows the Trump administration doesn’t see science and technology as a priority, but its actions and pronouncements throughout 2017 have threatened to weaken science and dismantle climate protections by consistently disregarding, undermining and misrepresenting facts and scientific evidence.
Despite widespread protests and criticism, such as the March for Science in April which drew millions around the world, one expert said not only did Trump’s attacks on science continue as the year went on, they ramped up.
By the end of Trump’s first six months as president, his administration attacked or criticized scientists or their research an average of once every four days, said Dr. Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Center for Science and Democracy.
“It hasn’t slowed down,” Goldman told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Disregarding climate change and the environment
In his effort to end “the war on coal”, the Trump administration has issued a number of changes that have weakened science-based pollution standards and removed environmental safeguards.
In the first six months, it already rolled back 47 Obama-era regulations meant to protect the environment and combat climate change. But dismantling climate change safeguards is only the tip of the melting iceberg.
The administration also proposed sharp reductions on future climate science research and is trying to scrub any mention of climate change from governmental websites.
Some more highlights when it comes to climate change and the environment, broken down by month:
Trump signed a joint resolution passed by Congress revoking the U.S. Department of the Interior’s “Stream Protection Rule”, which would allow mining companies to once again dump mining waste into surrounding waterways.
The EPA’s science office removed “science” from its mission statement and removed any mention of human-caused climate change.
The Department of Interior removed climate change language from a report that linked rising sea levels and climate change.
The administration is accused of misrepresenting climate science on a number of occasions and in the past called global warming “a hoax”. But experts say his biggest dismissal when it comes to climate change and the environment was his refusal to sign the Paris Climate Agreement on June 1.
"Generations from now, Americans will look back at Donald Trump's decision to leave the Paris Agreement as one of the most ignorant and dangerous actions ever taken by any president," Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement.
An analysis from The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), a watchdog which monitors federal environmental agency web pages, found the EPA removed references and links to climate science and policy from their website.
Ironically, a large scientific report on climate science conducted by 13 federal agencies cited humans as the main cause of global warming, contradicting much of the administration’s policies.
Attacking science-based policies
Attacks on science go far beyond environmental agencies, such as when the Trump administration delayed implementing a safeguard that would protect workers from exposure to toxic silica dust, or one that would protect shipyard workers from beryllium exposure.
Another example is when it indefinitely delayed the new nutrition fact labels that would require companies to disclose things like how much sugar was added.
“[The administration] is undermining the process by which we use science,” said Goldman.
She also pointed to an example of how the administration misrepresented scientific research to influence contraception policy.
In early July, the administration axed more than US$200 million in teen pregnancy prevention research grants in the middle of a five-year project. The Health and Human Services said in a statement to CNN it was because those programs were not as effective as thought, even though scientists argued that the first round of evaluations were actually impressive.
Then, in October, the Trump administration used a distorted interpretation of scientific research to justify birth control restrictions.
The White House released a new set of rules that allowed companies to easily refuse to cover birth control on moral or religious exemptions, and they justified the change in regulation by distorting scientific research.
“Human reproduction has become the victim of alternative science, rife with alternative definitions of well-understood medical conditions and characterized by rejection of the scientific method as the standard for generating and evaluating evidence,” bioethicist Alta Charo wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial earlier this year.
The report outlining the new rules stated there wasn’t any good evidence linking access to birth control to lower rate of unintended pregnancies. It also said that birth control access could “affect risky sexual behaviour in a negative way”, as well as exaggerating the harms and undermining the benefits of birth control.
Limiting data access
Before Trump even got into office, there was panic over saving scientific data, as many feared painstaking research would go missing under the new administration.
In January, the USDA deleted the public database of animal welfare records and in February, the White House removed all data from its open portal website.
Since then, Goldman said she hasn’t seen much deleting of data, largely due to the efforts by organizations to archive it, so it wasn’t as bad as many theorized.
But Goldman added that data has definitely become more difficult to access.
Throughout the year, the administration has also stopped collecting certain data, such as the collection of data on methane emissions, and has withdrawn requests to industry to supply data that would help inform public health and environmental protections.
Those who had doubts the administration was serious about axing research quicky dropped them when Trump released his 2018 budget proposal in May.
“The budget was a big wake-up call,” said Goldman.
The 2018 budget proposal saw huge cuts to science and medical research.
National Institute of Health (NIH) saw its budget slashed by 22 per cent, which would be a significant blow to research grants that help fund biomedical research.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were also cut from infectious disease programs at the Centre for Disease Control that were aimed at curbing the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Zika.
The EPA budget saw a 31 per cent reduction in their budget, and the Department of Energy (DOE) could see a loss of 43 per cent of their work on biological and environmental research.
NASA was mostly spared from major budget cuts but the budget did request that NASA kill its climate research programs, one of which is helping establish effective carbon monitoring in the U.S. and other countries. This jeopardizes critical carbon data needed for the Paris Climate Agreement.
Substantial cuts were also made to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Scientists have also raised alarm bells over Trump’s staffing choices, or lack thereof.
Trump has yet to fill more than 80 per cent of high-level science positions, including appointing a president science advisor.
He has also made several controversial picks, including Scott Pruitt to head up the EPA. Pruitt has not only sued the EPA 13 times but is also a climate change skeptic and had close ties to the fossil-fuel industry.
Many critical science-related roles have been axed under the Trump administration, and several hiring freezes have been put in place.
For example, in May, half of the scientists on EPA’s Board of Scientific Counsellors were not renewed for a second term.
And the Department of Justice disbanded a key committee responsible for the reliability of forensic sciences and the DOI suspended advisory committee activity, making it more difficult for the government to conserve endangered species and keep national monuments safe from climate change.
“It certainly discourages scientists from wanting to work with U.S. scientists,” said Goldman.
Experts also point to Trump’s repeated attempts to silence scientists, one example coming early in the year when he issued gag orders on EPA and USDA employees.
In March, the DOE Office of International Climate and Clean Energy banned staff from using the phrases “climate change” and “Paris Agreement” in communications.
While Goldman said that outright gag orders seemed to have stopped, there are still attempts to muzzle scientists.
In June, the Trump administration barred scientists from attending an international meeting on nuclear power.
Goldman also told CTVNews.ca that a phonebook of all the scientists in government agencies that used to be accessible to journalist has been taken down, forcing the calls to be screened through public affairs.
However, he said that the “culture of fear” is the most damaging of all.
“This administration has instilled enough fear that they will be silenced just by that,” she said.
Despite the administration’s efforts to downplay scientific evidence and research, many scientists and their supporters have not only railed against their policies, but have taken action.
“Scientists are really speaking up and saying why these things matter and are being very articulate about how important the science is and its impact on society,” said Goldman.
The Data Refuge Project and Internet Archive have preserved thousands of scientific datasets and agency websites and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), continuing to monitor about 25,000 federal government website pages looking for language changes, data purges and changes in mission statements.
Some nations have taken steps as well, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Make Climate Great Again” campaign, which offered to hire U.S. climate scientists.
Countries, including Canada, refused to follow the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement and vowed to continue to fight global warming.
Experts say while hope for the future of scientific research isn’t lost, the fight for independent and impartial information is far from over.
According to a report published earlier this year by the Union of Concerned Scientists, scientists, science supporters and journalists must continue to scrutinize the administration and congressional actions and hold them accountable.
“If we aren’t allowing ourselves to talking freely about science, that would be a terrible outcome,” said Goldman.