WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is taking the unusual step of publicly recording the Trump administration’s political interference in science, compiling a list of dozen of regulatory decisions that may have been skewed by political interference with objective research.
The effort could support efforts to repeal the business-friendly regulations of the past four years as the scientific staff, plagued by four years of disregard, skyrocket. This is particularly evident at the Environmental Protection Agency, where President Biden’s political representatives believed that honest accounting of past problems was needed to reassure professional scientists that their findings would no longer be buried or tampered with.
In a blunt memo earlier this month, a senior Biden official said political manipulation under the Trump administration “threatened” the integrity of some science agencies. She cited specific examples of how the political leaders downgraded studies showing the harm of dicamba, a popular herbicide linked to cancer, and then decided that its effectiveness outweighed the risks.
The broader list of decisions where staff say scientific integrity has been violated is expected to score around 90 points, according to one person involved in the process. It currently includes well-known controversies such as the ricochet of decisions around the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay area, as well as decisions about relatively opaque toxic chemicals.
“The manipulation, suppression, or other obstruction of science has real consequences for human health and the environment,” EPO Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday in an agency-wide email message. “If politics drives science more than science informs politics, we are more likely to make political decisions that sacrifice the health of the weakest among us.”
He urged staff to present “concerns” to the Agency for Scientific Integrity Officials or the Independent Inspector General and promised to “encourage the open exchange of diverse scientific and political positions”.
“I also promise you that retaliation, retaliation, intimidation, bullying or other reprisals will not be tolerated,” Regan wrote.
The EPA has been the epicenter of some of the government’s most questionable decisions.
Mr Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, removed the agency’s website on climate change (which has now been replaced). fired and banned independent scientific advisors who received grants from the EPA (a policy that a court ultimately found illegal) and then replaced them with many industry representatives; and reversed science-backed policies such as limiting pollution from trucks with converted engines after meeting executives and lobbyists.
Mr Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, has been accused of repeatedly ignoring and disfellowshipping his own scientists, for example in issuing a rule to contain but not ban asbestos. declare the health effects of chlorpyrifos, a widespread pesticide, as “unsolved” despite years of government investigations showing its danger to infants; and enforcing a policy (which has since died in court) to limit the type of health and epidemiological studies that could be used to justify regulations.
Former Trump administration officials said the EPA’s efforts to discredit Mr Biden’s work, which they did with solid scientific discourse, were a kind of policy of their own.
“Every decision we have made in the Trump administration has been scientifically based and based on both advice and the approval of the scientific science team,” said Mandy Gunasekara, who served as chief of staff to Mr. Wheeler. “Not everyone agreed, but every team does.”
Jonathan H. Adler, director of the Center for Environmental Law at Case Western University, shared some of these concerns. Understanding how many people could die from a given exposure to a chemical is science, he explained. The decision whether this risk warrants lowering the threshold for using this chemical is a political judgment.
“The boundary between science and politics is not always well guarded,” said Adler.
Michal Freedhoff, the EPA’s new Assistant Administrative Assistant at the Chemical Safety Bureau, agreed in a recent interview that disagreements about how science should inform policy are common in any administration. But Ms. Freedhoff said what she discovered shortly after joining the agency in January went way beyond and beyond what she expected.
She said she has had briefings and meetings where scientists have been reluctant to explain how and why certain decisions were made during the Trump years, only to learn of multiple instances where researchers were directed to provide dates or certain studies to ignore or to be excluded decision making altogether.
Ms. Freedhoff also said career scientists and other employees have been forced to spend “inordinately” spending time helping politically affiliated companies obtain favorable classifications for their products.
The EPA declined to specify the companies involved or their political connections, saying that some of the decisions would be reviewed. But officials said a decision related to claims a small business might make for its pesticide. This involved at least three meetings with representatives of the Trump administration – unusual for a routine decision at the staff level.
In another case, according to Biden government officials, professional scientists had to spend considerable time helping a company whose product needed to be classified in such a way that it required less EPA oversight.
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“The commitment and the direction in which the career staff has really crossed a line,” said Ms. Freedhoff.
Those minor interventions, which she discovered after taking office, prompted her to write a March 10 memo to her staff outlining some of the more well-known violations of scientific integrity, she said. The memo asked employees to speak “without fear of retaliation or denigration” if they had scientific opinions that were inconsistent with the decisions of the new administration.
“Unless we clearly change direction and reaffirm the agency’s commitment to scientific integrity, transparency and decision-making in relation to the best science available,” the agency will continue to be treated with skepticism by the courts and the public, Ms. Freedhoff said.
Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, who served as head of the chemical safety bureau under Mr. Wheeler, said she was injured by Ms. Freedhoff’s memo.
“When someone like me reads a memo like this, it feels a little bit personal,” she said, “because while it is not written about me, I believe many of us who have been appointed to the administration are real worked hard to evaluate the staff and appreciate the science. “
She said the examples Ms. Freedhoff cited were of differences in scientific opinion, not violations of scientific integrity. One such decision was to withdraw an Obama-era plan to regulate the solvent trichlorethylene, or TCE, pending a new assessment. Emails first reported by Reveal News showed that when the agency concluded in 2019, as in the past, TCE was unsafe because it could deform fetal hearts even at low levels.
However, Ms. Dunn said the changes to the report followed an intense discussion among scientists and reviewers about the heart study. Choosing to emphasize some opinions over others “doesn’t necessarily mean the process is not having integrity,” she said. “It means there is a disagreement.”
Mr. Adler said it was important to expose wrongdoing and learn from past mistakes, but also warned of “endless accusations” and the “environmental equivalent of a truth and reconciliation commission” at the EPA. He was referring to the judicial authority subsequently assembled in South Africa about the end of apartheid.
William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator under first President George Bush and a critic of Pruitt and Wheeler, said he disagreed.
“There is no precedent for the attack on science, the diffusion, the openness that we saw in the last administration,” said Reilly. He said public accounting is exactly what the EPA needs now.
“While it might look like politics and probably affect the Trumpies as well, it’s a reasonable adjustment to what needs to be a big change,” he said. “It is a response to both the reality of scientific abuse and the morality of the authorities.”