Trump’s war on science
— Cliff Conner is currently writing a book entitled “The Tragedy of American Science.”
How loathsome is the Trump administration? Let me count the ways. On second thought, let me not—it would take too long. But one important threat it poses to the United States and the world is to the integrity of American science. Earlier this year, on Earth Day, April 22, hundreds of thousands of people responded to that danger by participating in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., and 600 other cities and towns across the country. How has American science fared since then?
Many right-wing politicians and public intellectuals are torn between repugnance for Donald Trump’s truculent ignorance and exuberance at the prospect that he can help them accomplish their goal of “dismantling the administrative state.” Trump’s first year in office helped advance their strategy of destroying public faith in “big government” by discrediting it. Not only are the Trump administration’s various agencies and cabinet offices laughably incompetent and ethically compromised; the office of the presidency itself has forfeited all claim to the respect of intelligent citizens.
The offensive against “big government” is driven by billionaire donors who finance right-wing think tanks, political campaigns, and media outlets. Their single-minded goal is to reduce their taxes and roll back governmental regulation of their businesses, especially with regard to environmental and public health protection. Their crusade against federal regulatory powers entails going to battle against empirical reality, rationality, knowledge, and expertise—in short, they have declared war against science.
The deregulation of corporate activities that have compromised the credibility of American science did not begin with Trump. Nor was it exclusively a Republican political project; the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations all likewise furthered the deregulation agenda.
It should not be forgotten that many of the environmental rules and regulations Trump’s team has rescinded were only put in place by Obama in the closing days of his eight-year tenure as president. All they accomplished was to provide easy targets for Trump to knock over. The tawdry assemblage of antiscience policymakers appointed by Trump, however, amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of the whole process.
The Big Three: Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, Ryan Zinke
If Trump is Commander-in-Chief of the war against science, its field commanders are those he has appointed to key scientific posts. A few examples, beginning with the Big Three of environmental and energy policy—Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, and Ryan Zinke—make that clear:
• Scott Pruitt is the very model of an administrator appointed to undermine the agency he administers. Trump has on numerous occasions called for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, as Attorney General of Oklahoma, had sued the EPA thirteen times, challenging regulations protecting air and water quality. In choosing Pruitt to lead the agency, Trump’s motives were transparent.
As an opening gambit, Trump instructed Pruitt to rescind the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which regulated CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants. Pruitt, an outspoken climate change denier with close ties to the fossil-fuel industries, was just the man for the job.
Pruitt systematically weakened the EPA’s scientific capabilities by purging dozens of members of its scientific advisory committees. In May 2017 he dismissed five of the 18 members of its Board of Scientific Counsellors and suggested that he might replace them with representatives of the industries the EPA regulates—for “balance,” of course. A spokesman for Pruitt declared, “We should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.” In June the agency’s 47-member Science Advisory Board was likewise vitiated.
• Rick Perry publically proclaimed that he would dismantle the Department of Energy if he had the authority to do so. He made that declaration in 2012 while campaigning for a presidential nomination. In March 2017 he became the Trump administration’s Secretary of Energy, making him head of the department he had vowed to eliminate.
When he accepted the position, he did not understand what it entailed. He thought, “he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry.” Only later was he made aware that as Secretary of Energy, “he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal” (The New York Times, Jan. 18, 2017).
Among this buffoon’s responsibilities with regard to the nuclear stockpile, he would be in charge of national laboratories that have been called the “crown jewels of government science.” The two previous Secretaries of Energy had been legitimate scientists: Ernest J. Monitz, chairman of MIT’s physics department, and Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics.
Perry’s record as a major political voice of climate change denial stems from his extensive connections to the fossil-fuels industries, from which as governor of Texas he took more than $14.3 million in campaign donations. Big Oil and Big Gas were also the primary financial backers of his two presidential campaigns. At the time of his nomination, Perry was a member of the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
• Ryan Zinke began his tenure as Secretary of the Interior by rolling back a federal regulation reducing the amount of methane that vents from natural gas wells. This was the opening shot in a campaign against what he called “job-killing regulation that is not based on sound science”—Orwellian doublespeak for the science-based rules that underpin federal climate policy.
He followed that up with an order to cancel a study of the health risks of an environmentally destructive coal-mining practice in which the tops of mountains are blown off. The study was being conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The cancellation was condemned by public-interest environmental groups but cheered by the National Mining Association.
Zinke proclaimed his intention to oversee “probably the greatest restructuring in the history of the Department of the Interior.” His plan would reduce the DOI budget by $1.6 billion and eliminate 4000 jobs in the department. It also included transferring leading scientists to positions where their climate-related research would not conflict with the denialist mantra. Among them were Virginia Burkett and Joel Clement.
