Science AMA Series: We are Jacob Carter, Gretchen Goldman, and Michael Halpern from the Union of Concerned Scientists, here to talk about the past and present relationship between politics and science in government policymaking. AUA!

Abstract

Hi Reddit! We lead the Center for Science and Democracy at Union of Concerned Scientists. Our work focuses on strengthening democracy by advancing the role of science, evidence-based decisionmaking, and constructive debate as a means to improve the health, security, and prosperity of all people. To achieve this mission, we’ve spent 15 years tracking and exposing how presidential administrations and members of Congress of all political stripes politicize science. Our work includes an investigation into abuses of science during the Bush administration, a look at progress and problems with scientific integrity during the Obama administration, and our most recent work tracking attacks on science from the current administration and Congress. We look forward to answering questions about how science is used (and misused) in policy decisions and how this affects people across the country!

Jacob Carter is a Research Scientist at the Center. Jacob earned a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology and a graduate-level certificate in environmental studies from the University of Kansas. He also holds an M.S. in biology from Kansas State University. Prior to joining UCS, Jacob worked at the Environmental Protection Agency and at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Gretchen Goldman is the Research Director at the Center. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Gretchen leads research efforts on the role of science in public policy, focusing on topics ranging from scientific integrity in government decision-making, to political interference in science-based standards on hydraulic fracturing, climate change, sugar, and chemicals.

Michael Halpern is the Deputy Director of the Center. Michael has extensive expertise in defending scientists from harassment and creating conditions that make science and scientists more resilient to political, industry, and ideological influence. He also oversees efforts to enable scientists to more effectively engage the public.

3:10: Hi everyone—thanks for stopping by and asking good questions. We hope you’ll stay involved and help keep independent science strong. Have a great weekend!

We're starting to see career government officials within the EPA resign in protest of the administration's policies on environmental protection and climate change. How damaging is this to the intended purpose of the EPA and how long will it take for future administrations to repair the agency's reputation? As a pro-science advocacy group, how do you approach discussing topics such as climate change when the other participants are so vehemently opposed to the scientific consensus?

shiruken

By the way, UCS has set up a resource called The Science Protection Project as a resource for people to report anything that diminishes the role of science in federal decision-making:

Science Protection Project


We're starting to see career government officials within the EPA resign in protest of the administration's policies on environmental protection and climate change. How damaging is this to the intended purpose of the EPA and how long will it take for future administrations to repair the agency's reputation? As a pro-science advocacy group, how do you approach discussing topics such as climate change when the other participants are so vehemently opposed to the scientific consensus?

shiruken

Everyone makes a personal decision about whether they can stay within a hostile organization. Most career staff are staying and doing the best they can. Institutional knowledge is important. We also need people inside to help us document actions that diminish the role of science in policymaking--we've set up a Science Protection Project for employees to anonymously report this kind of activity.

Of course, it is damaging to lose scientists from a critical science-based agency such as the EPA. I worked at the EPA as postdoctoral fellow and can tell you that during my time there, a lot of great scientists and experts in environmental policy were working on projects to help mitigate the impacts of climate change as well as help communities adapt to those impacts. It takes a lot of work, time, and many people to effectively achieve the end goals of these projects. Even when I worked at EPA as a postdoctoral fellow under the Obama administration, there often weren’t enough resources to get everything that the agency needed or wanted to get done in regards to climate change. And now the Trump administration is making this problem worse through reappointing scientists from their climate change offices and moving them to offices within agencies where their skills cannot be used (see the story of Joel Clement, for example), or in some cases just shutting down climate change offices entirely. And while the hiring freeze has been formally lifted, it is suspected that there is still an informal hiring freeze at the EPA. So, if you lose a climate change scientist then you’ve likely lost them for at least the next three years. In other words, the agency is not hiring more climate change scientists anytime soon. As you lose more and more of these scientists, that means the work that they were in charge of doing now gets added on to the workload of others. Of course, these individuals are not going to be able to do their own work AND the work of someone who left or who was reappointed. Therefore, the work gets stifled. You begin to lose progress. A backlog of work begins to build. So, even if the next administration is less hostile to climate change scientists and the climate change work being done at EPA, it will take them many years to get the scientific progress back where it needs to be. I wouldn’t say that the reputation of the agency would need to revamped – we still have great scientists and staffers who are on the inside working to protect the health and environment of the American people! These individuals give me hope that science will be restored to its rightful place in the future – and we’ll do everything that we can to help them carry out their work.

