The integrity of US government research is under siege and has been significantly weakened during the current administration of Donald Trump. That is according to a report by National Task Force on the Rule of Law and Democracy, which notes that recent presidential administrations have not only manipulated the findings of government scientists and researchers but also “retaliated against career researchers for political reasons”. It calls for Congressional legislation to protect the independence of government science data.
The report states that — along with manipulating findings and retaliations against scientists — US governments have also invited “outside special interests” to shape research priorities; “undermined and sidelined” advisory committees staffed by scientists; as well as suppressed research and analysis from public view – often material that had previously been made available. In many cases, the report adds, the administrations “have appeared to pay little political price for these missteps”.
We are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards
The task force, based at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, lists a number of issues that occurred under the two presidents who preceded Donald Trump. In the George W. Bush administration, for example, a politically appointed public-affairs officer prevented NASA climate scientist James Hansen from talking to the media in order, he said, to make the president look good. And political officials in the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to downplay the risks to drinking water in a report on fracking, although scientists managed to reverse the decision.
Although previous presidents injected some politics into science, the report states that the Trump administration has tried both to politicize scientific and technical research on a range of topics and to undermine the value of objective facts themselves. “Now, we are at a crisis point,” the report declares, “with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards”.
Recent events, for example, include the “Sharpiegate” affair, in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration excoriated its weather forecasters for disagreeing with President Trump’s incorrect assertions about the path of Hurricane Dorian. The EPA also prevented academic researchers from serving on its scientific advisory boards in favour of industry-connected individuals. Another issue cited is the relocation of economists at the agriculture department from Washington after they revealed the harmful impact of the administration’s trade policies on farmers.
Writing in the Washington Post, panel members Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator during George W Bush’s presidency, and former US attorney Preet Bharara note that Trump’s presidency “has exposed serious fissures in our system of government that require repair – especially when it comes to the integrity of government research”.