Watchdog and Advocacy Coalition Report Warns of Systemic Attacks on Science

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by Government Accountability Project Staff
November 15, 2018

The Report Exposes Chronic Interference With Federal Science and Public Health and Safety Measures Under the Trump Administration and Makes Critical Recommendations to Congress

A report released today by a coalition of prominent watchdog and advocacy groups – including Government Accountability Project – chronicles a litany of recent attacks on federal science and scientists by Trump administration officials intent on undermining the critical regulatory role government plays in safeguarding public health and safety. The report, “Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help,” arose out of mounting concerns that some of our elected officials are chronically crippling key science programs, and ignoring, suppressing, censoring, and distorting scientific information in order to weaken regulatory functions that serve to protect human health and the environment but disadvantage certain industry interests. Government Accountability Project was the lead contributor to the chapter on whistleblowing and scientific integrity, as well as a contributor to the chapter on reduced communications. The report concludes that widespread, politically-motivated interference in sound science causes unsound policy decisions, and Congress must act swiftly and decisively to reverse this dangerous trend to get the nation back on course.

The new report walks through countless troubling examples of deliberate efforts by Trump administration agency heads and political appointees to dismantle federal science programs, discredit scientific data, disconnect scientific fact from decision-making, and destroy public trust in government. Many current high-level political appointees lack adequate experience and credentials for the positions they are assigned to manage and often bring with them serious conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, Congress has been lax, even negligent, in carrying out its oversight responsibilities. This must change.

The watchdog and public interest groups who authored this report share a strong concern that we are witnessing an epidemic of intentional ignorance and scientific blind spots at the highest levels of government, at a time when all Americans face escalating threats to our health and well-being – such as a broken health care system and runaway climate change. Collectively we put forth a set of thoughtful recommendations for the incoming 116th Congress to consider that include specific legislative proposals as well as a call for greatly improved oversight to hold government officials accountable to the public they serve.

The U.S. government invests well over $100 billion a year on scientific research and technology development, and federal agencies have traditionally relied heavily on scientific findings to support complex regulatory and policy decisions. Now, science itself is under attack: this administration is systematically dismantling a host of science advisory committees and hampering them from providing scientific information and guidance to federal regulatory program managers. Blatant disregard of fact-based evidence – even wholesale rejection of facts themselves – fostered by the Trump White House place all of us at greater risk by exposing us to toxic chemicals, polluting our air and water, eroding and blocking access to adequate health care, compromising national security, and raising the risk of exposure to dangerous climate change impacts.

We are especially troubled by the enormous disparity between the alarm bells rung in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and the tepid U.S. response. As President Trump promotes a coal industry come-back and calls for fewer regulatory checks on rampant oil and gas extraction – thereby ramping up carbon emissions when we most need to be making significant cuts – we face the increasingly imminent threat of runaway climate change and its dangerous impacts. Global climate disruption is happening now, as evidenced by western-wildfires-turned-raging-infernos sweeping across California incinerating entire towns and communities; more hazardous hurricanes and unprecedented rainfall and flooding; storm surges and sea level rise inundating coastal areas. Our Environment, Energy, and Climate Change team members are increasingly troubled by the hundreds of regulatory rollbacks of environmental protection provisions across the federal government and the corruption in key agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Interior (DOI), and the National Park Service (NPS). The EPA, FEMA, and NPS have all removed references to climate change on their respective websites. One EPA official has even taken it upon himself to weed out grant proposals with the words “climate change” from those eligible for funding.

The federal healthcare arena is also highly problematic and demands better Congressional oversight. For example, employees at the Centers for Disease Control have been issued gag orders and were told not to correspond at all with the news media. Perhaps one of the most frightening examples of censorship under the Trump presidency is an attempt by the EPA and some White House staff to block publication of a draft toxicological profile examining health risks of human exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) – synthetic chemicals founded in everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam — because the report would be a “public relations nightmare.” These actions are in opposition to the core missions of these federal agencies.

Chapter 5, “Whistleblowing and Scientific Integrity,” documents how assaults on science – particularly on scientists who seek to speak out about censorship, public health threats, environmental dangers, and wasteful spending – while not unique to this administration, have markedly escalated. In this chapter, Government Accountability Project profiles whistleblowers who have made important disclosures – for example, cover-ups about drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan; the arbitrary transfer of a high-level DOI official outspoken on the adverse effects of climate change on Alaskan Native communities; the threat of nuclear plant failures caused by flooding; and the abuses of power and ethics conflicts of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Courageous whistleblowers who serve the public interest by exposing wrongdoing in the workplace all too often suffer retaliation and reprisal, and too few are aware of their lawful whistleblower protection rights. In the chilled environment of the Trump administration, described at length in Chapter 4, “Reduced Communications from Scientific Agencies,” we urge Congress to do more to protect employees who exercise their rights to blow the whistle on serious misconduct.

Greed and corruption will never be fully purged from agencies, because systemic forces encourage them, but history has shown that there will also always be whistleblowers – employees who raise concerns about abuses to protect the public interest. At Government Accountability Project, we protect whistleblowers in three key ways: litigation, education, and whistleblower protection legislation. When whistleblowers are retaliated against for bravely speaking the truth, we stand by them and fight for restitution and remedy. We also believe in responsible preparation and a well-informed federal workforce, and encourage all government workers to read and study our new guide, Speaking up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees.

In the report released today, we argue for three legislative reforms that would support whistleblowers: access to court with jury trials, protections from retaliatory investigations that become criminal prosecutions, and opportunities for interim relief. These expanded protections would give whistleblowers a fighting chance to survive their service of speaking up for science and the public good.

The 116th Congress can take positive action by vigorously exercising its Constitutional power of investigation and oversight, holding federal officials accountable, vetting nominees more carefully and responsibly before confirming them, holding more frequent oversight hearings, and actively supporting legitimate whistleblowers.

If you agree with these recommendations, now is the time to take action. Politicians listen to their constituents, and it is time to ask them for more oversight.

Contributors to and supporters of the report include:

  • Climate Science Legal Defense Fund
  • Defenders of Wildlife
  • Democracy Forward
  • Environmental Integrity Project
  • Environmental Protection Network
  • Government Accountability Project
  • Greenpeace
  • Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health
  • National Center for Health Research
  • National Federation of Federal Employees
  • National LGBTQ Task Force
  • National Partnership for Women & Families
  • National Women’s Health Network
  • Power to Decide
  • Project on Government Oversight
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
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