The White House's attack on scientists could manipulate public opinion

The White House's attack on scientists could manipulate public opinion
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The Trump administration’s FY2019 budget, unveiled last Monday, proposes cuts in essential funding for scientific research and education. Unfortunately, this attack on science is not an isolated incident. Barely a year into President TrumpDonald John TrumpMexican presidential candidate vows to fire back at Trump's 'offensive' tweets Elizabeth Warren urges grads to fight for 'what is decent' in current political climate Jim Carrey takes aim at Kent State grad who posed with AR-10 MORE’s term, there have already been 111 attempts by the federal government to censor, misrepresent, or stifle science. Many appear intended to gain support for the administration’s efforts to prop up the fossil fuel industry. Despite the administration’s claims that its actions put “America first,” they will in fact undermine our economic competitiveness and our position at the forefront of scientific research.

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The U.S. prides itself on being a world leader in science and technology. And for good reason: life-saving vaccines, MRIs, the Internet and many other revolutionary technologies were invented here, often with the help of government funding. But under President Trump, funding for scientific research is facing cuts. The Trump administration is also undermining science in other ways, like preventing scientists from publicly communicating about their research and misrepresenting scientific studies.

We decided to tally all of these anti-science actions in a Silencing Science Tracker, which shows that many of the administration’s actions involve attempts to downplay, obscure, or outright challenge the scientific consensus on climate change. This makes sense given Trump’s focus on “beautiful” coal and other climate-damaging fossil fuels. The Trump administration is effectively promoting the fossil fuel industry’s interests over public health and safety and appears to be using its control over scientific information to manipulate public opinion in this area.

For instance, in the early months of the Trump administration, numerous government websites were changed to omit scientific information about climate change and the fossil fuel industry’s adverse effects. Newly released emails show that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittHillicon Valley: Facebook, Google struggle to block terrorist content | Cambridge Analytica declares bankruptcy in US | Company exposed phone location data | Apple starts paying back taxes to Ireland Overnight Energy: Pruitt taps man behind 'lock her up' chant for EPA office | Watchdog to review EPA email policies | Three Republicans join climate caucus Six steps Pruitt must take on his legal defense fund to avoid another scandal MORE was eager to scrub the agency’s climate change pages. Given his “arm in arm” past with the fossil fuel industry, and his subsequent moves to undo or weaken regulations imposed on it, this is no surprise.

At the Department of the Interior (DOI), a website discussing the environmental and other risks of fossil fuel development was changed to emphasize economic benefits. A few months later, large swaths of land previously protected from coal mining and oil and gas drilling were opened to development. Shortly after this, DOI’s Bureau of Land Management changed the image on its homepage from a scenic park vista to a pile of coal, presumably to reinforce the message that public lands are for mining.

This is, in some ways, nothing new. Past administrations have used government communications to advocate their policies. But President Trump is going much further.

Recent changes in federal research funding suggest that the Trump administration is deliberately silencing science that could call its policy decisions into question. For example, in August 2017, shortly before allowing more coal mining on federal land, DOI suspended funding for a study intended to identify its health risks. Four months later, DOI suspended a study into the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling, just days before proposing a massive expansion in the area available for drilling.

This cannot possibly be a coincidence. The administration is clearly out to pre-empt possible opposition to its policies and is not at all interested in verifying that they are scientifically sound. It seems intent on limiting independent scientific research while propping-up industry-backed science. This is particularly obvious at EPA, where university scientists have been removed from advisory panels, to make space for industry representatives. EPA is also considering reducing vehicle emissions standards based on industry-sponsored science and pushed through industry-backed chemical rules against the advice of agency scientists.

We shouldn’t be surprised. President Trump, after all, has in the past ignored scientific advice that contradicts his pro-industry agenda. He once famously called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China to harm American businesses. More recently, he used a cold snap on the East Coast to suggest that climate change isn’t happening and reiterate his (false) talking point that remaining in the Paris Agreement would have unnecessarily cost the U.S. “trillions.”

Trump supporters speak positively of the president’s blunt style, saying they “want a president who is not politically correct.” But the irony is that so much of what the Trump administration has done involves manipulating science to match political goals, like requiring EPA grants to be reviewed by political appointees and removing agency websites containing politically inconvenient information.

In reality, Trump’s claim to “tell it like it is” is actually the greatest hoax of all.

Lauren Kurtz is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Romany Webb is an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia Law School and Climate Law Fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.