Ep. 12: Standing Up for Science

 Thousands of scientists are taking to the streets this weekend to demand respect for science and scientists. The March for Science on Washington, and in hundreds of cities around the country and world, takes place on April 22nd. 

Thousands of scientists are taking to the streets this weekend to demand respect for science and scientists. The March for Science on Washington, and in hundreds of cities around the country and world, takes place on April 22nd. 

This episode of Trump on Earth features Carnegie Mellon scientist Neil Donahue, former EPA scientist Michael Cox and Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists on the Trump administration's recent actions impacting scientific research in the federal government. 

From the budget proposal slashing staff at the EPA and limiting NASA’s Earth Science program to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt claiming that carbon dioxide isn’t a major factor in global warming, many are asking if the federal government is now anti-science. The sentiment built itself into a movement, as thousands take to the street on April 22, insisting on respect for science and scientists in a March for Science on Washington, and in hundreds of cities around the country and world.

One of those speaking at the Earth Day March for Science in Pittsburgh is Neil Donahue of Carnegie Mellon University. He’s an atmospheric chemist who studies climate change and air pollution. Donahue says he’s not taking a stand for any political outcome, or even specific sources of energy. But he thinks climate change and the scientific consensus on its causes are being used as a political football--and that’s not OK with him.

“I’m not bothered by standing up and saying, ‘This is in fact what we understand. Our understanding of climate change is robust.’” Donahue says. “And so actually I would feel bad if I didn’t stand up and talk about that.”

No one knows better how the current administration’s policies will impact science at the EPA better than Michael Cox. He’s the former agency employee who, upon his retirement a few weeks ago, sent a now famous, candid letter to Administrator Pruitt. Cox didn’t pull any punches. He said EPA staff is alarmed by the direction the agency is taking under Pruitt, and admonished his former boss for appointing top staff who are openly hostile to EPA’s mission. That mission is pretty simple, Cox says: protect human health and the environment.

Cox says he’s never seen staff morale so low, since he started at EPA in 1987. So he thought he’d also provide Pruitt with some ideas on how to engage staff.

“Because in my mind, in order to be successful, the EPA career staff have to be on board and and inspired and motivated to do their work,” says Cox.

For starters, Cox says, Pruitt could take a step back, and listen. In his letter, Cox asks Pruitt, “Do you really want your legacy to be the person who led the rollback and reversal of the amazing gains we have made over the past 40 years?”

Last month, The Union of Concerned Scientists launched a website “Counting the Attacks on Science by the Trump Administration and Congress.” Their stated goal is to “document the impact of political interference in science on public health and safety, and to enable others to see patterns in Trump administration and congressional behavior.”

What have they seen so far? Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists says this administration is a whole different ballgame. They’ve seen plenty of abuses and they’re happening at a faster in this administration than they’ve ever seen before.

“We’re seeing some cases of scientists being silenced, science being reviewed by political appointees and we’re seeing threats to funding and threats to the scientific enterprise at large.”

Despite the fear and anxiety federal scientists are feeling under the Trump administration, Goldman says there’s evidence, like the rogue Twitter accounts from federal agencies, that scientists aren’t going to accept some of these restrictions as they might have in the past.

“One thing I think that is new and different in this administration is the willingness of the federal workforce to leak out information or otherwise defy what is happening. ”