Trump’s dangerous science denial is seeping deeper into the federal government


President Trump hates science. The people he appoints to head up agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, National Parks Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hate science, too. While there are thousands of scientists, researchers, and public servants operating within those agencies that still believe in the importance of science, a report from the New York Times suggests their voices are increasingly being stifled by lower- and middle-level managers who are now taking their marching orders from science skeptics and climate change deniers. The efforts aren't even necessarily intentional or the result of an order from the top, but rather the result of those managers internalizing Trump's dismissal of science and letting it seep into their work.

The seeds of scientific doubt were planted early on in the Trump administration, as the President made promises to bring back dirty-burning, emissions-heavy coal as an energy source and threatened to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Those decisions, along with placing coal lobbyists and climate change skeptics in high places throughout the administration has created a "science crisis" in which the federal government rejects inconvenient facts for political gain. Now, thanks to a number of internal and external reports, the effects of Trump's war on science can be seen more clearly. According to an Inspector General report at the EPA published last month, nearly 400 employees surveyed in 2018 said a superior interfered with or suppressed the release of scientific information. A survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2018 found that government employees believe the EPA and Department of Interior have the least trustworthy leadership when it comes to scientific integrity. Earlier this year, a report published in PLOS ONE found that 631 federal government employees reported being asked by higher-ups to exclude the phrase "climate change" from their work. Another 703 reported avoiding working on the topic entirely.

When scientists working under the Trump administration do conduct research on climate change, it rarely bears the markings of the federal government. According to the New York Times, a paper published on natural solutions to climate change earlier this year was conducted by a research chemist at the United States Geological Survey but excluded the researcher's government affiliation. Dr. John Crusius, the researcher behind the paper, told the Times that the paper was denied government approval because it had to do with efforts to combat climate change.

Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, had similar experiences attempting to publish research in the Trump era. A study he authored that showed ties between extreme weather events and climate change was funded by a grant from the Energy Department. He was asked to tone down certain language that might play up the importance of addressing climate change. When Diffenbaugh published another paper focusing on the Paris Climate Agreement’s carbon reduction goals and the potential effect they would have on extreme weather events, he was told by the Energy Department to cut references to the Paris Agreement or publish it without mention of the government grant.

Undermining or simply ignoring science has been Trump's M.O. since he took office, but the instances highlighted by the Times report and surveys of dismayed federal employees suggests something more pervasive and potentially destructive is happening.

When Trump says that the noise from windmills cause cancer, it's relatively easy to debunk the statement. But when the government refuses to release research because the findings aren't to its liking, or actively changes reports to include false information not backed by the work of researchers, as happened with multiple reports published by the Interior Department, it is no longer just ignoring the science — it is making it up.

That's what happened when Neil Jacobs, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, decided to intentionally undermine his own agency's research because it undermined President Trump’s inaccurate claim that a hurricane would hit Alabama. An investigative panel found yesterday that Jacobs' decision intentionally disregarded the agency's scientific integrity policy, but there is no indication he will face any penalty for his actions. Instead, he'll likely continue running the agency in a way that keeps the president happy, while all of the lifelong scientists and researchers working under him have to continue doing their jobs with no guarantee their work won't be manipulated or suppressed.