Dr. Burkett was reassigned from a position in which she had contributed to a Nobel Peace Prize–winning report on climate change to an office under the control of Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who, as a former lobbyist, had sued the DOI. Joel Clement, who had been the DOI’s chief climate policy expert, was also reassigned, but he did not go quietly. Instead, he resigned and publicly challenged Zinke’s attempt to silence and intimidate him, invoking the protections of the whistleblower law. In his letter of resignation, Clement declared, “If the Trump administration continues to try to silence experts in science, health and other fields, many more Americans, and the natural ecosystems upon which they depend, will be put at risk.”
Pruitt, Perry, and Zinke top the list of industry hacks and global warming deniers appointed by Trump to positions of influence over science policy, but several more are worth noting:
• Kathleen Hartnett White was named head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, making her Trump’s senior advisor on environmental policy. She has no scientific credentials but was a “Distinguished Senior Fellow-in-Residence” at a crackpot libertarian think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She once characterized the scientific consensus on global warming as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites,” and denied that CO2 is a pollutant, calling it “the gas of life on this planet.” She has also called renewable energy “unreliable and parasitic.”
• William Wehrum—a man who had spent his career challenging the EPA’s clean air protections—has been chosen to head the EPA office in charge of ensuring clean air in the United States. As a lawyer and lobbyist representing polluting industries, Wehrum has sued the EPA at least 77 times on behalf of clients such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Gas Processors Association, and the American Chemistry Council.
It would be a major task to list all of the potential conflicts of interests the new director of the Office of Air and Radiation will face as he rules on matters involving his former clients. One timely example will have to suffice. One week before his Nov. 9 confirmation by the Senate, Wehrum was in federal court arguing against Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards protecting workers from airborne silica dust. In his oral arguments, he declared: “People are designed to deal with dust. People are in dusty environments all the time and it doesn’t kill them.”
• Michael Dourson, Trump’s nominee to head the EPA’s chemical safety office, would be an ideal poster boy for the corporatization of American science. The New York Times editorial board explained why his nomination should be opposed: “Mr. Dourson is a scientist for hire. A toxicologist and a professor at the University of Cincinnati, he has a long history of consulting for chemical companies and conducting studies paid for with industry money. He frequently decided that the compounds he was evaluating were safe at exposure levels that are far more dangerous to public health than levels recommended by the E.P.A., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies. His nomination is enthusiastically endorsed by the chemical industry” (The New York Times, Oct. 17. 2017).
The EPA triumvirate of Pruitt, Wehrum, and Dourson constitutes a clear and present danger to public health.
• Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who became head of the Food and Drug Administration in May 2017, is yet another scientist-for-hire in charge of a science-based agency. Having made millions of dollars consulting for and investing in Big Pharma, he is now responsible for regulating that industry and overseeing the research into the safety of its products.
Gottlieb is a career wheeler-dealer in the drug and health-care industries, where he has held seats on numerous corporate boards. GlaxoSmithKline paid him $87,153 as a consultant from January 2016 through February 2017, a period in which he received $3 million in consulting and retainer fees. At the time of his nomination, he was CEO of a biotech company named Cell Biotherapy, a partner at a large venture capital firm, New Enterprise Associates, which speculates on medical research start-ups, and managing director of banking and brokerage firm T.R. Wilson & Co.
On top of all that, Gottlieb found time to ideologically justify his policies as a Resident Fellow at a venerable right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. In his writings, he has criticized the agency he now runs for being too worried about drug safety, complaining that FDA regulators “prioritize safety over speed” and demand research studies that “take too long and cost too much.”
As FDA director, Gottlieb will be in a position to facilitate rushing highly profitable drugs to market. One way he aims to accomplish that is by cutting back critical Phase III drug safety testing, the clinical trials large enough to provide trustworthy results.
• Sam Clovis will not be the Department of Agriculture’s top scientist after all. After accepting the nomination, he withdrew to avoid further scrutiny of his involvement with Russian agents on behalf of Trump’s presidential campaign. But the fact that a right-wing talk radio host and Tea Party activist with no scientific credentials could even be considered as the chief scientist overseeing the country’s food production, food safety, and nutrition shows the disdain with which the Trump administration regards science. It also reveals its disregard for the law, because the position for which Clovis was nominated is legally required to be filled by someone chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics” (U.S. Congress, H.R.2419, §6971).
• Rebeckah Adcock heads a clandestine “deregulation team” at the Department of Agriculture. In February 2017, Trump ordered a number of federal agencies to set up such teams, but has resolutely refused to identify their members. Investigative reporters for The New York Times and ProPublica, however, were able to confirm that, as suspected, many of them are “former employees of industry-financed organizations that oppose environmental regulations” (The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2017).
