The New Congress Wants to End the War on Science
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Since 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency has been scrubbing its websites of information related to climate change. The agency took its main climate change website offline in April 2017, and systematically deleted the term “climate change” from sites on which the concept had been discussed. The agency also eliminated the role of science advisor, proposed new guidelines that would severely limit the agency’s ability to craft scientifically sound regulations, and disbanded two panels of air pollutant experts—at a time when the EPA is also reviewing its emissions policies.
But the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over the EPA, will soon be in new hands. Democrats won back control of the chamber in the midterm elections, and they’re ready to fight. On Nov. 6, the day of the vote, Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat widely expected to become the committee’s next chair, issued a statement promising to protect “scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks,” even if it means directly challenging the president. “We’ve gotten way off course by trying to stifle researchers and their research,” Johnson later said in an email to Bloomberg Businessweek. “I intend to get us back on track.”
She faces an uphill and largely lonely battle. Under the Trump administration, many federal agencies have already removed, redacted, or discontinued collecting an enormous amount of data on topics ranging from violent crime to animal welfare. Gone from the internet are training manuals for Immigration Services employees tasked with vetting asylum seekers, and documents designed to help the National Park Service deal with issues such as sea level rise. The Department of the Interior last year scrapped two ongoing studies, one on the health effects of “mountaintop mining” and another on oil rig workers’ safety. Action can’t be taken if no one knows what needs to be done. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“You’re seeing reports of data being removed in piecemeal fashion,” says Michael Gusmano, a health-care policy research scholar at the Hastings Institute, an independent bioethics research institute. “But if you pull them all together, there is a pattern of systematically eliminating information—or the posting of that information—by government agencies that, in my view, is part of a broader strategy, a desire to change the role of the federal government with regard to the dissemination of facts.”
Databases and wonky policy reports rarely inspire attention-grabbing headlines. But counting, measuring, and comparing the myriad social, economic and scientific minutiae of the country is one of the most fundamental services the federal government provides. More than 125 government agencies are dedicated to collecting and disseminating information; 13 of them focus primarily on statistics. They log everything from the amount of oil produced in the U.S. each year to how many fatal car accidents occurred in 2016 in Maine. (That would be 161.)
This information is vital to policymakers. “States and agencies rely on federal information. They use it to know where to put roads so they don’t flood, or how to protect people from potential pandemics,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that advocates for scientifically informed government policies. “Overall, what we’re seeing is a low-information approach to government.”
Agencies that have adopted this new antagonistic attitude toward information have two different possible approaches to making it harder to find. The first is simple: just stop collecting it. For example, last year, the Office of Management and Budget scrapped an Obama-era rule that would have required businesses to report employees’ salaries to the government, broken down by race and gender. That way, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would know if businesses had systemic pay gaps based on gender. With the rule rescinded, the department won’t know if or when companies skirt the law prohibiting pay discrimination. At the time, the OMB wrote in a memo to the EEOC that it was “concerned” about aspects of the rule, including its potential to infringe corporate confidentiality and the “practical utility” of the data collected.
The second method is to discontinue longstanding information-sharing practices. In July, for example, the Department of Education ended its 18-year-long practice of routinely disclosing to state attorneys general and law enforcement agencies complaints about schools or student loans filed by students. “They were claims that schools misrepresented their accreditation status, costs of their programs, or job placement rates,” says Charlotte Gomer, press officer for Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring. “We’d use that information to see if we needed to open an investigation. We don’t know why they stopped sharing this.” In an email to Bloomberg Businessweek, the department played down the change and said, “we are still willing and able to share information with law enforcement agencies.”
The situation at the EPA is slightly different. It’s not withholding information from other agencies so much as from itself. Without the two air pollution panels it dissolved in October, whose job had been to synthesize research on particle matter pollution and ground-level ozone for the EPA’s seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the group will have to review hundreds of pages of research on its own. “What they’re doing with the panels absolutely undermines their scientific credibility,” says Christopher Zarba, who worked at the EPA for 38 years and led a different advisory panel until he retired in February. “In all other administrations, there was an understanding that environmental protections needed to be based on science. Now the approach to science is: How do we get around it?”
The EPA has been particularly intent on discounting facts. In April, the agency’s then-administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a new rule requiring that all environmental regulations be based only on data that’s accessible to the public, which is a problem because environmental impact studies often deal with people’s private medical records. The rule was protested by 69 medical and health organizations, including the American Medical Association. Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, has postponed implementation of the rule until 2020 but says he supports it. If it goes into effect, it’s unclear whether long-term health studies will still be used to inform pollution limits.
The EPA’s new rule was proposed in consultation with House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, who had failed to get similar legislation passed in Congress. Johnson vehemently opposes it, noting that the EPA drafted it without consulting its own Scientific Advisory Board. “It seems to reason that when you propose a rule which directly affects how the EPA uses science, you’d want to consult with scientists,” she wrote in a letter to Pruitt in May. The EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
If Johnson takes over the House committee as expected, she will likely also scrutinize the elimination of the two pollution advisory panels. “There are now some checks and balances on what the Trump administration chooses to do,” says Halpern at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who says he is now slightly less concerned than before. In fact, he says, “We are cautiously optimistic.” –With Alyza Sebenius
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