Donald Trump’s Postponed Science Test
Political Screening of Science Backfires as Scientific Integrity Policies Dangle
Washington, DC — In its infancy, the Trump administration is struggling mightily with how to handle scientific research and technical analyses. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) warns today in a letter to the President that failure to embrace scientific integrity and informational transparency will inevitably miscarry, fueling continuing and counterproductive backlash.
Currently, federal policies against political manipulation or suppression of science are at a crossroads. President Obama rhetorically espoused scientific integrity policies. However, an assessment of these policies commissioned by his Office of Science & Technology Policy yielded mixed results. While 24 agencies with major scientific programs have adopted some policy, the December 2016 review found –
- Not all are complete, failing to address key elements mandated in a 2009 presidential directive;
- Some are missing definitions for key terms, such as “scientific integrity” or “scientific misconduct,” others take differing approaches and lack uniformity even in who is covered; and
- There was no effort to find out which policies worked or to encourage adoption of best practices.
These gaps were underscored by outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s posting the agency’s first detailed scientific integrity policy in his last week in office. This belated policy declared that Energy Department scientists could communicate without political filters but omitted any enforcement mechanism for this new right. At least that agency was moving forward; in late 2014 the Interior Department moved backwards, weakening its policy after scientists’ complaints of misconduct by managers began to be validated. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is fighting a lawsuit aiming at strengthening its policy and ending a gag order forbidding scientists from creating controversy.
“President Obama established only a beachhead on scientific integrity with little impact on actual agency practices,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER which has repeatedly critiqued existing policies as vague and unenforceable. “Despite being at the epicenter of a national debate on scientific quality, the Environmental Protection Agency epitomizes the problem by fielding an especially feeble policy that offers little security for either its scientists or their work.”
Conversely, attempts to politically alter scientific results usually misfire, as amply illustrated by exposés of ham-handed efforts during the George W. Bush administration. Similarly, the Trump team has hastily retreated from initial attempts to screen EPA and other agency science on a “case-by-case” basis in the words of a Trump EPA landing team member that were walked back the day after they were uttered.
“Trump administration attempts to manipulate science to fit its official talking points will inescapably fail, automatically be leaked and subject this White House to a daily death by a thousand paper cuts, as they have experienced in just their first week in office,” predicted Ruch, arguing that the only way to quell the quagmire of unending controversy on issue after issue is to establish strong, clear and uniform guidelines ensuring a transparent paper trail and allowing scientific information to be freely shared. “President Trump could make lemonade out of an entire lemon orchard of scientific conflict in his path but it will require him to champion openness as his official stance regarding science.”
Last week, Sigma Xi, the research honor society, wrote to President Trump urging that he maintain a posture of scientific transparency. Separately, the American Geophysical Union wrote to ten federal agency heads protesting restrictions on the flow of scientific information. Neither has yet received a reply.