Interior whistleblowers say agency has sidelined scientists under Trump

Interior whistleblowers say agency has sidelined scientists under Trump
© Greg Nash

Former Interior Department employees who say they experienced retaliation at the agency for their work on scientific endeavors appeared before lawmakers Thursday, sparking political wrangling over the role of scientists in the Trump administration.

Republicans used the appearances to accuse Democrats of political theater, while Democrats in turn stepped up calls for scientists to be protected. 

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Among those testifying were Joel Clement, a whistleblower who said he was removed from his work on climate change and reassigned to an accounting role. 

Also testifying was Maria Caffrey, who said she had to fight with the Interior Department to keep references to the human contributions to climate change in a report on how sea level rise would impact national parks.

Clement said under the Trump administration, the Interior Department “has sidelined scientists and experts, flattened the morale of the career staff, and by all accounts, is bent on hollowing out the Agency.”

Clement, now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said he was removed from his work with 30 Alaska Native communities that were “one big storm away from being wiped right off the map” and needed to be immediately relocated. 

Caffrey, whose research was funded by the Interior Department, said she found herself repeatedly demoted at the agency after pushing to keep references to the human impacts of climate change in her report. 

“It removes the meaning from my study. I prepared four different climate scenarios for those three different time periods, so those scenarios hang on how much greenhouse gases we produce in the future,” she said, including how much humans contribute to the atmosphere. 

“I had become at outcast for standing up,” she added, noting the department told her they didn’t want her help even on a volunteer basis. She is now looking for work in the Denver area. 

The hearing was to discuss the Scientific Integrity Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: Trump tweets he's revoking California's tailpipe waiver | Move comes as Trump visits state | California prepares for court fight | Climate activist Greta Thunberg urges lawmakers to listen to scientists Democrats hold first hearing in push for clean energy by 2050 Democrats ramp up calls to investigate NOAA MORE (D-N.Y.) that would add protections for government scientists, including allowing them to publish research outside of government channels and establish a Scientific Integrity Officer. 

Several Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee complained the hearing was political theater centered around a bill that would have to pass out of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

They said there were more complaints about misuse of science under the Obama administration.

“In listening to some of our panelists today you would think that the Trump administration was the only one where there have been issues regarding scientific integrity, and that certainly is not the case,” said Rep. Jody HiceJody Brownlow HiceGOP lawmakers, states back gunmaker in Sandy Hook appeal GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped House conservatives call for ethics probe into Joaquin Castro tweet MORE (R-Ga.). 

Tonko said such instances should only strengthen their interest in joining their bill.

“If you believe in science and scientific integrity we should have learned from that past and not look for a reason not to do this,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that "it’s no secret that the Trump administration is not a fan of science.”

“There are the stories that career scientists at Interior are too afraid to share. And with good reason. They have seen their colleagues, like our witnesses, get threatened, harassed, reassigned, and retaliated against,” he added.

Scientists have been vocal about what they view as mistreatment under the Trump administration.

They have cited examples, ranging from limiting government-funded scientists from sitting on an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) board to a proposal to limit what kind of studies can be considered by the EPA, to recent plans to relocate U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers and Bureau of Land Management policymakers

“To purge the language of climate change from the agency entirely is a direct assault on the science we know is very prominent and very clear on the risk to the mission of the agency that we act now to protect real people in harm’s way,” Clement said.   

Interior was invited to attend the hearing but did not send a representative.

"The Department of the Interior diligently works to accommodate Congressional invitations to testify," spokeswoman Molly Block said in a statement to The Hill, saying it had participated in 59 of 62 Congressional legislative and oversight hearings that the Department has been invited to, or 95 percent, and provided over 65 witnesses for Committees."

"Our scientific integrity policy is defined as the adherence to ethical and professional standards that lead to objective, clear, and reproducible science. We appreciate the Committee's interest in this shared commitment," Block said.