The signs this week of an internal revolt among some federal scientists and park rangers points to the deep distrust President Trump sowed in dismissing climate change as a “hoax” and in clearly favoring a business agenda over environmental stewardship.
But it also points to how that anxiety could be distorting what appear to be typical events in a presidential transition into perceived acts of political malice.
An Environmental Protection Agency gag order that led to cries of censorship is actually par for the course, a senior EPA official told The New York Times. “I’ve lived through many transitions, and I don’t think this is a story. I don’t think it’s fair to call it a gag order. This is standard practice.”
President Obama put similar policies in place when he transitioned from the Bush administration, the report notes.
Likewise, the Associated Press had to walk back a report that any studies or data from EPA scientists would be reviewed by Trump political appointees. The administration was only reviewing EPA websites – a standard practice for incoming administrations.
On one hand, few experts think the scientific community’s concerns are unfounded. The Trump administration’s attitude toward climate change and its willingness to embrace “alternative facts,” as adviser Kellyanne Conway described them, explains why federal scientists and park rangers are going rogue, starting unofficial Twitter accounts denouncing the administration. Other scientists are planning their own march on Washington.
This week suggests that scientists and the media will zealously hold the Trump administration to account. During the George W. Bush administration, such vigilance waned, some say.
But this week also suggests that that zeal can at least partly be misled by fear, at times failing to distinguish between normal partisan politics and a deeper crossing of ethical lines.
An administration trying to find its strategic political footing is not crossing an ethical line, experts say. The question is whether it is distorting or obfuscating scientific information to achieve that aim.
“It’s not the case that a government agency through its official organ has an obligation to disclose everything,” says Kathleen Clark, an ethics expert and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “On the other hand, with respect to government agencies that support scientific research, I believe there are distinct norms and rights to protect the integrity of the scientific research function so that it’s not subject to political interference.”
Sources of the mistrust
Each new administration establishes its own political agenda and shapes its executive branch agencies toward those goals.
“When you have a new White House, they want to control their messages. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the departments and agencies get their messages consistent with what the new administration would like,” says Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania.
Moreover, presidential transitions can be chaotic, and for a variety of reasons the Trump administration has been slow in getting its appointees in place. Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, for example, hasn’t been confirmed yet, so his team isn’t in place.
“That inherently is a problem when you talk about public communications,” says Frank Maisano, head of the Washington-based Policy Resolution Group, which consults on crisis communications.
Speaking of the so-called gag order, he says, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a blackout period until they get the professional political staff in there.”
But many scientists see something beyond “normal” in the moves and motives of the new administration. After all, Trump’s pick to head the EPA, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the agency numerous times regarding its pollution and greenhouse gas rules. And on Thursday, an incoming EPA official implored an audience to think of the positives of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, such as that it promotes plant growth.
The official, David Kreutzer, said he was not speaking on behalf of the agency, and the comment is true, but it betrays a wild misperception of the risks of climate change, scientists say.
When the audience laughed, the Mr. Kreutzer responded, “You’re laughing because you’re ignorant.”
Such comments have opened the Trump administration’s every move to intense scrutiny.
Attempts at reassurance
EPA spokesman Doug Ericksen is clearly trying to calm those fears.
For one, he says that, contrary to reports, the agency is not removing its climate change page. Instead, it is just reviewing all information, he adds.
“The agency will be managed by science and that is what we will be using,” Ericksen says. “We’re reviewing the web page like any transition team would do.”
He also suggests that media reports that the EPA had frozen $3.9 billion in grants and contracts were overblown. The freeze has already ended for all but $100 million of the funding, Ericksen says.
But the scientific community is apparently not willing to take it on faith that Ericksen is being straightforward. What information will be on the web sites when the administration review is done? Would the grant freezes have been temporary if the media hadn’t reported on them? They are questions fueling the vigilance of scientists and watchdog groups.
It’s fine for the Trump administration to consider “contrary evidence” so long as it also consults the body of science on climate change, which points to humans being the driving force, says Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, in an email.
Scientists are on such high alert because of the Trump administration’s skepticism of the extent to which humans are affecting the climate.
“A new message and a new direction are fair game, but removing science-based information – that the public paid for – from the public domain is beyond the pale,” adds Mr. Maibach. “It is suppression of evidence, which would be against the law if this was a legal case.”
Echoes of the past
To many scientists, the early moves out of the Trump EPA are reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration, which largely ignored scientific findings on climate change and air pollution in favor of industry viewpoints.
But there is a sense that the Trump administration heralds the most radical shift in how the EPA uses science since the Reagan administration. Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, drafted a “hit list” of scientific advisers at the agency and strove to gut the agency from the inside. Ms. Gorsuch Burford faced considerable backlash and ultimately resigned amid scandal.
The worry is that the scientific community could be facing similar threats today, says Sheila Jasanoff, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
For the Trump administration, the ethical line is clear, she says.
“There’s a difference between saying, ‘This is our policy and we direct research dollars to go here rather than there,’ and ‘There should not be public knowledge about [completed research].’ Those are two different things.”
Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this article.
[Editor's note: The name of Washington University has been corrected.]