The exodus of federal scientists puts our safety and health at risk

The exodus of federal scientists puts our safety and health at risk
© Greg Nash

The federal government’s scientific capacity took a serious hit over the past four years, as thousands of federal scientists were lost across five science-based agencies, as shown in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) recent report “The Federal Brain Drain," which I helped author.

These losses are frightening because these scientists do critical work on issues like COVID-19 vaccine development, protections for clean air and water and — as The New York Times pointed out in a story this week — our ability to combat climate change. In other words, these decisions affect all of us.

While thousands of federal scientists left their posts under the prior administration, I’d argue that a lack of scientific capacity in our government has been a problem for far longer. I experienced this issue firsthand when working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Obama administration. In my role at the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM), I conducted research on how climate change will affect Superfund sites — places contaminated with toxic substances. While EPA and OLEM provided basic climate change training, there were few policy experts with scientific backgrounds in climate change. I found myself providing educational resources to EPA staff as a climate change scientist.

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My experience was not unique. In a 2019 report by the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), other EPA staff reiterated the challenges of limited expertise. And according to 15 years of survey data, federal scientists consistently report that limited staff capacity and resources are obstacles to agency decisions. In 2015, scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all said limited staff capacity was a major barrier to agency decision-making. In a 2005 survey, 92 percent of FWS scientists did not feel that the agency “has sufficient resources to adequately perform its environmental mission.” Limited resources have impeded federal scientists for far longer than the past four years.

The Biden-Harris administration must tackle these long-standing problems; otherwise, their plans to strengthen federal science — and use science-based policies to solve problems — will face steep hurdles. And Congress should take note of these losses, especially since they have the power of the purse. They should push for more funding and more scientists than ever before because going back to the status quo is simply not enough to solve the pressing issues of our time. If there has ever been a time to change the way things work, it is now.

There will be challenges to building up the federal scientific workforce. The large Baby Boomer generation of federal workers is hitting eligibility for retirement — nearly 15-percent of federal workers are eligible to retire. It is certainly possible that a “retirement wave” occurs during the Biden-Harris administration, reducing scientific capacity in government further and reducing future mentors for new staff. Moreover, the administration will need funding from Congress to fill agencies with scientific experts. EPA Administrator Michael ReganMichael ReganOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Biden administration breaks down climate finance roadmap Obama to attend Glasgow climate summit Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push MORE has hired about 500 new staff at the EPA and intends to hire 1,000 more by next May, but such a hiring spree will require approval of the agency’s $11.2 billion budget request. Hiring so many new staff will be challenging for human resource offices, which will need to process new hires at record speed.

One of the biggest challenges to increasing federal scientific capacity will be convincing early- and mid-career scientists to apply for government jobs. During the past four years, scientists witnessed the shocking frequency of assaults on science by political officials — more than 200 instances, by UCS’s count. Indeed, an entire march, The March for Science, was borne from concern from the scientific community. The Biden-Harris administration will need to convince young scientists that the federal government is a safe, stable place to carry out their work. The administration has made progress through its work to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking processes with a hope to restore trust from the public and scientific community in government science. The administration should continue this work as stronger scientific integrity policies will foster a better working environment for federal scientists, but the administration must also provide more opportunities for young scientists to enter the federal workforce. They should bring back the STEM-specific track of the Presidential Management Fellowship and develop fellowship opportunities that are similar to NOAA’s Sea Grant — perhaps a climate change or environmental justice fellowship grants.

The Biden-Harris administration should also stay true to its promise to diversify the federal workforce. Underserved communities are most impacted by our government’s decisions but underrepresented in the federal workforce. As the administration seeks to hire new talent, the administration should conduct outreach with historically black colleges and universities and tribal nations’ colleges, for example.

The last administration did not support federal scientists, driving many to retire or leave. Many of these scientists are not coming back. But the need for federal scientists could not be greater. The delta variant of the novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly, threatening the lives of millions of unvaccinated people. Our nation and world are racing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst effects of climate change. And other challenges, like antimicrobial resistance, lurk on the back shelves of government.

We want you, scientists — the nation needs you.

Jacob Carter is senior scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.