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Biden's first 100 days: Where he stands on science

Biden's first 100 days: Where he stands on science
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“Science will always be at the forefront of my administration.” That was President Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE’s promise when he announced his pick for White House science advisor one week before taking office. In comparison, former President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE waited 18 months to nominate a science advisor — meanwhile, someone with no scientific training filled the role. Things are already improving, but there’s still a lot to do to restore the role of science in federal policy.

Biden administration officials have painted a hopeful picture. Days after being sworn in, EPA Administrator Michael ReganMichael ReganOvernight Energy: EPA takes major step to battle climate change Carper asks EPA to require half of new cars to be zero-emissions by 2030 EPA proposes major rule to reduce certain greenhouse gases MORE declared that “science is back.” That’s a nice sentiment but making it a reality will take significant work. Regan and other agency heads must undo the Trump administration’s numerous anti-science actions.

Our Silencing Science Tracker documents 328 actions by the Trump administration to restrict or prohibit scientific research and discussion between the November 2016 election and January 2021. The bulk of those actions (220 or 69 percent of the total) targeted climate science, for example, by blocking publication of climate data, preventing climate scientists from speaking publicly and cutting funding for climate research. Other actions involved the suppression or distortion of scientific information about the COVID-19 pandemic, the health risks posed by pollutants and chemicals, and other environmental issues. Eighteen actions — 16 of them involving climate science — occurred during Trump’s first 100 days in office or the pre-inauguration transition.

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(Our 2020 analysis, “When Politics Trump Science: The Erosion of Science-based Regulation,” documents the Trump administration’s full attacks on science.)

In stark contrast to Trump, Biden has used his first 100 days as president to reinforce his commitment to bolstering federal science, announcing a number of important initiatives. One week after taking office, Biden issued a presidential memorandum directing the establishment of an interagency task force to review federal agency scientific integrity policies. He’s also announced making the Office of Science and Technology Policy a cabinet-level department, and appointed preeminent scientists to government leadership positions.

All of that is encouraging, but it doesn’t yet undo the damage done by the Trump administration. To date, the Biden administration has reversed only four of the Trump-era anti-science actions recorded in our Tracker. It has:

  1. Restored the EPA’s deleted climate website
  2. Withdrawn a politically-compromised chemical toxicity assessment
  3. Required mask-wearing on public and commercial transportation (which the Trump administration prevented the CDC from doing)
  4. Reinstated NOAA’s chief scientist (who was demoted after asking Trump appointees to acknowledge the agency’s scientific integrity policy)

Unfortunately, these actions remedy just 1 percent of the Trump-era issues we cataloged. At this rate, it would take the Biden administration roughly 10,000 days or 27 years to fully undo the Trump administration’s actions.

To be fair, at least some of the Trump administration’s damaging actions cannot be directly undone, though their effects live on. For example, the multiple times that Trump used Twitter to question or misrepresent established climate science, thereby undermining public confidence in researchers.

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Other actions — while they cannot be reversed — have been in some way addressed by the Biden administration. For example, EPA recently dismissed science advisory board members appointed by the Trump administration —many of whom rejected accepted science and/or displayed inappropriate industry bias. Now, appointees will be subject to impartiality and conflict of interest tests.

Many other issues will take time to resolve. For example, re-staffing the federal scientific workforce after the “brain drain” that occurred under Trump will likely be a multi-year effort and require congressional support. The Biden administration has proposed sizable budget increases for scientific agencies, but they must be approved by Congress.

We know from past administrations that it’s easy to set ambitious goals, but actually achieving them is often difficult. President Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place in government” in his January 2009 inaugural address. While his administration made progress, there were also missteps.

For example, responding to political interference in science in the George W. Bush administration, Obama ordered every federal agency to have a scientific integrity policy to protect scientific research. But many agencies’ policies still lack critical safeguards such as clearly prohibiting political interference — the very problem they were designed to prevent. It is, therefore, unsurprising that they did little to constrain the Trump administration’s anti-science actions. 

To really fix the underlying issues — and protect against another Trump — the Biden administration needs to achieve structural changes. Biden’s scientific integrity memorandum lays out an impressive multi-year plan for revamping policies but, so far, seemingly little work has been done. Three months after the memorandum was issued, the scientific integrity task force still has not been established, much less begun work.

With climate change accelerating, and the possibility of another science-hostile administration in 2024, there’s no time to waste.

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

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