Trump sparks fears of war on science

Scientists fear President Trump’s first week could preview an aggressive approach toward federal research, citing early orders on climate science and a clampdown on agencies’ public communications.

Alarmed by his denial of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change, scientists and researchers are now bracing for more clashes as Trump looks to make his mark on the federal government.

“We asked some environmental employees and one said, ‘We’re in the clown car to crazy town,’” said Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“We view this as sort of the opening act of what’s going to be a long and bloody drama,” he added.

The Trump team says they’re doing nothing out of the ordinary for a new administration and that many of the groups representing the science community who are complaining appear to lean left.

Still, plans are already in the works for a “Science March on Washington” for this spring, following the model of the Women’s March that drew some 500,000 demonstrators to the nation’s capital last weekend.

A Facebook page for the organizing group, which has about 150,000 followers, says the march will be “by scientists and science enthusiasts in protest of the policies of the United States Congress” and Trump.

Trump’s administration drew scorn from scientists on the day of his inauguration as the new official White House website debuted without a page on climate change.

Greens pointed out it was missing other critical environmental pages, too, including the whole website for the Council on Environmental Quality.

Concerns only grew for scientists as agencies under the Trump team’s command limited their communications and were forced to backtrack on earlier orders dealing with the publication of government science.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was put on a communications freeze while the agency overhauled its public relations strategy, and Trump officials were reportedly considering deleting the agency’s whole climate change website.

Officials backed down from that proposal, though the site is missing critical climate change articles, including a lengthy FAQ page on the science behind climate change that concluded: “All major scientific agencies of the United States … agree that climate change is occurring and that humans are contributing to it.”

Trump’s EPA transition team was also forced to deny reports that the agency would require its scientific findings be vetted by career staff.

An agency spokesman told The Hill this week that instead, “everything is up for review” and the website work is focused on “scrubbing it up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public.”

A pause in agency operations between administrations is common, officials say. But they contend Trump’s team has gone further in its policy review than past administrations in their first days.

Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman and the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said efforts at the EPA this week raised concerns about “stifling communications of scientists among themselves or with other scientists outside of the agency.”

“We’re trying to stand up to it because I can’t be sure this isn’t a trial balloon, and if it’s a trial balloon, I don’t want to exaggerate it right now and say that this is the worst thing that ever happened,” Holt said during an event on Thursday. “But I don’t want a trial balloon to go uncommented upon and become permanent policy. ”

Liz Purchia, an EPA communications director during the Obama administration, said that early Trump actions within the agency — the communications freeze, website review, a hiring pause under a government-wide order from Trump and a soon-to-be completed review of agency grants — sets a bad tone.

“The combination of all those things is really dramatic and drastic and pretty much achieving what Donald Trump set out to do, which is completely hinder this federal agency, and it’s just incredibly disturbing,” she said.

Concerns aren’t limited to the EPA.

Trump’s transition team for the Agriculture Department this week instituted — then reversed — an internal policy preventing science from its Agricultural Research Service from going public.

Trump’s team hasn’t had the chance to set the policy direction for federal science agencies yet, and the White House has insisted it’s not clamping down on communications for any reason other than to review internal policies.

“There’s nothing that has come from the White House. Absolutely not,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Wednesday. “There are a couple of these agencies that have had problems adhering to their own policies.”

“They haven’t been directed by us to do anything,” he said.

Observers say the next action to watch is Trump’s budget proposal.

The administration is reportedly considering slashing several research offices at the Department of Energy as part of a plan to reduce government spending by trillions of dollars, and transition advisers for the EPA have reportedly proposed Trump cut up to $800 million from the agency’s budget and end grant programming and regulatory efforts.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that advisers have eyed a two-thirds reduction in the agency’s staffing, a possibility that would upset the EPA’s mission and one that has unnerved federal employees.

Those moves come in contrast to the strategy employed by the George W. Bush administration, which used appropriations to pump funding into federal science programs, according to Matt Owens, the vice president for federal relations and administration at the Association of American Universities.

Bush oversaw a doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget, an expansion of interagency research activities and a bump up in budgets at the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department, Owens noted.

“We assume that agencies like EPA are going to take a whack, a double-digit whack,” Ruch said.

“When we talk to people in EPA, while there may be concerns about restrictions on speech, the biggest concern is if they’re going to have a job. That’s quite naturally a paramount concern.”

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