Congress can stop the war on science

Congress can stop the war on science
© Greg Nash

For the last three weeks, thousands of government scientists have been forced to stop important research due to the federal shutdown. Research has also been interrupted at outside institutions, as the government has stopped processing grant applications, and even blocked access to data needed by scientists. 

Hundreds of scientists are forced to miss the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, an important conference that facilitates idea exchanges. While this isn’t the intention behind the shutdown, it represents a victory for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE, whose administration has consistently sought to block scientific research. 

Since Trump’s election, the federal government has mounted at least [188] attacks on science, which we’ve recorded in our Silencing Science Tracker. Over three-quarters of the attacks targeted climate scientists, who Trump has said he doesn’t “believe,” apparently justifying his efforts to silence them.

Many of the attacks involved censorship, with several federal agencies removing discussion of climate change from scientific reports and preventing scientists from speaking publicly about the issue. There are also examples of government climate scientists being reassigned and government grants for climate research being cancelled

These attacks went mostly unanswered by the Republican majorities of Congress. In fact, many Republicans have actively supported Trump’s actions, and taken further steps to undermine climate science. In March 2017, for example, then-chair of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithK Street boom extends under Trump, House Dems Ex-GOP congressman heads to investment bank Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop MORE (R-Texas), accused climate scientists of making “[a]larmist predictions [that] amount to nothing more than wild guesses.” In May 2018, other committee members joined in questioning the accuracy of scientific research on climate change. Paradoxically, though, they did not support further research to confirm or disprove past findings and actually sought to block it. 

Congressional investigations into climate research became common. Smith wielded his subpoena powers in a multi-year battle against government climate scientists, Others, including Sens.Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCornyn campaign, Patton Oswalt trade jabs over comedian's support for Senate candidate MJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Liberal survey: Sanders cruising, Buttigieg rising MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem super PAC campaign urges Republicans to back impeachment Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Trump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen MORE (R-Ky.), investigated government funding for climate research.

The good news is that Congress can also use its investigative powers to challenge anti-science actions. So far during the Trump administration, that has been rare, but it has happened. In January 2017, for instance, five Democratic senators requested information from Trump after his administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend all grants. In June 2018, Senate Democrats launched an investigation into a new grant screening process at the Department of the Interior. In both cases, the investigations stalled, reportedly due to stonewalling by the administration. But, now that Democrats control the House and its committees, they will have greater power to obtain information, including through subpoenas.

The new Congress should hold hearings to probe the deeply flawed scientific arguments underlying some of the Trump administration's more egregious proposed regulatory rollbacks, such as those to the mercury emissions standards and the motor vehicle fuel economy standards. Democratic-controlled committees could also subpoena any suppressed or censored scientific papers and lend other support to the authors. The new leader of the House Science Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Prosecutors used FISA warrant to get info on Huawei | Study finds discrimination in Facebook ads | Bezos retains voting control over ex-wife's Amazon stocks Dem senators introduce bill to combat sexual harassment in STEM Pelosi, Dems unveil bill to bind Trump to Paris climate accord MORE (D-Texas), is likely to be a particularly strong advocate for scientists, already declaring that she plans to “defend the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks.”

Democrats should also use their control of the House to increase funding for scientific research. This will, of course, require the support of Senate Republicans but there is reason to believe some may get on board. Over the last two years, the Republican-controlled Congress has repeatedly rebuffed calls from the Trump administration to slash funding for scientific research.

Instead, Congress increased scientific research funding by 12.8 percent, compared to fiscal 2017 levels, the largest year-on-year increase since 2009. While medical research funding was one of the largest gains, climate and environmental research funding saw mostly modest increases or stayed flat — far better than the drastic cuts Trump sought.

The new Congress should also pass pro-science legislation. A so-called “Scientific Integrity Act,” requiring federal agencies to develop scientific integrity policies to help protect against censorship, bias, and other issues was introduced in the House and Senate last year, and may have a shot now. Congress might also reconsider other proposed legislation, such as the Executive Branch Comprehensive Ethics Enforcement Act, which could help prevent attacks on science by strengthening the Office of Government Ethics.

It is essential that Congress exercise their immense powers to protect scientific research by supporting scientists and challenging anti-science efforts by the Trump administration. Indeed, at a time when many Americans are recovering from extreme events that scientists say were made more severe by climate change, Congress’s ability to protect and support climate and other science has never been more necessary.

Romany Webb is an associate research Scholar at Columbia Law School and senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Lauren Kurtz is the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.