The Battle Over Science Integrity, Funding Begins

January 31, 2017


Special TipSheet:  The Battle Over Science Integrity, Funding Begins

As part of our Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment 2017 special report, TipSheet has prepared a series of look-aheads for key issues to watch in the coming year.

The integrity and support of science, especially at environmental agencies, are very likely to be issues of high conflict during the first year of the Trump administration. In fact, the battles already are making headlines.

For example, two respected news outlets reported Jan. 25 that the incoming Trump team had ordered U.S. Environmental Protection Agency political appointees to clear scientific articles before they could be published — a stance which would violate EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy. Uproar followed — and a possible walking back.

Few expected otherwise. During the campaign, Donald Trump had refused to disown his 2012 Tweeted claim that climate change was a Chinese hoax. It was not just a theoretical opinion, however, since on the strength of it he pledged to “cancel” the Paris Agreement on climate and tear up EPA’s Clean Power Plan (more on that).

The scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change is not really in question. But federal agencies play key roles in funding and performing science of all kinds, and those running the government often try to manipulate science for various economic or ideological purposes.

NASA is among the agencies involved in climate science that may face funding cuts under the Trump administration. Photo: Matt Hampson, Flickr Creative Commons

Agencies involved in climate sciences include not only the EPA, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, and many private and academic institutions that are government-funded.

Many in the science community shuddered in November 2016 when Trump transition member Robert Walker told a reporter that the incoming administration hoped to cut all funding for NASA Earth science research. In the weeks since, Trump himself has not really signaled that he would go that far.

But nobody will know until Trump submits a fiscal 2018 budget. Normally that might happen in February 2017 — but there have been strong hints Trump might ignore the law and not submit a budget at all. More recently, NASA officials have said they expect no drastic immediate cuts in their Earth sciences budget. Ultimately, the NASA appropriation is up to Congress. Watch that space.

Science-related agencies to watch

The federal government’s science activities go well beyond the environment and energy beat, of course.

The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are among the biggest funders. But both agencies fund environmental science. NIH does it via the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (which itself funds studies).

One key indicator for environmental reporters to watch will be the budget of NIEHS. It will be apparent in any Trump budget and in Congressional appropriations.

At EPA, most of the research budget is under the Office of Research and Development, so watch for proposed budget and appropriations under that heading — at least as was the case in previous years.

At the Interior Department, the U.S. Geological Survey is the main scientific unit, so its budget is also worth watching.

Often overlooked are the many science programs at the Energy Department. Organizationally, DOE is a bit more complex, but much of the science is at or under the 17 individual national laboratories (which vary in subject focus). Most of the budget for DOE science will be subsumed under its Office of Science — so watch that.

Science integrity, transparency matter to journalists

Even more important, and harder to track, is scientific integrity.

Most science agencies have scientific integrity policies — developed partially under White House edict years ago. And science integrity is strongly dependent on transparency, an issue that matters to journalists.

For example, the second Bush administration “unpublished” the national assessment of climate impacts. (Leading the charge in lawsuits to unpublish it was Myron Ebell, known more recently as head of the Trump EPA transition team.)

Political conflict over science is not a new thing. And while climate change may be the science area with the most contention (political contention, not scientific), the struggle to skew science goes on in many other arenas out of the glare of TV lights.

Examples to watch include the toxic effects of chemicals like pesticides and fire retardants, chemicals in containers and packaging that may seep into beverages and food, and toxic air emissions from industrial facilities.

You can get help by monitoring publications like Environmental Health Perspectives, Environmental Health News, Greenwire and Bloomberg BNA. While some of these require subscriptions, headlines may be free.

Just at EPA, science questions are often hammered out in a collection of science advisory committees and subcommittees. While they are supposed to be independent and evidence-based, industry and environmental groups often struggle over their membership and findings.

A general portal to the world of EPA’s Science Advisory Board is here. The best way to follow these panels is to go to meetings, when they are open.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 5. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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