How Unprecedented Is President Trump's Politicization of Science?

Political interference in science is nothing new, but experts agree that what is happening to scientific integrity under Trump is unusual.

Published Nov 15, 2017

On 7 November 2017, Syria signed the Paris Climate Accord, making the United States the only country in the world to abstain the international agreement, which aims to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. The U.S. justified this move through the wholesale rejection of scientific evidence — a strategy made overt when the White House largely downplayed the fact that a congressionally-mandated report meant to advise the President on global warming directly conflicted with their own view on topic.

It wasn’t the first time that the administration was accused of ignoring science when it suited their policy goals. But how unusual is this president’s relationship to science? In this post, we evaluate Trump’s actions in historical context to determine what’s unprecedented, what’s merely unusual, and what is simply par for the course in Washington.

To do this, we spoke with experts in science, law, and policy:

  • Michael Halpern, the deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • Wendy Wagner, a Professor of Environmental Law and Science and Technology Law at the University of Texas Law School.
  • Steph Tai, a professor of Environmental Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School who worked as an appellate attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the George W. Bush administration.

Barring Government-Funded Scientists from Serving on Panels — Unprecedented

On 31 October 2017, Scott Pruitt, the Trump-appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced a new policy barring anyone who receives federal funding from advising the agency on funding decisions. As reported in Science:

Scientists receiving grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., many of them leading university researchers, are being purged from the agency’s advisory boards. The move, announced today by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, bars scientists from serving on these boards if they are now receiving money through an agency grant. It marks a major change in who can serve on the committees, which help steer EPA research and regulations by providing input on scientific questions.

Tai told us over the phone that this lacks historical precedent. Critics of the move say it is a cynical measure ultimately aimed at increasing  industry-backed scientists’ influence on the funding of research related to regulating their industries. (An earlier Pruitt measure declining to renew prior appointees to the EPA’s science advisory committee, an unusual move, was criticized for similar reasons.)

Responding to early reports of Pruitt’s intention to announce this policy, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology said:

Allowing scientists funded by the very industries the agency is tasked with regulating to participate on independent science review panels, while prohibiting leading scientists simply because they have received funding through EPA grants, is the height of hypocrisy.

Beyond potentially compromising scientific integrity directly, Halpern told us in a phone interview that the act fundamentally undermines faith in science in a broader sense by misusing the term “conflict of interest”:

The ones that the agency has decided are the most promising researchers [and who] have won highly competitive grants from the agency are somehow precluded from giving advice to that agency because, [in the Pruitt’s view] that constitutes ‘a conflict of interest’. [This] is a fundamental misrepresentation of what a conflict of interest is.

I think that it’s really problematic when the administrator says that he’s defending scientific integrity by doing so because, in fact, it’s the exact opposite.

Use of the Congressional Review Act To Rescind Regulations Without Scientific Review – Unprecedented

During the president’s first sixty days in office, legislators rescinded a number of environmental, health, and safety regulations without the required scientific review. Usually, in order to pass new regulations or repeal old ones, Tai told us, “agencies have to justify it, and that’s where some of the scientific analysis comes from.”

With Trump’s blessing, Congress has circumvented the required review through what had been (until 2017) an obscure and almost never-used law known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA). This act provides a fast track to overturn recently-approved regulations through a joint statement of disapproval by both chambers of Congress. In both the House and the Senate, such a statement requires only a majority vote. Halpern told us that this legal maneuver “absolutely [substitutes] political judgment for scientific and technical analysis.”

Congress used the CRA to rescind both the EPA’s Stream Protection Act, which required coal mining operations not to pollute local waterways, and a Social Security Administration regulation mandating that the agency transfer mental health data on individuals who receive a specific kind of disability insurance benefit to criminal background check agencies.

The legislative branch also used it to block a regulation preventing states from denying funding for women’s health services to facilities that also provided abortions, as well as a regulation that extended the amount of time that employers are required to retain data about workplace injuries.

Prior to the Trump Administration, the law had been used only once — in 2002 — to repeal an Occupational Safety and Health Agency rule about ergonomics that businesses argued was too burdensome. Tai told us her textbooks have yet to catch up with its increased usage under Trump:

The current case book that I use to teach administrative law has a few paragraphs [on the CRA] saying, ‘Oh yeah, and it’s only been used once.’

Appointing Science Advisors With No Scientific Experience or Background – Unusual

Perhaps the most glaring anomaly in Trump’s science-advisor appointments is that many of these positions, including the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, remain unfilled.

The second, however, is that many of the individuals who have been nominated have a remarkably weak scientific background. Kathleen Hartnett White, whom Trump named to the the top environmental post in the White House in October 2017, failed to answer extremely basic science questions during her confirmation hearing. She had been outspoken in her skepticism about the reality or extent of anthropogenic global warming and had worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that rejects mainstream climate science.

Perhaps more controversial than White was the nomination of Sam Clovis, a former talk show host and political science professor, as the chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A 2008 law requires that position to be staffed “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis meets none of these conditions.

Halpern and Tai both pointed out that these kinds of actions have precedent. Halpern told us:

It really became much more of an issue during the George W. Bush administration when there was an escalation where people were being asked, when they were applying for advisory committee positions, “Who did you vote for? Are you a Republican scientist or a Democratic scientist?” And not being evaluated based on their credentials.

Clovis withdrew his nomination on 2 November 2017 after his name came up in Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Halpern told us that, while appointing such an overtly unqualified but political appointee to a scientific position is new, politically-motivated appointees to regulatory agencies are not uncommon. For example, Julie MacDonald, a former under secretary at Bush’s Department of Interior with industry ties, rewrote aspects of the Endangered Species Act.

The most overtly political appointment to a scientific agency under Trump has likely been that of Scott Pruitt to the EPA. As attorney general in Oklahoma, he made a name for himself by suing the very agency he now runs. Rolling Stone reported:

As attorney general, Pruitt spent most of his time suing the federal government. In the 14 lawsuits he filed against the EPA, Pruitt attempted to stop rules limiting the amount of smog that drifts across state borders; [to] block a new standard on pollution from mercury, claiming “the record does not support the EPA’s findings that mercury . . . pose[s] public health hazards”; and [to] stall a plan for reducing air pollution in national parks. […]

Pruitt couched it all in high-minded rhetoric about the American way: “Our battles against the EPA,” Pruitt wrote in a 2011 editorial for The Oklahoman, “are about our right as a state to control our own destiny and resist attempts by the administration to ramrod a wish list of regulations through agency heads instead of garnering approval from Congress.”

Tai told us that “to hire people who have been on the opposite side is not crazy. And to hire people who have, you know, been involved in the industry itself is not entirely unusual either.” But, she added, “It’s unusual to appoint high-level state officials who have officially sued the U.S.”

Misrepresenting Scientific Consensus to Push Specific Policy – Has Precedent

Scientific data has long been massaged or misrepresented for political reasons by both political parties. Scientific consensus was swept under the rug for political expediency, Halpern argues, when Obama sought to ban over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception (known as the morning-after pill):

I mean, the science was overwhelmingly clear that the drug was safer than aspirin and much less accessible […] But the President got up and said, “I’m worried about my teenage daughters, and I don’t think that this is appropriate,” even though the law dictated that the decision had to be made on the best available scientific information.

The Obama Administration later reversed this position.

In a history of the role of the White House science advisor published in The Atlantic, Dave Levitan documented numerous instances of science and policy running into conflict — conflict that resulted either in a diminished role for the office (Nixon once abolished it) or a reduction of its scientific credibility.

One famous example of this reduction of credibility is Reagan Science Advisor George Keyworth’s promotion of the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly referred to as the Star Wars missile defense system), despite, Levitan wrote, “ample warnings of its infeasibility from the scientific community.”

The George W. Bush administration was frequently accused of manipulating science to push policy. Richard H. Carmona, Bush's surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, testified in 2007 to the House Oversight Committee about a number of alleged examples:

Dr. Carmona […] said White House officials would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues because of political concerns. Top administration officials delayed for years and attempted to “water down” a landmark report on secondhand tobacco smoke, he said in sworn testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

If anything has changed now, Wagner told us, it is the openness with which these politically-motivated manipulations occur. She argued that in the past when this kind of behavior was exposed, it was a political problem. That no longer appears to be the case, she said:

[Bush Administration officials] were never defending what they were doing as the right way to proceed. […] At the very least, they were somewhat apologetic and tried to minimize the extent to which they [had] done these things.

Censoring Language in Grants, Websites, or Publications — Mixed

Critics have also accused the Trump administration of scientific censorship. According to the Halpern, these reports need to be placed in their proper context, because, in some cases, they have been overblown in press accounts:

There have been a couple of cases where someone who is a middle manager, who is a career civil servant, says, “Hey, maybe when we write this up, we shouldn’t mention climate change […] maybe we should use different words,” and it doesn’t impact the science at all.

Snopes has reported on some such allegations, including that of a Northeastern University professor who said a supervisor at the Department of Energy asked her to remove references to climate change in grant that was already approved for funding. This kind of activity, Halpern told us, “has happened for many years.”

There have also been well-documented reports of the removal of climate change-related terms from a variety of government web sites. In some cases, this content was restored. In other cases, like portions of the EPA website, it remains only in an archived form. Speaking to The New York Times, Adam Parris, the director of the Science and Resilience Institute, said:

I think it’s very alarming […]. These are not the kind of resources that are just basic climate science. These are the kind of resources it has taken years to develop across the federal family.

Still, Tai cautions, it is at this point unfeasible to draw a fair comparison between this and past administrations, as there was substantially less information on in the internet during past presidential transitions in which internet was also widely available.

But other instances, Halpern says, have been more fairly characterized as approaching scientific censorship. This includes a widely reported incident in which EPA-funded scientists were barred from speaking at a state-funded conference on environmental issues affecting the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. “That was not the problem of the system. That was pretty clearly a deliberate attempt to prevent these particular scientists from sharing their research,” he told us by phone.

The Future of Scientific Integrity

Apart from these specific issues, many have voiced concerns that the overt politicization of science will damage scientific integrity in the long term. In Wagner’s view, the actual definition of science — as well has when science should be used in decision-making — has in and of itself become a political issue:

The position is that the political officials, members of Congress or the executive branch will decide what science is, whether [they’ll] use it, and even the process by which [they’ll] create it.

Tai cautioned that it would be unfair to place sole blame on the Trump administration for an erosion of public trust in the objectivity of science, as similar politicization has been going on for some time. She told us, however, that what’s occurring under Trump is “the outgrowth” of this public questioning or misrepresentation of the scientific process for political reasons.

Halpern warned that agencies devoted to science could take a long time to recover from the damage done by the Trump administration:

We have invested as a country in independent scientific research because it benefits public health and safety. If that enterprise is deteriorated, it takes very little time to destroy the culture of science at an agency and a couple decades to rebuild it.


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Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.