By Rachael Lyle,
New data from the Silencing Science Tracker, a joint initiative of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, show a dispiriting trend of continued attacks on science. While thousands of scientists were repeatedly silenced, sidelined, or outright fired during the Trump administration (the EPA alone lost 672 scientists during Trump’s presidency), recent data from the tracker reveal that this trend has continued. While the rate has not been nearly as aggressive, the first year of the Biden administration has seen continued anti-science actions at the federal as well as state level—with a majority of the attacks aimed at climate and COVID-19 researchers. And while it has made some meaningful progress, the Biden administration has also been very slow at undoing the extensive damage caused by the Trump administration.
During the Trump administration, we saw a disturbing number of scientists targeted with political interference – our tracker catalogued 160 instances of government censorship and 45 instances of research hindrance, among other actions. The tracker, which compiles publicly reported media stories, continues to collect new entries as they are uncovered. For example, during Trump’s time in office, DOI officials stripped language written by federal scientists regarding environmental impacts to be felt by endangered species resultant from construction of the US-Mexico border wall; the administration delayed, then heavily edited, a press release on a USGS study concerned with flooding risks in California related to rising sea levels; and the DOI issued an order to enact an “open science” policy at the agency, similar to EPA’s restricting science rule. Even as his presidency was waning, Trump sought Congressional approval to cut $27.4 billion from federal environmental programs.
In an effort to restore respect for science to the White House, Biden promised that “[s]cience will always be at the forefront of my administration.” Nonetheless, data from the tracker show that the Biden administration has reversed only a small fraction of Trump-era anti-science actions, with a majority of chilling actions remaining untouched. Meanwhile, assaults on science have continued, at both the state and federal levels.
At the state level, just one day after Biden took office, two bills were introduced in the Oklahoma Senate that aimed to undermine science education by allowing teachers to question proven scientific theories in areas seen as controversial (such as evolution). The next day, a bill was introduced in the Connecticut House of Representatives which would require students to be “exposed to the debate” regarding the causes of climate change. Science education groups rightly worried that imposing such a requirement could force teachers to present anthropogenic climate change as a disputed scientific theory (it is not). More recently, in a June 5, 2021, speech to the Republican Women of Greater Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), falsely said climate change was “bull—-” (mouthing the full expletive).
In New York, Governor Cuomo’s administration sought to exclude health officials from management decisions relating to the pandemic, and a budget was approved which eliminated the state’s Stem Cell Science program. Meanwhile, in Georgia, Representative Greene demanded that Dr. Fauci be removed from his post as NIAID Director over untrue claims that he was “criminally liable” for funding research to create what she called the COVID-19 “bioweapon.” She falsely tweeted that the FDA should not approve vaccines because they “do not reduce the spread of the virus & neither do masks” before calling Twitter a “disgrace to democracy” when her account was suspended for spreading misinformation.
At the federal level, the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic has also not been entirely evidence based. For example, in the midst of a surge of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, the CDC issued an updated set of guidelines leaving it up to Americans (including severely immunocompromised people and those who might expose them) to decide whether to don masks in most indoor settings. This approach runs contrary to the recommendations of epidemiological experts and hospital workers alike. Biden, who is responsible for appointing the heads of federal agencies such as the CDC, has the authority and obligation to transform it into a more science-led agency but has thus far fallen short in doing so.
Also contrary to his stated science-forward ethos, Biden appointed Eric Lander as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. OSTP staff who raised concerns about his behavior and potential ethics violations were allegedly retaliated against, contributing to a toxic and demoralized workplace—particularly for women and people of color who, as the tracker reveals, often already receive outsize pressure and vitriol for delving into politically unpopular topics.
Meanwhile, OSTP has thus far moved too slowly in its efforts to improve federal scientific integrity. In a January 2021 memorandum, Biden called for an interagency task force to review federal scientific integrity policies, but the first meeting of the task force did not occur until May of that year. Likewise, a long-awaited OSTP report on protections for federal science was not released until January 2022 and did not address key issues. As we have previously expressed concern about, OSTP has yet to address retaliation and attempted violations of scientific integrity with the urgency these issues are due. That said, we are happy to see signs that OSTP is picking up the pace – for example, it recently sought public comments on how scientific integrity policies could be improved (a process in which CSLDF participated).
Meanwhile, Biden has directed federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, issued a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, and imposed stricter regulations on oil and gas methane emissions – all of which we commend. However, he is now presented with rising gasoline prices due to inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the United States’ reliance on foreign oil. As a result, several governors are calling on Congress to support a bill that would suspend the federal gas tax for the remainder of 2022. The Biden administration has yet to forcefully oppose this bill which, if enacted, would directly conflict with the administration’s stated pro-science and pro-climate goals. In fact, the Biden administration has announced it will release one million barrels a day for the next six months – the largest ever release — from the nation’s strategic oil reserve.
Clearly, the Biden administration faces continued challenges in its efforts to protect scientists working on projects across a wide range of disciplines – from biomedical research to climate change.
Strengthening federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies would ensure that scientists can accomplish their work in environments free of harassment, intimidation, and hostility. While the tracker reveals a persistent pattern of anti-science measures, CSLDF remains hopeful that Biden will increasingly follow the data and take bolder action to truly to put science at the forefront.
Updated as of April 5, 2022.