As a pro-science advocacy group, when we talk about climate change with anyone, we stick to the science. I understand that this can be difficult, particularly when having discussions with individuals who deny the science of climate change. Therefore, it is important to remember to focus such pro-science messages on political actors who influence how climate change science is used in the policy making process.

--JC


What are your thoughts regarding direct attacks on scientists by special interest groups that disagree with the research findings? Are the FOIA requests frivolous or do they actually have any merit? What should scientists and academic institutions do to protect themselves from this kind of targeted witch-hunt?

shiruken

I wrote a report about this issue a couple of years ago, actually. Transparency is really important-we should know where an academic's funding comes from, for example. But a number of academics are being attacked through open records requests that act as denial of service attacks. Open records laws just haven't caught up with technology. So if a scientist works for a public university, a company or an activist will ask the university for years of emails, handwritten notes, etc. hoping they can find something to take out of context to cast doubt on the scientist's work.

The problem is, scientists do a lot of work on email, challenging and refining each other's ideas and analysis. The conversations that used to take place in person or on the phone now happen online. And if every email is subject to public scrutiny, the science will suffer, as people will be less critical of their peers.

There are solutions, though. It's helpful that attacks come from people across the ideological spectrum--animal rights activists abuse open records laws, and coal companies do too. So I'm hopeful that this is something that Democrats and Republicans can come together on to update open records laws in a responsible way. This just happened in Rhode Island, and I'm hopeful that other states will follow.

In the meantime, scientists who work in contentious fields should know what their state law says, make sure that their university counsel and faculty organizations understand what is at stake, and work with groups like UCS to push back on harassment. UCS and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund have successfully pushed back in court to protect scientists. But universities have a mixed record--they will do what's best for the university, which isn't always what's best for the individual researcher. That's why it's important for faculty to speak up when they see anyone attacked. And all scientists, at any institution, should continue to do their work but keep it as professional as possible. People can also get in touch with us for specific advice. I'm wondering if you're thinking about a particular situation or just wondering in general?

-MH


Thank you for doing this AMA, and for the important work that you do!

I work as a science communicator, and often struggle with the feeling that my audience is composed primarily of people who already feel positively about science and have a dedicated interest. Are there innovative or non-obvious things that you wish science communicators or scientists did more often, to reach those who don't care about science--or perhaps more accurately, don't realize that they things they care about are deeply impacted by science already in ways they don't think about?

neurobeegirl

Listen more, talk less. There's still a sense in the science community that if we put more information in front of people, that they will appreciate science more and incorporate it into collective and individual decisions. Sorry, Charlie. To get technical and social sciency here, research shows that the information deficit model doesn't work--and if people have entrenched ideas, contrary information can even make them dig in their heels even more. What does that mean? We need to understand what values a person or audience has, where they are coming from, and what is important to them to be able to communicate effectively. This relates to basic humanity--we are more likely to trust and relate to people who we think understand us. This is especially important when working with communities (such as environmental justice communities) that traditionally lack access to data and analysis that would allow them to advocate for policies that reduce environmental and public health threats.

What are some other ideas of where science communicators can do better?

