Under Trump, Squalls over Science Will Continue in 2019

January 2, 2019
To cover the “war on science” locally or regionally, reporters can look around the country to labs and research institutions under various agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Above, NOAA researchers drive into white-out conditions in Texas in 2017 to get measurements. Photo: NOAA Severe Storms Lab. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Under Trump, Squalls over Science Will Continue in 2019

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

The coming year may see a resolution of one key dispute over the role of science in environmental regulation, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “secret science” rule. But that is just one conflict symbolic of the wider clash you can expect to continue between the Trump administration and the scientific community.

At issue with the so-called “transparency” rule proposed by the EPA last April is public access to the data behind the science studies the EPA uses to decide on environmental rules. Those studies are often done by third parties, and proponents of the rule say disclosing such data would allow other scientists to try to replicate and confirm studies.

But that data may include personal health information. Opponents of the rule argue that privacy is needed to induce people to be study subjects. Disqualifying all those studies, they charge, would allow EPA to choose only studies that confirm its bias.

It may be telling that the regulated industry groups supporting the EPA secret science proposal  are chemical and oil industry groups (may require subscription), and those denying man-made climate change. On the other hand, scientific organizations — such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science — oppose it.

Following a heap of controversy, as 2018 ended the EPA proposal was left unfinalized. The agency could continue to leave it unfinalized in 2019 in order to avoid intense political opposition. Or EPA could finalize it, changed or unchanged, fueling further EPA deregulation of environmental health protections, and reigniting the fight.

All this matters to journalists (and their audiences) because they will be asked to judge the truth amid a welter of confusing claims and counterclaims whose outcome could affect (or harm) people’s health and even take lives.

The trick for reporters covering this is not to be fooled by deceptive terminology.

Former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head David Michaels (may require subscription), for instance, talks about the rule as “weaponized transparency.” That is, transparency is something journalists and others normally favor. But if you remember that the purpose of the EPA rule is to suppress published, peer-reviewed research, you’ll need to be even more vigilant in asking of its research questions like: How do you know that? And who paid for that study?


Trump ‘war on science’ has many fronts

Many of these science-based skirmishes are being fought at the EPA. An example is the large array of scientific advisory committees (and subcommittees) that advise regulators on specific subjects that require special expertise.

In October 2017, EPA’s then-administrator Scott Pruitt issued an edict (may require subscription) banning from advisory committee membership any scientist receiving a grant from EPA. The rationale was ostensibly conflict of interest — but Pruitt had no problem with scientists paid by industry. Critics noted that EPA had long had strict anti-conflict rules for panel members.

What followed was widespread purges of the committees on many grounds, a long period when many of the panels did not meet, and then a slew of appointments of industry-paid scientists and climate deniers. Pruitt was coached in his picks by a major Trump donor.


The EPA science rule and other agency conflicts

are really just hostilities on a much wider front

in what some have called the Trump

administration’s ‘war on science.’


But the EPA science rule and other agency conflicts are really just hostilities on a much wider front in what some have called the Trump administration’s “war on science” (may require subscription).

That battle will continue to rage at many other agencies.

For instance, in late 2017, the Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control had outlawed use of terms (may require subscription) like “evidence-based.” It’s the same at agencies such as the Energy Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Union of Concerned Scientists did a survey of scientists in those and other agencies, and found they were leaving in numbers, demoralized by interference by political appointees and the White House.


Government labs a good hook for local coverage

If you want to cover the science wars as a local/regional, rather than a national, issue, a good hook is laboratories and other research institutions. There are a lot of them, under a lot of agencies, and they are spread geographically over a lot of the country.

Let’s start with EPA. It has an archipelago of 14 or so research centers (listed here) from Ada, Okla., to Narragansett, R.I. You may be able to visit the nearest lab and talk to people there about what challenges they face (although EPA brass often discourage reporter-scientist contact).

If you live near an EPA hub like Research Triangle Park, N.C., you may find a plethora of stories. For example, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is also located in that metroplex, along with some top universities.

The spillover between universities and research labs may offer some opportunities for evading the press office nannies. You can visit scientists in their university offices.

Another agency with many science centers is the Energy Department, which funds and oversees the 17 research facilities known as the National Laboratories. If you look at their work, you will find they touch on many environmental and energy issues.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, also has a large array of labs, centers and field stations. An additional agency doing a lot of environmental research in various states is the U.S. Geological Survey. Here’s a map of some of its centers. NASA’s Goddard institute is a major center of climate research. Even the Smithsonian has an environmental research program.


Bringing character, sense of place to stories

You may not be writing about environmental science issues at the national level. But these stories are even more compelling when you tell them with real local characters and a unique sense of place.

Your scientists may be studying right whales in the North Atlantic or orcas in Puget Sound. But you will probably find special interests creating conflicts over the science itself.

Your scientists may be studying saltwater intrusion in Florida or the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. But again, science conflicts may have national resonance.

Whether you connect to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (biological work on endangered species), the National Severe Storms Laboratory (storm chasers), the National Snow and Ice Data Center (glaciologists) or the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory (smoke jumpers), you will find important policy questions behind the science.

[Editor’s Note: Certain government websites referenced in this TipSheet may not be fully online at publication time, due to the ongoing shutdown]

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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