At March for Science, Federal Researchers Weather Trump Storm
Attendance at this weekend’s March for Science is expected to be lower than last year’s, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest the Trump administration and its science policies. Many anti-Trump protesters say their attention is now focused on other forms of action, such as filing lawsuits to overturn new rules, or recruiting scientists to run for office in local, state, and congressional offices.
“Part of what we wanted to see from the march last year was to take the anger and energy and excitement and put it to work in their local communities,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, director of 314 Action, a group that takes its name from the first three numerals of pi and is dedicated to recruiting and advising candidates with STEM backgrounds to run for public office. So far, the group has endorsed 50 candidates (all Democrats) in school board, state legislature, and congressional mid-term races.
Naughton says polling shows the general public trusts scientists, and that trust can help in coming up with evidence-based policy prescriptions. “Scientists represent the outsider status, people who aren’t beholden to politics as usual and that does resonate with folks,” she says. “It also gives credibility on the most important issues of education, health care, the environment or gun safety. It can take them outside Democrat or Republican talking points.”
Naughton won’t make this year’s march in Washington, DC, or one planned in her home town of Philadelphia. Neither will Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based group that has filed numerous lawsuits in the past year to obtain information from the EPA, Department of the Interior, and other federal science-based agencies. Ruch has been hearing directly from many federal scientists about the administration’s policies. The impression he gets is that the Trump administration has been ignoring science, rather than suppressing it.
“It’s more benign neglect,” Ruch says of Trump-administration leadership at various agencies. “Science isn’t being used to inform decision making. They don’t need it, they aren’t interested in it.” At the same time, he adds, agencies are issuing new rules or repealing old ones to benefit industry without using scientific justification for the changes. “Scientific information isn’t figuring into public policy, and in many instances the decisions are more vulnerable to court challenges.”
At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, efforts to delay or roll back regulations on pesticides, lead paint, and renewable-fuel requirements have been struck down by the courts, according to the New York Times. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt also backed down on a proposal to delay implementing smog regulations and another to withdraw a regulation on mercury pollution. Ruch noted similar efforts to change rules at the Department of the Interior and NOAA.
Sociologist Jamie Kucinskas spent last year interviewing protesters at the March for Science in Washington, DC. She was able to find 46 federal scientists for follow up interviews to find out whether they were resisting new rules that they might not agree with. “What surprised us the most is that the majority of people were much more careful or cautious than we expected,” says Kucinskas, a professor at Hamilton College. “They were wary to take any rash action.”
Kucinskas, who will continue her interviews this summer and fall, says many federal scientists both in Washington and in regional offices are afraid of being moved or pushed out of positions in which they have expertise. “Past administrations used the knowledge and expertise of civil servants a lot more, this administration has not,” she says. “The feedback [from her interviews] has been, ‘I have this expertise but nobody has asked me.’ There was also a lot of reports of incompetence form this administration that was striking to me.” While she would not identify her subjects by name, Kucinskas says they came from the EPA and the Departments of Interior, State, Treasury and Health and Human Services. Many were trying to figure out what kind of pressure from political appointees they would be willing to accept, and what pressure would force them to leave the government.
“People were seriously thinking, ‘should I stick it out, ethically can I do the work that I am doing?’ People were thinking about that question and what would be their line,” Kucinskas says. She adds that some federal scientists have taken buyouts or retired early if possible. Others who are at an earlier point on their career path or who are still paying back students loans are hunkering down.
Despite the ethics issues and political upheavals at several federal science agencies, scientists interviewed say that they still value government service. While science-based decision making might have taken a backseat in Washington for now, those civil servants are hoping it might change after the next election.