--MH


What is the UCS's stance on public availability of scientific data? Can you give a comprehensive response to this question that comments on the overlaps of a variety of interests (some nefarious, some not):

  • interest of the public to having data accessible to the lay person if associated with publicly-funded research,

  • interest of the public to having data accessible to the lay person if associated with governmental regulation,

  • intellectual property rights interests,

  • the HONEST Act passed by the House in March,

  • effective accessibility to data that should be public,

  • the integrity of the scientific process and endeavor in general? (*Edited to add a couple more)

richard_sympson

Public access to scientific data is important. The public and decisionmakers can make better decisions when they have access to crucial scientific information. When it comes to scientific data collected or developed by the US government, the public has a right to access much of this information.

That said, there are several factors that need to be considered in order to balance transparency and accessibility with confidentiality concerns. There are several important and valid reasons that data shouldn't be made publicly available. For example, data may need to be protected when it comes to health-related data, data from studies involving human subjects or other instances where personally identifiable information is collected. Confidential business information and trade secrets are also reasons that data is sometimes not disclosed (though these exceptions are sometimes overly applied in my opinion). We also need to make sure we foster an environment where the scientific community feels free to discuss ideas, share data, and otherwise exercise academic freedom in developing science without fear of public scrutiny or harrassment before scientific assessments are developed. President Obama's open data executive order opened up many government data sets for public view--a great move!

Recently some on the Hill have attempted to politicize data access, claiming they need public access to what should be protected data before the government can move forward with protecting Americans from a known harm. The HONEST Act is an example of this. We are following it closely since the bill has passed the House. While it sounds innocuous and, well, honest, the policy proposal in fact would prevent the EPA from using the weight of scientific evidence to protect public health and the environment. Here's a blog I wrote about the bill.

It's also super important for people to advocate for the continued collection of data by the federal government, and continued public availability of that data. It's hard to understate how much businesses, states, and communities rely on federal government datasets--everything from preventing agricultural runoff to preventing flooding on city streets. The Data Refuge Project is a great organization that is leading efforts to archive and protect government data, and you should check them out. But you can also build support for data by making it meaningful where you live. How does it help your local fire department? How does it help urban planners? Some scientists are working with community groups, libraries, and others to make these connections.

--GG


Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I was wondering if you had any recommendations for how private citizens and also professionals make a difference and help promote science in the public space.

PapaNachos

Gosh, there's so much here. So let me give some general ideas and if you want we can get more specific. With regard to defending science, politicians will usually choose the path of less pain. It may be hard to believe, but Congress really does care about what constituents think. And it doesn't take too many folks to get on a member's radar. If you think your representative is a safe vote, you want to turn them into a champion. And if you think your member is hopeless, you want them to feel the heat so they are less likely to attack science or scientists...survival of the fittest and all that.

UCS offers ways for scientists to get engaged through our Science Network--and we're looking for science watchdogs to help us keep an eye on the administration's actions and to push back where it's strategic. Fill out this survey to sign up. We have also launched a Science Champions initiative, where non-scientists are provided updates, trainings, and ways to take action year-round on budget cuts and the like. These science champs are meeting with members of Congress when they are back home during the August congressional recess. More generally, people should be showing up wherever they can. That means showing up to town hall meetings. It means signing up for government science committees--there are hundreds of these that give independent advice to government on all kinds of topics. And it's listening to what people's concerns are, and connecting relevant science and data to those concerns. Like I said in a previous response, support for science will grow when people feel their concerns are listened to...it's not about providing more information and hoping that the information sticks.

--MH


Can you speak about the role of scientists in setting biomedical technology policy? Do you believe that the FDA is adequately listening to scientists?

kerovon

Are you thinking of a particular policy issue? Not sure I can speak to that issue specifically, but I will say that FDA has come a long way on scientific integrity, but the medical device industry remains less regulated than other industries that the FDA oversees. The Food and Drug Administration makes all kinds of science-based decisions every day, from drug approvals, to food safety monitoring, to cosmetics regulation; thus, it is tremendously important for the agency to maintain the highest standards of scientific integrity.

Unfortunately, the agency has had several missteps in the past. Remember the Vioxx fiasco? How about the flawed Plan B emergency contraception decision? Conflicts of interest and inappropriate influence from the industries that the FDA oversees have long plagued the agency. Our surveys of FDA scientists found that problems have persisted around scientific integrity there.

