Trump administration's 'scientific oppression' threatens US safety and innovation

Paul Tonko and Brian Schatz
Every time there is delay, suppression or manipulation of government science, Americans pay the price in their daily lives. Congress must act.

Inside agencies and research offices across the U.S. government, independent science is under siege. Whether tasked with studying the public health effects of arsenic in our water or offering agricultural guidance to farmers grappling with a changing climate, federal scientists are researching and reporting on vital work meant to help American leaders and citizens make better decisions, save lives and prevent catastrophes. And they’re being met with hostility, silencing and retaliation.

Unless you or someone you know is a scientist at a government agency, you may not have noticed political leaders taking overt steps to manipulate or hide our government’s rigorous scientific findings. Our everyday lives are often at the far end of the public policy process from the taxpayer-funded science that has long informed us of dangers and opportunities that confront our government every day. Whether we are keeping Americans safe from toxic chemicals and climate change or positioning the United States as a world leader in innovation and scientific understanding, public science is at the forefront. When that system breaks down under political pressure, America becomes a sicker, poorer, weaker nation.

Trump administration abuses science 

Thankfully, journalists have managed to uncover hard evidence that this abuse of science is happening. Last month, a Politico investigation revealed that the political leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was refusing to publicize dozens of scientific reports on the effects of climate change. Months earlier, news coverage revealed that the same political figures had been demanding that agency scientists tag their credible, peer-reviewed research as “preliminary” until USDA had “formally disseminated” it. 

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Let’s be clear: Under any administration, scientific integrity is a concern and needs to be protected. Over the past two years, the Trump administration has built a disturbing pattern of scientific oppression that brings a new urgency to this issue. Federal scientists have been prohibited from speaking about climate change in public or at scientific conferences. Climate data has been scrubbed from many U.S. government websites. Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were banned from using the words “evidence-based” and “science-based” in budget documents, according to an unidentified analyst quoted by The Washington Post. The Trump administration falsified scientific claims to justify restricting birth control access.

Suppressing science hurts Americans 

Political appointees blocked publishing of a report on dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a chemical found in drinking water and polluted groundwater, and they suppressed another report on the health risks of formaldehyde. To this day, the formaldehyde report has still not been released. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine were ordered to stop research on health risks for communities living near surface coal mining sites. And at the urging of the chemical industry, the Environmental Protection Agency scrapped its own recommended ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide proven to impair brain development in young children. 

And every time there is delay, suppression or manipulation of government science, the American people pay the price in the form of lost rights and freedoms, lost wages to medical bills, burned or flooded homes, lost years from our lives and the irreplaceable loss of loves ones. And, making matters worse, dedicated, pioneering scientists and researchers are fleeing America’s federal agencies in droves to escape their mistreatment and the suppression of their work.  

Information is power, and we don’t believe public science should be controlled solely by the politically powerful.  

Protect science from politics

We have seen more than 20 federal agencies introduce scientific integrity policies to create a firewall between science and the political and special interests that seek to influence or distort it. But these policies are uneven in their scope and enforcement, and vital information falls between the cracks — especially in an administration that prizes appearance over facts. These policies need to be consistent, enforceable and codified into law, and that means we as a Congress must act. 

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That is why we introduced the Scientific Integrity Act. The legislation would protect public scientific research and reports from the influence of political and special interests. It would establish robust scientific integrity standards at U.S. agencies to adopt or strengthen existing scientific integrity policies.

The American people need to know the truth. That is our duty to our constituents, and why science must be our guiding light. We call on our colleagues in the House and Senate to advance this vital, commonsense legislation, and to make sure it becomes law.

Democrat Paul Tonko represents New York's 20th Congressional District. Democrat Brian Schatz is the senior senator from Hawaii. Follow them on Twitter: @RepPaulTonko and @SenBrianSchatz

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump's war on science hurts Americans. Congress must stop him.