Saving Science in the Age of Trump

The current administration’s suppression of data and information is unprecedented. But so are NRDC’s efforts to combat it.

Credit: Ben Wiseman

David Hawkins remembers that when he joined NRDC in 1971, the Nixon administration, trying to cause some “mischief,” was holding a thumb on the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While Nixon signed many of the agency’s foundational laws, he also called the environmental movement “crap” for “clowns” and vetoed the Clean Water Act, calling it “budget wrecking,” before Congress overrode him. Since then, Hawkins, who directs NRDC’s climate work, has kept tabs on the relationship to the environment of eight subsequent presidential administrations. He’s witnessed everything from the “political and legal incompetency” under Reagan to the clean energy revolution that took shape during the Obama years. But nothing, he says, compares to the “wholesale agenda to undo an entire legacy of broad public health programs” that we’re seeing now.

Hawkins has also had a longstanding interest in the evolving role of technology in the various administrations’ environmental agendas. Hawkins recalls that in 2000, with George W. Bush set to take control of the government websites created during the Clinton administration, there was no precedent for how the information would (or wouldn’t) be maintained. So he and a small network of other environmental advocates set about archiving the sites onto CD-ROMs. The exercise turned out to be unnecessary—the Bush administration didn’t attempt to delete or hide any content. Nevertheless, it prepared Hawkins for the transition that would take place in the White House 16 years later.

The Digital Hive Mind Goes to Work

“When Trump was elected, I realized that, given his statements about climate change and energy policy, we would see an attempt to tailor websites to suit his own policy preferences,” Hawkins says. He responded quickly, contacting others to formulate a plan to archive the government sites once again.

But a lot had changed between 2000 and 2016. Not only had the amount of information increased exponentially, but the number of people interested in archiving it had, too. Almost immediately after Trump’s win on November 8, 2016, and up until the day of his inauguration on January 20, 2017, a vast network of volunteers worked tirelessly to back up as much scientific data on government websites as possible.

“It was pretty amazing,” says Kate McKenney, NRDC’s digital director. “The story about the archiving is really about the public effort that happened.” Coordinating via online message boards and bolstered by the Internet Archive—a nonprofit library of websites, software, and other media—groups of citizens worked not just on archiving the government sites but also on the complex task of preserving the data sets and web applications these sites housed.

“The EPA, NOAA, and NASA have these powerful data tools that were built out in the last 10 years. There was a great fear that they weren’t going to be supported and would basically disappear,” McKenney explains, adding that activists have dedicated countless hours to creating Climate Mirror, a site backing up all the federal climate and environmental data sets.

Now, more than a year into the Trump presidency, it’s become clear that concerns about a coming assault on science were well founded. From deleting references to climate change on government sites to undermining and misrepresenting scientific research, the administration’s attack is so widespread, it’s almost impossible to adequately monitor. As Hawkins notes, computer programs can track changes, but they won’t identify which of those changes are important from a policy or a public information standpoint; this requires human brain power, not to mention lots of time. The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative detailed the sheer scope of these changes—and the difficulty of continually monitoring and assessing them—in the third part of a comprehensive report issued in January 2018.

The Data We All Rely On

What does this all mean for scientists who are continuing to pursue their work in the face of these threats? “It’s alarming, concerning, and totally the wrong direction,” says Kim Knowlton, deputy director of NRDC’s Science Center. “Without information, we can’t help society, which is what we’re here to do as scientists. It’s so frustrating.”

She notes that by making it more difficult—and in some cases impossible—to access data, the Trump administration is multiplying scientists’ research time, cutting down on their efficiency, and ultimately putting public health at risk. Indeed, the consequences of suppressing information and stifling research are dire. Most immediately, for example, it could prevent scientists from identifying potential disease outbreaks. In the longer term, by manufacturing gaps in data collection, it jeopardizes the richness and integrity of 250 years of American scientific inquiry, Knowlton says.

Knowlton’s Science Center colleague Stacy Woods echoes this concern. “As an environmental scientist, the vast majority of my work has focused on these massive data sets that the federal government provides,” she says. She cites as an example the country’s Air Quality System, through which the EPA has long kept track of what Americans are breathing in on a daily basis. Currently, scientists are monitoring the levels of particulate matter in the air in California and other parts of the country that have been experiencing increased wildfire activity. At the time of this story’s publication, the data were still available; Woods checks the EPA’s website regularly for assurance that it’s still being recorded. But, she says, “if it is lost, investigations are going to be stymied.”

Raising public awareness of data suppression is crucial, Knowlton says: “We can advocate and declare that it’s illegal to destroy government data. And making it more difficult to find data may not be illegal to the letter of the law, but in the spirit of the law, it’s wrong.”

It’s also un-American, says Woods. Even abroad, the United States has often been recognized for producing data that form the backbone of “massive public number-crunching studies,” as she puts it. She recalls a presentation by Swedish scientist Hans Rosling at the U.S. Department of State in 2009 lauding the government for its principles of accessible and transparent data. “It is U.S. government at its best, without advocacy, providing facts that are useful for society and providing data free of charge on the internet for the world to use,” Rosling said. “And that doesn’t come easily from the mouth of a Swedish public health professor.”

Picking Up the Pieces

Beyond the protection of existing data, some staff at NRDC are taking matters into their own hands by continuing the scientific work that the Trump administration abruptly cut short. For example, Simon Mui, a California-based NRDC scientist who advocates for cleaner vehicles and fuels, is partnering with NRDC’s policy analysis team, Health & Environment program, and Science Center to advance a critical report that looks at the public health benefits of the Clean Air Act—with the help of a consultant formerly employed by the EPA. Congress requires the agency to report periodically on the benefits and costs of all the Clean Air Act’s programs. Since the EPA’s last report in 2011, the data have grown robust enough to allow analysts to evaluate the benefits on a county-by-county level, so NRDC is working to analyze and release that new information. “The Trump administration is putting the public’s health at risk by trying to roll back pollution standards,” Mui says. “It’s critical that local and state officials have data to understand the impacts. These programs are delivering tremendous benefits by reducing the number of early deaths, infant mortality cases, emergency room visits, and lost work days.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Noll, NRDC’s Washington, D.C.– based legislative director on energy issues, is heading up an effort to continue researching and updating Revolution Now, an annual report from the U.S. Department of Energy detailing the benefits and cost-effectiveness of clean energy technologies. The DOE did not update the report in 2017, and Noll doubts that it will be a priority project under the Trump administration. To compensate, she gathered the data that would have been published last year and made a revised report, and the underlying data, available to the public.

While the threats to federal scientific research and communication have grown exponentially under the Trump administration, so has the drive to protect access to this essential public information. At NRDC, information technology professionals, scientists, and advocates see it as essential to standing up for basic human rights.

“The Trump administration can easily get out of office in 2020 without having done anything positive—and they are trying to do a lot negative,” Hawkins says. “We have a limited amount of time to act to prevent being locked into a really terrifying future for our kids and their kids.”

He adds, “We are not entering the dark ages; they’re not going to be able to succeed in getting bad science established as the new truth. But they will do an enormous amount of damage simply by blocking progress.”

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