Week 111: Trump Censors Scientists (Twice!)

Trump officials tell NASA they’re not needed, political appointees interfere with chemical safety research, and former military brass tell Trump to stop denying climate change.

March 08, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (DC-8 plane photo: Jhony Zavaleta/NASA)

EPA to NASA: Don’t Confuse Us With Your Data

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, NASA offered to fly a high-tech plane over the debris to determine whether airborne pollutants were responsible for the nausea and dizziness reported among rescue workers. The hurricane was an environmental catastrophe. A stew of chemicals gushed from a former oil industry waste processing plant, while trailers loaded with organic peroxides burst into flames at a nearby chemical plant. Despite these hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas state director of toxicology declined NASA’s offer to help. Their stated reason? They didn’t want to confuse people with additional data.

The Los Angeles Times reported on this disturbing episode this week, based on contemporaneous emails and interviews with scientists and officials involved in the incident.

The aircraft that was offered was NASA’s DC-8 Airborne Science Laboratory, which, when outfitted with the right sensors, represents the state of the art in pollution detection. The aircraft carries dozens of scientists and can analyze the content of more than 450 air pollutants. It had recently been deployed in the area affected by Harvey, collecting emissions samples as part of the SEAC4RS mission. Indisputably, the aircraft would have given officials the best possible picture of what the rescue workers were breathing.

One person who opposed NASA’s offer was Texas’s head toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, who is a colorful character. In 2015 he told Houston’s local NPR station, that tightening ground-level ozone standards would increase pollution-related deaths, a flamboyant misreading of the data. Ozone is a primary component of smog and is known to exacerbate asthma and other respiratory disorders. There is no question that decreasing exposure to ground-level ozone would save lives.

One of Honeycutt’s scientific colleagues called his habit of twisting public health data “frightening,” but the Trump administration begs to differ. Honeycutt’s penchant for scarily dangerous data interpretation has, not coincidentally, landed him on the EPA’s science advisory board.

In rejecting NASA’s post-Harvey offer, Honeycutt argued that infrared cameras mounted to low-flying helicopters were already collecting all the data that he needed. This notion undercuts a chief component of scientific research: gathering multiple, independent sets of data to inform your study. Any data contributed by NASA’s plane would have strengthened the researchers’ conclusions; even if the NASA observations differed from those of the infrared cameras, they would have represented useful new information that any sensible public health official would want to have.

Honeycutt’s excuse was, of course, just a pretext. He simply didn’t want to know what NASA might find.

But surely this was the only act of Trump administration scientific censorship that we learned about this week, right? What’s that you say? It wasn’t?

Toxic Politics

The Government Accountability Office reported on Monday that the Trump appointees at the EPA instructed agency scientists to postpone assessments of toxic chemicals to make sure that the work was consistent with administration priorities. This isn’t an issue in most administrations, because making sure that Americans aren’t poisoned is usually a high priority. But the Trump administration seems to have other, more pressing priorities, like serving its industry allies.

Before they were blocked, the EPA scientists were doing routine work: reviewing chemical toxicity data, determining what levels of exposure are safe, and reporting the findings to the public as part of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS. But Trump’s political appointees essentially froze the system, beginning in June 2018.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal a month ago, a Trump EPA spokesman referenced the administration’s move to halt IRIS assessments, noting, “This administration clearly has huge disagreements with the way the Obama administration carried out the agency’s mission.”

That sounds like a bland statement—that administrations simply have different approaches to governance, and that’s normal—but it belies a disturbing worldview. Science is based on facts, not politics. That’s why work like toxicology and chemical assessment within government agencies is carried out by career scientists.

The Obama administration let scientists do their work and relied on science to guide its policies. In the Trump administration, political appointees, who are influenced by many factors beyond data and research, are making scientific decisions. That’s not a simple difference of approach. It’s an act of censorship and political interference that Americans shouldn’t tolerate.

Stand Down, Professor Happer

We recently reported on the Trump administration’s plan to form a panel to review the decades-old consensus that climate change poses a threat to national security. The man behind the idea is William Happer, a distinguished physicist with little expertise in atmospheric chemistry or Earth systems science who holds a fringe view that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be good for mankind. What could go wrong?

A lot, according to 58 former military and intelligence officials who signed a letter this week urging the administration to cancel its climate review panel. The signatories have worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents going back to the Eisenhower administration. (If anyone knows a national security issue, it’s an Eisenhower man—Ike talked about using nuclear weapons in the same way the military uses bullets.)

The letter warns against “[i]mposing a political test on reports issued by the science agencies,” a line that, if read in isolation, could apply to just about everything the Trump administration has done in the past two years.

The signatories include four generals, five lieutenant generals, and four major generals. Trump loves his generals, or at least he used to. If he won’t listen to scientists, here’s hoping he’ll listen to them.

Tell President Trump we demand immediate action on climate change

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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