Adcock herself was found to be among the worst of the conflict-of-interest offenders. From 2010 to April 2017, Adcock had been a lobbyist for the pesticide industry’s main trade group, CropLife America, which represents agro-giants Syngenta and Monsanto, among others. By the end of April, she was a top official at the Department of Agriculture, and by May she was meeting behind closed doors with CropLife and Syngenta representatives. Their joint mission was to overturn science-based regulations previously imposed by the Department of Agriculture to protect farm families, farmworkers, and the public from the well-established dangers of pesticide use.
• Jim Bridenstine has been nominated to be the top official at one of the premier scientific agencies of the United States, the National Aerospace and Space Administration. Although best known for space exploration, NASA has also played a major role in climate change research. The agency’s budget request for 2018 projected $1.8 billion for its Earth Science program.
NASA launches the satellites that measure changes in the Earth’s climate and ocean temperatures. The data they gather are used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other climate researchers all over the world. Although an estimated one-third of the American economy relies on such data, Trump has called for deep cuts in funding for climate research while demagogically dismissing global warming as a “hoax.”
Unlike previous NASA directors, Bridenstine has no qualifications, educational or otherwise, as a scientist. As a member of the far-right congressional Freedom Caucus, however, he has sterling credentials as a climate change denier. Bridenstine is purely a political hatchet man selected to oversee the reduction of NASA’s research mission.
• Barry Lee Myers, a wealthy businessman, has been chosen to run the country’s number-one climate research agency, the aforementioned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition to satellite climate data, the NOAA also oversees fisheries, marine sanctuaries, and endangered species. Its directors have traditionally had strong science backgrounds.
Myers’ experience, however, has been corporate rather than scientific; he is CEO of AccuWeather, a for-profit weather forecasting company. That creates an obvious conflict of interest because the NOAA oversees the National Weather Service, which provides high-quality weather forecasts free of charge.
Myers has clashed with the federal agency in the past, complaining that it represents “unfair competition” to his company. He supported a bill sponsored by Senator Rick Santorum that would have barred the National Weather Service from offering a service “that is or could be provided by the private sector.”
The unionized National Weather Service employees have vigorously protested Myers’ appointment. A union rep charged Myers with wanting “to turn the Weather Service into a taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy of AccuWeather.”
Myers, like many of Trump’s choices, will oversee a shrinking agency. The White House’s projected national budget for 2018 slashes NOAA’s funding by 17%, with particular emphasis on reducing climate and ocean research.
• Betsy DeVos, a libertarian opponent of public schools, was the Trump administration’s ideal candidate for Secretary of Education. Her hostility to public education aligned perfectly with Trump’s belittling of what he demagogically calls “failing government schools.” In his book “Great Again, How To Fix Our Crippled America,” he wrote: “A lot of people believe the department of education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”
Although holding no qualifications in the field of education, DeVos is eminently qualified to fulfill Trump’s expectations. Being in charge of the Department of Education gives her, among other things, a bully pulpit from which to further demoralize American science education.
For at least the past two decades, DeVos has campaigned for charter schools as alternatives to public schools, and for publicly funded voucher schemes to fund private schools. Success in those endeavors would result in federal taxpayer dollars supporting the anti-Darwinist and climate-change-denial curricula of religious academies.
The Secretary of Education and her family have furthered that agenda by donating millions of dollars to organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, which promote creationism and intelligent design. The Family Research Council, it should be noted, has been designated as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
DeVos and her husband funnel their philanthropy through their personal tax shelter, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, which gave Focus on the Family $275,000 from 1999 to 2001. From 2001 to 2013 her parents’ Elsa and Edgar Prince Foundation (of which Betsy was a vice president) gave Focus on the Family $5.2 million and the Family Research Council $6.2 million. Since the 1970s, the DeVos clan has donated at least $200 million to extreme right-wing think tanks (like the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty) and political action groups (like the Foundation for Traditional Values) that seek to destroy public education and undermine the separation of church and state.
Science education in the United States was not in admirable shape before Trump took office. In 2015 rankings by country of student performance in mathematics and science, the United States placed 40th in math and 25th in science on the list of 72 countries. (Source: OECD.) With Betsy DeVos at the helm of the federal agency responsible for education policy, the future of American scientific education appears bleak indeed.
The preceding rogue’s gallery depicts a cast of characters in positions of authority devoted to undermining the integrity of American science. Their purpose is Robin Hood’s in reverse—to transfer the vast wealth of the American economy from the households of the many to the coffers of the few. Already the greatest heist in human history—a robbery of trillions upon trillions of dollars—its perpetrators are not yet satisfied. And they are still at large.