Bipartisan report says Trump’s abuse has pushed federal science to a ‘crisis’

(Michael Stravato | The New York Times, file) Natural gas being flared at well site north of Odessa, Texas, Jan. 29, 2016.

Washington • In a single month in 2017, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency blocked scientists from speaking at a climate change conference, its Interior Department forwarded a policy letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection only after deleting concerns from biologists about a border wall’s effects on wildlife, and the FBI issued a crime report that omitted dozens of tables of data on homicides and arrests.

That October was fairly typical for the Trump administration, according to a new report out of New York University, led by Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney, and Christine Todd Whitman, who led the EPA for George W. Bush.

Every president over the past two decades has, to some degree, undermined research and injected politics into science, the report said. But, it concluded, “Now, we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.” The report calls for stringent new standards to enshrine scientific independence.

The study, to be formally released Thursday, follows reports that President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, pressured the commerce secretary to rebuke weather forecasters who appeared to contradict the president after he erroneously claimed a recent hurricane could affect Alabama. This summer a State Department intelligence analyst resigned in protest after the White House tried to edit scientific testimony about climate change and then blocked it from being entered into the permanent Congressional Record. For months the White House debated a plan to publicly question the established scientific conclusions about the severity of climate change.

“While the threat to the independence of scientific data did not start with this administration, it has certainly accelerated of late,” said Whitman, a Republican who also served as New Jersey’s governor, in an emailed statement.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings.

The report is the second in a series of studies issued by a democracy task force that was launched last year at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. Both Bharara and Whitman have been critical of Trump, but they emphasized that stronger laws against financial conflicts, political interference with law enforcement and the suppression of science were needed to curtail the impulses of any president from either party.

Under President George H.W. Bush, the report noted, the White House altered the scientific testimony of James E. Hansen, a NASA scientist, to make his conclusions about climate change appear less certain. The EPA under President Barack Obama made last-minute changes to a report to downplay the risks of an oil and gas extraction technique known as fracking on the nation’s water supply. In another instance the Obama administration issued a memo discouraging members of EPA’s scientific advisory boards from speaking publicly without agency approval.

But the report reserved special condemnation for the actions of the Trump administration, which has disbanded independent scientific review boards, altered reports that contradict the administration’s political views and relocated researchers whose conclusions were politically uncomfortable. For instance, the Agriculture Department decided in May to move some of its economists out of Washington after they presented research indicating that the agricultural benefits of Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut would flow largely to the nation’s richest farmers.

On Oct. 13, 2017, the Interior Department sent a supportive letter to border patrol officials considering Trump’s proposed wall along the southwestern frontier, but deleted concerns by scientists about the harm that a physical structure could cause the habitats of rare cats and other wildlife in the area, according to the report. A few days later the EPA barred three agency scientists from speaking at a conference in Rhode Island about the effects of climate change on Narragansett Bay. A week after that the FBI issued its annual report of crime data with 70% fewer data tables. The changes, according to a report at the time, did not go through the normal review process.

“Policies governing the health and welfare of the public and of our shared environment have to be based in credible, independent science,” Whitman said in emailed remarks. “For the public to lose faith in that process will call into question everything that has been done to make our drugs and food safe and our environment healthier.”

The authors maintain that, without action from Congress, future administrations of either party could further erode the independence of federal scientific data. Among the changes it recommended was legislation to require that all federal agencies that perform scientific research articulate clear standards for, and report on, how political officials interact with career scientists.

While that seems like a long shot in the current Congress, where even the definition of scientific integrity is in dispute, the authors said they are optimistic that rules governing scientific advisory bodies could earn bipartisan support. Legislation by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., to develop scientific integrity standards has 217 co-sponsors, but none are Republican.

“There’s truth and there’s science, and that shouldn’t be swayed by whether someone is a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican,” Bharara said in an interview.