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The risks to science-based policy we aren’t talking about

Speed read
  • To perform the most good, public policies should answer to evidence
  • Conflicts of interest and disregard for science threaten the general welfare
  • The March for Science is a starting point for restoring the place of science

“Thank you, Dr. Goldman. That was frightening,” moderator Keesha Gaskins-Nathan said to me after I spoke last week as the only scientist at the Stetson University Law Review Symposium

My talk covered the ways that the role of science in federal decisionmaking is being degraded by the Trump administration, by Congress, and by corporate and ideological forces.<strong>Gretchen Goldman</strong> is Research Director for The Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Together, these alarming moves are poised to damage the crucial role that science plays in keeping us all safe and healthy — this is why I will march at the March for Science on April 22. 

If current trends proceed unabated, science-based policy as we know it could change forever. Indeed, some of its core tenets are being chipped away. And a lot is at stake if we fail to stop it.

We are currently witnessing efforts by this administration and Congress to freeze and roll back the federal government’s work to protect public health and safety.  Congress is attempting to pollute the science advice that decisionmakers depend on, and is appointing decisionmakers who are openly hostile to the very missions of the science agencies they now lead.

Threats to science-based America

We cannot afford to make decisions without science.  But now, this very process by which we make science-based policies in this country is under threat.

Our decisionmakers have deep conflicts of interest, disrespect for science, and aren’t being transparent.

This is a recipe for disaster.

How can our leaders use science effectively to inform policy decisions if they can’t even make independent decisions and don’t recognize the value of science?<strong>Got responsibility?</strong> We are creating our children's future. What kind of world will we leave them? Courtesy Union of Concerned Scientists.

EPA chief administrator Scott Pruitt, for example, this month said that carbon dioxide “is not a primary contributor to global warming.” (It is.)

This blatant misinforming on climate science occurred on top of his extensive record of suing the agency over the science-based ozone rule I just described (among other rules).

This type of disrespect for science-based policies from cabinet members is an alarming signal of the kind of scientific integrity losses we can expect under this administration. 

Congress is trying to degrade science advice.

A cornerstone of science-based policy is the role of independent science advice feeding into policy decisions.

But Congress wants to change who sits on science advisory committees and redefine what counts as science. The Regulatory Accountability Act, for example, would threaten how federal agencies can use science to make policy decisions.

Past versions of the bill (which has already passed the House this year and is expected to be introduced soon in the Senate) have included concerning provisions. One mandated that government agencies could only use science if all of the underlying data and methods were publicly available — including health data, proprietary data, trade secrets, and intellectual property.

In another case, the bill added more than 70 new regulatory procedures that would effectively shut down the government's ability to protect us from new threats to our health, safety, and the environment. It is a dangerous precedent when politicians — not scientists — are deciding how science can inform policy decisions. 

Scientists face intimidation, muzzling, and political attacks.

No one becomes a scientist because they want a political target on their back. But this is unfortunately what many scientists are now facing<strong>Burning down the house. </strong> Upton Sinclair famously observed that 'it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.' Sinclair knew that we cannot eat money and that there is no Planet B. Courtesy Union of Concerned Scientists.

While it won’t be enacted in its current form, the president’s budget shows his frightening priorities, which apparently include major cuts to science agencies like the EPA, Department of Energy, and NOAA.

Communication gag orders, disappearing data, and review of scientific documents by political appointees in the first month of the administration have created a chilling effect for scientists within the government.

Congress has even revived the Holman Rule, which allows them to reduce the salary of a federal employee down to $1.

It is easy to see how such powers could be used to target government scientists producing political controversial science. 

Hurting science hurts real people

Importantly, we must be clear about who will be affected most if science-based policymaking is dismantled. In many cases, these burdens will disproportionately fall on low-income communities and communities of color.

If we cannot protect people from ozone pollution, those in urban areas, those without air conditioning, and those with lung diseases will be hurt most.

If we cannot address climate change, frontline communities in low-lying areas will bear the brunt of it.

If we cannot keep harmful chemicals out of children’s toys, families who buy cheaper products at dollar stores will pay the price.

Courtesy Union of Concerned Scientists.

If we cannot protect people from unsafe drugs (FDA), contaminated food (USDA, FDA), occupational hazards (OSHA), chemical disasters (EPA, OSHA, DHS), dangerous vehicles (DOT) and unsafe consumer products (CPSC), then we're all at risk.

This is about more than science. It is about protecting people using the power of science. We have everything to lose. 

But we can take action. We can articulate the benefits of science to decision makers, the media, and the public.

We can hold our leaders accountable for moves they make to dismantle science-based policy process.

And we can support our fellow scientists both in and outside of the federal government.

It starts with marching — but it cannot end here.

The March for Science is Saturday April 22. Over 500 sites around the world will be participating, so find a site near you.

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