If there’s one place where you’d think we could set politics aside and just deal in plain truth, it’s weather forecasting. But in the Trump administration, even sharing the path of a storm with the public is secondary to politics.
This week, we learned senior officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rebuked their own scientists over their forecast for Hurricane Dorian. Scientists were told not to contradict the President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE’s claims that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama — complete with threats of firings. It’s a clear-cut abuse of power — telling scientists to base their communications with the public on the president’s whims, not the evidence.
It’s one of the highest-profile examples yet of a disturbing pattern at work across the federal government. It violates not just NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, but the federal government’s basic duty to be honest and put the public interest first.
The level of abuse of science in this administration is unprecedented. Anyone can see how ridiculous it is for the president’s doodles on a weather map with a Sharpie marker to become the official position of the government, but the same dynamic is at work in subtler ways across federal agencies, coming straight from the White House and top political appointees. My team and I have documented 120 attacks on science under the Trump administration since Trump has held office — more than any other administration since my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, began tracking.
While the sheer number of attacks on science is striking, what’s really shocking is how these actions put us all at risk. These attacks have ramifications not just for federal scientists, but for the health and safety of the public and our ability to trust what this administration is telling us.
For scientists working in the federal government, being reprimanded or threatened with termination for simply doing your job can take a toll on morale. Day-to-day decisions that would otherwise seem uncontroversial may have serious repercussions for scientists working under Trump — and that means the rest of us aren’t getting the benefits of work being done on our behalf.
What do you do if you receive orders to not contradict your boss, or else be fired, even if you know the boss is wrong, and wrong in a way that will have serious consequences for people’s lives?
Do you speak up? Or do you think about continuing to put food on your family’s table at night and decide to not risk your job?
In a 2018 survey in which we asked scientists about this issue of self-censoring, we found that over 700 scientists said that they have chosen not to use politically contentious words, such as “climate change” in their work. In this same survey, over 600 scientists said they had been explicitly asked by their bosses to omit use of terms viewed as politically contentious. It’s no surprise that over 1,000 scientists reported low morale, low job satisfaction and fear that their office’s effectiveness had decreased under the Trump administration.
Rod Schoonover, who worked in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues' Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the Department of State, resigned for exactly this reason in July. His resignation came after the White House blocked Schoonover from submitting written testimony to Congress regarding the security risks presented by climate change.
Lewis Ziska, a top scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, resigned because the Trump administration attempted to suppress his study about how rice becomes less nutritious as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rise.
Joel Clement, who was formerly a climate change expert at the Department of the Interior, left due to the Trump administration's actions.
Betsy Southerland, the former director of science and technology in the Office of Water at the Environmental Protection Agency, also resigned due to the Trump administration’s attacks on science.
Communicating with the public in an accurate, honest way is what we should all be able to expect from federal scientists — but it’s becoming more difficult under Trump. The Department of the Interior rebuked a National Park Service employee for scientifically accurate tweets about climate change and canceled studies looking into the safety of offshore drilling and mountaintop removal mining.
The Environmental Protection Agency tried to bury reports on the risks of PFAS chemicals and formaldehyde. And the Trump administration issued an executive order demanding agencies dismiss many of their scientific advisory boards. These kinds of actions deprive our leaders and our communities of the information they need to make good decisions, putting us all at risk.
This anti-science culture is bleeding out beyond government agencies under the watch of Trump appointees. NPR found that academics have also begun to self-censor themselves in public summaries of grants funded by the National Science Foundation. In comparison with data from 2009-2016, there was a steep drop in the number of public summaries that used “climate change” during 2017.
Science isn’t partisan. It is simply the best way that we have of understanding the natural world. The work of federal scientists supports our health and our economy, from cancer research to food-safety testing to air-pollution monitoring. And it informs critical decisions that the government makes, including providing forecasts for the path of hurricanes. And when people’s lives are literally on the line, you don’t entrust something like a weather forecast to the whims of big egos with permanent markers. You should be using the best-available science that our government has at its disposal.
We can’t allow a culture of political interference to drown out science. Lives depend on us getting it right.
Jacob Carter is a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.