How The Trump Administration's Attacks On Science Put Americans At Risk

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 3:54 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Weather should not be a partisan issue, so said Neil Jacobs earlier today. He's the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and he was trying to calm a controversy that only seems to be getting worse.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It began when President Trump made the inaccurate claim on Twitter that Alabama would be hit hard by Hurricane Dorian - not true. Weather forecasters in Alabama said the state was not in danger, but then NOAA backed up the president. And now there are questions about whether the agency violated its own policies. All of this fits a pattern, says Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which, we should note, is an NPR sponsor. Goldman says what's unfolded is a perfect representation of what's happening under the Trump administration.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: It is a situation where we see the president said what he wanted, independent of what the evidence told us. He then doubled down on that. He ignored scientific experts, and he tried to force fit the science to back him up. And that is exactly what we've seen the president and others in his administration do across federal agencies and across issues.

CHANG: Your group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, issued a report saying that this administration has basically created a chilling effect on scientists. Can you describe how that chilling effect is happening?

GOLDMAN: It's happening across the government - across the government on everything from food safety to environmental protection to product safety - like strollers. Scientists need to be able to use science and communicate that science in order to protect people. But what this administration is doing is creating an environment where those scientific experts aren't going to feel safe communicating that science if they don't feel that their leaders are going to support them. And that's true especially when the science happens to be politically inconvenient.

CHANG: Well, to be fair, don't politics seep into science at some level during every administration? Because every administration will fund and promote the science that backs up their policy priorities, right?

GOLDMAN: We do see interference in the science across administrations. Science is very powerful, and you want it on your side. And...

CHANG: Sure.

GOLDMAN: ...That makes it very vulnerable to political interference. But it's not appropriate to force fit the science into your policy decisions. What we're seeing is, under the Trump administration, this is happening at an unprecedented level. We've logged more than a hundred times that this administration has misused science in its policy decisions, and that's more than any other administration in the past five decades.

CHANG: What do you mean by that - misuse science?

GOLDMAN: We were looking specifically in instances where they were supposed to make a decision based on science or they were supposed to allow science to be public and they didn't. So these are things like squashing scientific reports from the National Academies of Science, which happened a few times; refusing to ban a pesticide that's been linked to brain damage in children. So we've logged 100 of those.

CHANG: Your team wrote in this report that some of the censorship that's happening is literally asking scientists to not use certain words or certain phrases. Give me an example of that.

GOLDMAN: That's right. There's been a few cases of that. One of the more high-profile ones was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where scientists were asked not to use words like evidence-based. And that's obviously absurd.

CHANG: What's objectionable about that?

GOLDMAN: Your guess is as good as mine. But it's characteristic of this administration in wanting to control what scientists do and say, which is not serving the public. And one of the reasons this NOAA story was so big is because that one's very easy to understand. Everyone relies on the weather forecast every day, and...

CHANG: Yeah

GOLDMAN: ...We expect experts to give us a truthful forecast on that. And this is a more visible example, but we're seeing that kind of thing happen - on everything from chemical safety risks to drug policy at the FDA - all across the government.

CHANG: Gretchen Goldman is the research director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Thanks very much for coming into the studio today.

GOLDMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.