Shortly before the Trump administration was officially sworn in, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began deleting and replacing scientific terms like “climate change,” “climate science” and “climate studies” on its official website.
The change was noted in December 2016 by Columbia Law School’s “Silencing Science Tracker,” which carefully logs each and every time the federal government has censored, hindered or misrepresented science since taking office.
The full extent of the list is enough to depress any science advocate. Close to a year and a half after that first initial entry was logged, more than 130 further cases have been tallied.
Even the most voracious news reader is likely to have missed some of these cases – most likely due to the sheer number of items on the tracker and the mainstream media’s lacklustre coverage of climate change.
But while you might not have heard about it in the press, recently there have been four new and alarming cases added to the tracker, spanning three different government agencies.
In the past week alone, the political attacks leveraged against these scientific agencies have been out of control. Here’s what you missed:
The US Geological Survey
The US Geological Survey (USGS) has faced its share of scientific censorship under the Trump administration.
In May of 2017, the Department of Interior (DOI), deleted a sentence from a USGS press release acknowledging the link between climate change and sea level rise. In December, some scientists at the agency were blocked from going to the biggest meeting in their field. As of June 2018, scientists at the agency must submit the titles of their presentations for review before they can attend two major conferences.
Now, add this doozy to the list: just last week, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Trump administration will no longer allow scientists at the USGS to speak freely about their research with reporters.
According to USGS employees and internal emails, agency scientists must now seek approval from the DOI before they can speak with the media on “very controversial” stories.
The protocol also permits employees at the DOI to reject interview requests on any scientific matter that they want to.
The changes are reminiscent of a former Canadian policy, put in place by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which stopped government scientists from speaking to the media or traveling to scientific conferences.
At the time, an astonishing 90 percent of government scientists surveyed in Canada felt like they were being muzzled.
“This is really quite troubling. … In the 44 years I was with the agency, I was never required to go through anyone for authorization to speak with a reporter,” said William Ellsworth, a former chief scientist of the USGS’ earthquake hazards team and now a professor of geophysics at Stanford University.
“The USGS is a nonpolitical science agency. … These new roadblocks will not help them fulfil their mission.”
A spokesperson from the DOI denied the existence of the new rule despite internal emails that suggest the protocol was in fact implemented.
The Environmental Protection Agency
What would a story about scientific censorship be if it didn’t include a few examples from Scott Pruitt’s EPA? The EPA has made more appearances on Columbia’s Silencing Science Tracker than most other agencies, and last week, it made the list twice.
At the very beginning of the week, E&E News reported that the EPA had cancelled several research grants that “included climate change in their descriptions or [were linked to environmental organizations.”
To make matter worse, last Thursday, the EPA quietly killed three of the agency’s seven science committees, including the Ecological Processes and Effects Committee, the Environmental Engineering Committee, and the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee.
The acting director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board – a position which has not yet been officially filled – said the committees were disbanded because their “workload does not justify the effort.”
In a response to Earther, the EPA said the committees create “unnecessary management and ethics obligations for both committee members and the Agnecy.”
Scientists on the committee were completely blind-sided by the announcement.
“The message was a surprise,” Timothy Haab, an environmental economist on the economics committee, told Earther.
“I fear that losing the advisory committees could jeopardize the objectivity of the science used in making economically sound environmental decisions.”
The National Science Foundation
It’s not uncommon for US politicians to completely misunderstand and misrepresent science, and when it comes to climate science, Republican senators are particularly skilful at throwing facts out the window.
Last week, four of the most notorious Republican climate deniers in Congress demanded a formal investigation into how the NSF hands out its grants.
In a letter to the inspector general of the NSF, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, James Lankford and Jim Inhofe accused Climate Central’s Climate Matters program, which is funded by the NSF, of – what for it – propaganda.
“Research designed to sway individuals of a various group, be they meteorologists or engineers, to a politically contentious viewpoint is not science – it is propagandizing,” the senators wrote.
“Such efforts certainly fail to meet the standard of scientific research to which the NSF should be devoting federal taxpayer dollars.”
According to NBC, which broke the story, the $4 million Climate Matters program sponsors classes and webinars for more than 500 meteorologists and provides up-to-date data and graphics for TV stations around the country.
The grant is focused on educating meteorologists and the public about climate change – a particularly important task given the mainstream media’s abysmal coverage of climate change.
The four GOP senators, however, have accused the program of being beyond the scope of “basic research.” They have also claimed that the NSF has violated the 1939 Hatch Act, which prohibits government agencies from engaging in partisan activities.
“It is unacceptable for federal agencies to support such research which attempts to convince individuals to adopt a particular viewpoint rather than conducting objective research examining a given topic,” they wrote in the letter.
The CEO of Climate Central, Ben Strauss disagrees. He told NBC that the NSF grants “support informal public science education concerning well-established science.”
“Climate Central is not an advocacy organization, and the scientific consensus on climate change is not a political viewpoint,” he added.
As scientists continue to point out over and over again: when the vast majority of actively publishing climate scientists accept the science behind anthropogenic climate change, the reality exists whether or not politicians accept the truth.
Not to mention, the NSF’s Climate Change Education (CCE) program was created in 2010 for partnerships just like the one with Climate Central.
A document about the CCE explicitly states that the NSF “supports activities to develop more effective models and resources for formal and informal climate change education and training that integrate interdisciplinary climate research and current understanding of how people learn,” as well as “efforts to establish or enhance mechanisms that help to disseminate, scale-up, or increase utilization of effective practices for climate change education.”
In other words, the NSF is well within its rights to offer grants that promote climate change education. Teaching meteorologists about the facts is an example of just that.
“Calling education on the irrefutable science of climate change ‘political’ would be laughable if it didn’t reveal such a sobering truth about Republicans in Congress,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic Senator.
“Climate deniers still exist on Capitol Hill and the way fossil fuel money holds sway over the Republican Party permits antics like attacking this sensible grant.”