By Oliver Milman
The Guardian
October 3, 2019

Nonpartisan taskforce of ex-government officials reports ‘almost weekly violations’ of norms meant to safeguard objective research.

The treatment of science by the Trump administration has hit a “crisis point” where research findings are manipulated for political gain, special interests are given improper influence and scientists are targeted for ideological reasons, a nonpartisan taskforce of former government officials has warned.

Safeguards meant to ensure that government research is objective and fully available to the public have been “steadily weakening” under recent administrations and are now at a nadir under Trump, according to a report released on Thursday by the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy.

There are now “almost weekly violations” of previously cherished norms, the report states, with the current administration attempting “not only to politicize scientific and technical research on a range of topics, but also, at times, to undermine the value of objective facts themselves”.

The report echoes complaints by a number of former federal government officials who claim their work on areas such as the climate crisis and pollution standards was either sidelined or subverted by the Trump administration as part of its zeal for environmental deregulation.

“Politics is driving decisions and has been for some time,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who was formerly administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Whitman co-chairs the taskforce with former US attorney Preet Bharara.

“Right now, any finding that seems to be restricting business, especially the energy industry, appears to be destined for elimination,” Whitman said.

The taskforce, formed under the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, cites the recent “sharpiegate” scandal, in which Trump erroneously claimed a hurricane would hit Alabama, subsequently holding up a doctored map. Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were reportedly pressured to back the president or face being fired.

In another case, economists at the Department of Agriculture were relocated after they published findings showing the Trump administration’s trade policies would harm farmers. Meanwhile, the Department of Interior reassigned a climate scientist to an accounting role after he warned about the impact of global heating on Arctic communities.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, scientific advisory boards have been redrawn to include more industry representatives. The EPA’s leadership also told scientists to reverse their findings in a report that showed the economic benefits to protecting wetlands from pollution, while suppressing a separate study that found a far greater threat is posed by a toxic chemical in water than previously thought.

“Let’s face it, without credible science the fundamental responsibilities of our government are threatened,” said Thomas Burke, who was a senior official in the EPA’s office of research and development during the Obama administration. “I fear the public has lost faith in our agencies, and our best and brightest are being discouraged and blocked from federal service.

“As a former federal scientist and veteran of the appointment process I often ask ‘why would anyone want to serve at the highest levels of our science-based agencies in this time of science denial?’ We have to protect our scientists and the integrity of their work.”

The taskforce, which also includes the former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, makes clear that the mistreatment of science didn’t start under Trump. The report recalls how government reports were edited to downplay the link between carbon emissions and climate change under the George W Bush administration, as well as improper changes to a study on the impact of fracking on drinking water during Barack Obama’s presidency.

But the group warns that the problem has escalated under Trump due to a combination of hefty campaign contributions from special interests, the appointment of unqualified cronies to senior positions and the reluctance of Congress to act as a proper check.

In order to remedy the current situation, the report recommends new scientific integrity standards at government agencies, fresh rules to eliminate manipulation or suppression of research and better public access to government data.

However, even the introduction of new laws would only do so much, Whitman warned. “Establishing laws of conduct will go a great way toward driving more sciences-based decisions, but issues such as climate change will require leadership from the top,” she said.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash