Trump’s four-year reign has been gutting for science, US scientists say
Dismantling of protections ‘is making it harder for future administrations to use science’
Donald Trump with a map of a previously projected path of Hurricane Dorian. He used a marker pen to erroneously claim the hurricane would strike southeastern Alabama. File photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
Founded in 1969 by scientists and students at MIT, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCI) has been particularly busy of late. Since US president Donald Trump entered the White House, its Attacks on Science tracker has recorded more than 150 incidents of the administration undermining important scientific activity.
The Washington DC-based nonprofit, whose members include some of the world’s most respected scientists, has recorded a string of damaging federal government efforts: burying Covid-19 information for religious communities, side-stepping public input before legalising a cancer-causing pesticide for soybeans that is used in 25 US states, and dismantling health and safety measures at pork-processing plants.
It’s of a scale never seen previously by experts. “Under the [George W] Bush administration we recorded 98 different attacks on science over an eight-year period. The Trump administration has gone further in their escalation of dismantling science-based protections,” says Anita Desikan of the UCI.
“It isn’t just weakening science in the near term; it’s making it harder for future administrations to use science.”
From the so-called “Muslim ban” introduced in 2017, to restrictions on the F-1 student visa making it difficult for scientists and top-class students to enter the US, to “Sharpiegate” which in 2019 saw the president use a marker pen to erroneously claim a hurricane would strike southeastern Alabama – backing up a previous tweet – to leaving the 2015 Paris climate accord, the attacks have been relentless.
And while the Sharpiegate incident garnered many headlines, deeper and more devastating incisions have been made into the scientific and research worlds.
The current Trump-appointed administrator of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry. Funding for studies into the effects of chemicals on pregnant women has ceased, according to a New York Times report from December. An expert committee investigating the impact of invasive insects has ended and been disbanded.
Relaxing regulations surrounding the EPA, fossil fuels and climate change initiatives are primary White House targets, say experts.
“A lot of protections were put into place (to regulate offshore drilling) after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion,” says Desikan of the British Petroleum disaster that cost 11 lives and spilt nearly five million barrels of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “Those protections have been eroded every single way you can think of under the Trump Administration. ”
A study published in Geophysical Research Letters found that the resultant fire saw between 1.4 and 4.6 million pounds of black carbon released into the atmosphere over a nine-week period – highlighting the added damage the disaster wrought on affecting climatic temperatures.
In May 2019, president Trump’s interior department moved to ease inspection and safety requirements for offshore drilling projects previously put in place by the Obama administration. A study into how inspections of offshore drilling could be made safer was nixed by the White House in December 2017.
What’s more, findings from a freedom of information request by Politico showed that the interior department had granted 1,679 waivers to offshore safety requirements – the most common being those sidestepping requirements around blowout preventers.
Then there’s the White House’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, a folly, a number of polls suggest, could see Trump booted out of office in November.
“Disregard for science is evident in many policies and behaviours of the current administration, but the worst is the president’s assertions about what is true based on his belief system,” says Prof Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and who worked in the Obama administration as the associate director for science at the White House.
“I have spent my career teaching people about the principles of scientific inquiry, which is based on hypotheses that are tested by rigorous experimentation and data analysis. Modelling the use of belief systems as equivalent with scientific data is damaging to the process of building a society that is built on evidence. If citizens cannot evaluate information and build logical arguments, then democracy crumbles,” Handelsman believes.
It might come as a surprise to some, many of America’s most important scientific and environmental efforts came off the desks of Republican presidents
The president has repeatedly undermined his own experts and claimed the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to be a cure for Covid-19, despite a host of administration experts and research work claiming it has no beneficial effect. Following the president’s assertions, hundreds of thousands of prescriptions have been issued across the country.
It might come as a surprise to some, but in sharp contrast to their contemporary cohort, many of America’s most important scientific and environmental efforts came off the desks of Republican presidents. Teddy Roosevelt pushed for a national system of parks and monuments that gave birth to the National Parks System in 1916, while Richard Nixon’s administration established the EPA in 1970.
But what’s behind Mr Trump’s anti-science stance? Some argue the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis dealt a defining blow to the environmental movement among rural American voters: The same families employed in mining and other industrial activities and who for decades voted Democrat found themselves caught between a growing standardisation of environmental protections and controls, and their own livelihoods.
With poor and rural Americans suffering more than most in the years that followed, and with little prospect of their jobs coming back or being replaced, the environment became a divisive and politicised issue.
It’s exactly among this stratum of American society – as well, of course, as elements of the religious right that’s inherently suspicious of the role of science in everyday life – whom Donald Trump relies on for a large swathe of his support. Still, some have not given up hope entirely.
The Trump administration continues to announce funding for efforts to preserve historical sites. Oftentimes, and despite the White House’s stance, bipartisan political leaders have stepped in to push through funding for science and scientific-related laws.
In July, Congress passed the landmark Great American Outdoors Act that commits up to $9 billion (€7.6 billion) in backdated and other funding for the National Parks and other conservation systems for the next five years, in addition to $900 million (€760 million) a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund – a federal programme.
“As soon as October, the National Park Service can use these funds to begin restoring our parks, protecting landscapes, and generating much-needed jobs,” says Marcia Argust, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks campaign. Trump signed the Act into law on August 4th.
Furthermore, the pandemic presents a host of opportunities for scientific advancement and discovery, say experts. Jo Handelsman believes that if the public rhetoric around science can be reframed to set it squarely as a force for good, “there is a teachable moment created by Covid-19.”
She adds that with the right leadership the US could build on the stream of scientific information the pandemic has fuelled.
“The factions who revere science are still here – we just need to provide the centre stage to science rather than fabrications,” Handelsman says.
It’s these factions that see the US firmly positioned as the world’s scientific dynamo now and into the future. “I’ve seen the power and beauty of the American government from the inside, and I lived through eight years that brought some of the best out of this country that I’ve seen in my lifetime, so I’m still an optimist.”