But fortunately, some things have improved! The FDA now has a decent scientific integrity policy and a stellar social media policy they produced following our criticism.

Now under FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, I once again have concerns about the role of science at the FDA. Gottlieb is a medical doctor with extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry, including GlaxoSmithKline and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, taking $400,000 from drug and medical device companies in consulting and speaking fees between 2013 and 2015. He has not been shy in his criticism of what he calls FDA’s “cumbersome” drug approval process, and has recommended fast-tracking approval by using surrogate markers to gauge the effectiveness of new products. Surrogate markers would allow drug companies to conduct shorter studies with smaller sample sizes. A win for drug companies, but not necessarily for public health. My colleague Genna Reed has more of these concerns laid out in a post here. That's why it is so important that we keep a watchful eye on the FDA and other agencies to make sure that they are making science-based decisions, and hold them accountable when they do not.

--GG


I used to donate to UCS years ago, before I found out about your stance on GMOs. What I was finding was that your staff had been instrumental in spreading misinformation on this matter, and this had real consequences in plant science and regulatory issues.

I was glad to see the worst offenders of that leave UCS. But many of us have since asked you to clarify your stance on GMO science topics and we have had nothing but silence.

Please comment on your group's position on the National Academy of Sciences GECropStudy report, and how it impacts your positions on agricultural science policy matters.

Many scientists I know would like to be allies with you, but if you can't be on the record with the scientific consensus on GMO matters it's difficult and dismaying to ally with you.

mem_somerville

None of the three of us work on this issue, but I passed this question along to the deputy director of our Food & Environment Program, and this is what she told me:

"We are not opposed to GE, and we think it has a lot of potential benefits that could be realized with thoughtful application. However, we are opposed to its main application in this country, which is to drive an unsustainable agriculture system that overproduces vast monocultures of corn and soy while polluting our water, degrading our land, and shackling our farmers."

--GG


How do you feel about the current administration discrediting all the years of scientific research into climate change?

Impulse215

The good thing is that they're pretty much going it alone. Yes, it is crushing to see high level officials in the federal government revert back to the old, tired long-discredited talking points of climate conspiracy theorists. I was as disheartened as anyone who has fought this battle for several years. But I maintain hope by remembering that this train is moving whether these actors are onboard or not. The world is moving ahead toward a carbon free future. For example, the solar and wind industries are creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the US economy, with employment in the solar industry alone growing by 25% in 2016 to 260,000. Furthermore, a group of US economic, education, and local government leaders representing 120 million Americans and $6.2 trillion in the US economy announced they will uphold terms of the Paris agreement through the We Are Still In movement. The group includes 125 cities, 9 states, 902 businesses and investors, and 183 colleges and universities.

Current political leaders can't erase the knowledge we've gained about our climate system and the evidence of a changing climate, which we see all around us today. I've also been heartened by data archiving efforts by the scientific community that have ensured that a tremendous amount of climate data and resources, along with other scientific information, remains free and accessible to the public. We are in a much better place than we were years ago when the climate disinformation campaigns were in full swing.

--GG


How can scientists advocate for science funding in the context of an administration that thinks scientists are solely in it for the money?

aClimateScientist

Having an administration that doesn't seem to respect the important role of science in our society certainly presents challenges when it comes to our advocating for science funding and other resources. We should use this as a chance to educate people on how science benefits them in their daily lives. Why is science important? How does it affect us? Does it help keep us safe and healthy? Does it contribute or have the potential to have huge economic benefits for individuals or for the world? These are questions that we should be able to answer for non-scientists.

One silver lining to the current federal situation is that recent headlines have led to the public being far more aware of what the federal government funds, as well as how federal agencies need scientists to make informed decisions about everything from air pollution and drug safety. We can use this opportunity to inform about the role of science. In the meantime, science funding might be slimmer and the scientific community will have to diversify their funding sources, perhaps even more than is already the norm now.

-GG


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