Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see: Point: Trump’s War on Junk Science
Last November, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, after extensive analysis and review of the scientific literature, determined that the pesticide chlorpyrifos presented a serious health risk, including long-term damage to children’s brain development. Under vital and long-standing public health laws, this should have been enough to ban the use of chlorpyrifos.
But in March, the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, overruled his agency’s own research by allowing chlorpyrifos to stay on the market.
It’s a perfect example of this administration’s attitude toward science and evidence — and how their efforts to sideline science will put people at risk.
So much depends on a healthy relationship between the federal government and science. American industries have been built on the foundation of federal research, and America’s public depends on science for their health and safety, from weather monitoring to reducing dangerous pollution.
Federal scientists helped contain the risk of the Ebola virus and save the bald eagle from extinction. And science-based public safeguards like the Clean Air Act have saved millions of lives — drawing on the best available information to make sure that our air and water, our communities and workplaces, even the food and medicines we buy are safe and healthy.
The promotion of science is written into our Constitution and bipartisan support for science has made us a global leader.
Despite all that, the Trump administration already has an emerging pattern of undermining science. In just a few months, the administration has delayed or canceled science-based protections, dismissed or ignored scientific advice, altered scientific information on agency websites and created a hostile environment for scientific staff.
Appointees with little scientific background, or serious conflicts of interest, have been named to key roles at science-focused agencies — including Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA to block science-informed rules on mercury and ozone before being named to head the agency.
And if the president’s budget proposal, including not only reduced funding but a reduced workforce, were adopted, it would utterly gut the federal government’s scientific resources and the agencies that implement and enforce science-based laws. We could lose a generation of expertise and deter young scientists from public service.
Meanwhile, the administration’s allies in Congress have pushed a package of bills that sharply constrain how the federal government can use science. These bills would cut science out of the decision-making process and make it much harder for federal agencies to act on scientific information to protect public health, safety and the environment.
In the end, it’s not scientists who are the most threatened by the administration’s actions. It’s the families whose children would suffer serious nervous-system damage from chlorpyrifos exposure, or be susceptible to asthma attacks from ozone pollution. It’s employees who could get sick from beryllium or silica in their workplace. It’s parents who won’t be able to know how much sugar food companies are adding to the food they buy their kids. It’s the people whose water sources could be polluted by mining runoff, or who live near chemical facilities that won’t be required to have plans in place for a disaster.
Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, young children and seniors are all put at higher risk if we don’t listen to science and act on it in the public interest.
We all deserve access to the best information and the benefits of science. This isn’t a partisan issue — administrations on both sides of the aisle have misused science — but the scale of political interference we’ve seen in just the few short months since President Trump’s inauguration is striking. We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect scientists’ ability to follow their research wherever it leads and speak out without fear about their findings.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see the scientific community is more engaged than ever. The stakes are high. Federal science can make our country stronger, healthier and more prosperous — or political interference could devastate our nation’s critical scientific enterprise.
Correction: This version of the article corrects a prior claim that Pruitt met with the CEO of Dow Chemical prior to making the decision. The Associated Press corrected a version of their story that reported on the meeting. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman says that Pruitt and Dow’s Andrew Liveris did have “a brief introduction in passing” during an energy conference in Houston, but that “no substantive issues” were discussed.