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Restrictions on science not limited to Trump administration's highest ranks: report

Restrictions on science not limited to Trump administration's highest ranks: report
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Efforts to stymie government research into climate change and other controversial topics are increasingly being pushed by mid-level managers rather than high-level appointees, according to reporting from The New York Times

Fears of losing jobs and funding has led career employees to undermine scientific efforts, asking government researchers to remove references to climate change in their studies.

“If top-level administrators issued a really clear public directive, there would be an uproar and a pushback, and it would be easier to combat,” Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, told the outlet. “This is a lot harder to fight.”

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Indeed, many of the biggest scientific efforts from the Trump administration have faced steep resistance.

A proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to bar use of scientific studies that don’t make their underlying data public led to an overwhelming 600,000 comments, many negative.

The agency has since produced a proposal that limits the use of such studies, but critics fear it will still nix consideration of important public health studies that are unable to release participants’ confidential health data.

But growing research suggests the effort to restrict some scientific studies isn’t limited to the highest ranks.

A May report from the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General found that more than 60 percent of the 400 employees surveyed said they were concerned about higher ups interfering with science.

Nearly half said their concern involved “suppression or delay of release of scientific report or information.”

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Another survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which surveyed 63,000 federal employees across 16 agencies, found EPA and the Department of the Interior to carry out the lion’s share of scientific interference.

An April study on the 2018 survey found those agencies, along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had more than half of employees who responded reporting “‘influence of political appointees’ and ‘absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise’ as major barriers to science-based decisions made at their agency.”

Over 20 percent of EPA and Interior employees also said they avoided working on climate change or using the phrase climate change, even if they were not explicitly told to do so.

A number of employees at each agency have spoken up after they felt their work was sidelined by superiors.

Maria 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 on how sea level rise would impact national parks.

“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,” including how much humans contribute to the atmosphere, Caffrey told lawmakers last year.

“I had become an outcast for standing up,” she added, noting the department told her they didn’t want her help even on a volunteer basis.

Joel Clement, now with Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, filed a whistleblower complaint after he was removed from his work on climate change and reassigned to an accounting role. 

Clement, speaking at the same hearing as Caffrey, 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.”

Patrick Gonzalez, the chief climate change scientist at the National Park Service, faced resistance in 2018 when seeking to publish a study showing how climate change was impacting national parks. The study's first sentence included a reference to climate change.

“Without reading any more of the manuscript, she said, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to change that,’” Gonzales, speaking to The Times, said of his supervisor.

Gonzales refused to make the changes suggested by the agency, and the paper was ultimately published three months later.

Democrats have made repeated efforts to protect scientific integrity under the Trump administration, including a measure in the latest House stimulus package. The bill has not been taken up in the Senate, however.