Top Scientist Quits USDA, Says Trump Admin Tried to Bury Study Linking Climate and Nutrition
By Jessica Corbett
The exodus of federal scientists in the era of President Donald Trump continued Friday as 62-year-old plant physiologist Lewis Ziska left the U.S. Department of Agriculture "over the Trump administration's efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice loses nutrients due to rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," POLITICO reported Monday.
Ziska — who worked at USDA under five presidents, both Republicans and Democrats — charged in an interview with POLITICO that he left the department's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) because the USDA tried to block the public dissemination of his research on how the human-caused climate crisis's impact on rice could threaten the nutrition of 600 million people. The study, POLITICO reported, was internally cleared at the department and peer reviewed prior to its publication in the journal Science Advances last year.
USDA, in a statement to the outlet, said that "this was a joint decision by ARS national program leaders — all career scientists — not to send out a press release on this paper" based on scientific disagreement, and the decisions involving the study weren't politically motivated.
Ziska, however, said that "this isn't about the science. It's about something else, but it's not about the science."
"You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don't agree with someone's political views," Ziska said about the current environment at the USDA. "That's so sad. I can't even begin to tell you how sad that is."
Ziska's resignation comes after the departures of Rod Schoonover, a State Department official who claimed the administration blocked the submission of his report on the climate crisis and national security to a U.S. House committee, and Maria Caffrey, a National Park Service employee who wrote for The Guardian last month, "In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration."
POLITICO previously reported on the Trump USDA refusing to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that warn about the climate emergency's consequences or to release a "multiyear plan that outlines how the department should help agriculture understand, adapt to, and minimize the effects" of the crisis.
Turns out the "swamp" that @realDonaldTrump wants to drain isn't lobbyists it's civil-servant scientists. #USDA relocation is as cynical as it gets. (Until tomorrow, brace yourself.) https://t.co/SPsjHwnkzV— Timothy A. Wise (@TimothyAWise) August 5, 2019
But it's not just top-down censorship that's impacting U.S. government research on the climate, Ziska told POLITICO.
The overriding fear among scientists within USDA, Ziska said, was that the administration would take an axe to the department's science budget, and research priorities that perhaps didn't align with the administration's agenda would be the first to go. (The Trump administration has repeatedly proposed significant cuts to ARS' budget, but Congress has so far largely kept funding flat.)
Anything related to climate change was seen as extremely vulnerable, he said.
"We were careful," he explained. "And then it got to the point where language started to change. No one wanted to say climate change, you would say climate uncertainty or you would say extreme events. Or you would use whatever euphemism was available to not draw attention."
"There was a sense that if the science agreed with the politics, then the policymakers would consider it to be 'good science,' and if it didn't agree with the politics, then it was something that was flawed and needed to be done again," Ziska added. "That was a sea change in how we viewed our role."
Ziska told POLITICO that by politicizing climate science, the administration is jeopardizing the future of agriculture on a global scale, which could have devastating consequences for human health. As he put it:
To ignore it. To just dismiss it and say 'oh that's political' ... I don't have the words to describe that. It's surreal. It feels like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, was among those who responded to news of Ziska's resignation by calling out the Trump administration for "silencing our scientists."
Once again, the Trump admin is silencing our scientists. @USDA researchers study key topics like the devastating effects of climate change on agriculture—topics the Administration has repeatedly undermined at the expense of real data for farmers. This is a huge loss for USDA. https://t.co/BJSeU9xEng— Chellie Pingree (@chelliepingree) August 5, 2019
The POLITICO interview was not the only report that cast a spotlight Monday on the Trump administration's impact on government-backed climate research.
In a blog post for Scientific American, Jacob Carter, a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), wrote that "the Trump administration has suppressed, censored, and threatened to fire many of its experts for the work they do, or simply for discussing scientific information that is politically contentious. In some cases, the Trump administration's actions are driving experts out." He pointed to Schoonover and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official Betsy Southerland as examples.
"Imagine the working culture for federal experts watching the Trump administration go on the offense against their own staff. What do you do to get your day-to-day work done? How do you continue to get your work funded? One option is to censor politically contentious words or phrases," Carter continued. "Self-censorship may not make headlines, but there is a lot of evidence that it's happening in the chilling environment the Trump administration has created for federal government experts."
.@UCSJacob, @UCSUSA in @sciam: “We cannot afford to retreat from the science-based policies that help our nation respond effectively to complex challenges to public health, the environment and national security.” #ScienceNotSilence https://t.co/HDr16syVMi— Environmental Protection Network (@EnvProtectioNet) August 5, 2019
Carter referenced his organization's August 2018 survey of 63,000 scientific experts across 16 federal agencies which revealed, as Common Dreams reported at the time, that "as the Trump administration continues to brazenly attack national environmental regulations, it is also 'sidelining science' within agencies, with staffers reporting issues including 'censorship and self-censorship, political interference in scientists' work, low morale, decreased agency effectiveness, and dwindling resources.'"
Next week, UCS and other partners will host a panel discussion in Albany, New York about the importance of federal science and how it can be safeguarded from political manipulation:
When federal scientists can do their work and share it free from political manipulation, we are better able to tackle our most pressing challenges. Join UCS, @RepPaulTonko @CapSciNY @CleanHealthyNY and others for a panel discussion on how we can do that: https://t.co/ClLxJKRrDh— Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) August 5, 2019
EPA Exodus: Nearly 1,600 Workers Have Left Since Trump Took Office, Analysis Shows https://t.co/AmwYvpX5SY— Enviro Voter Project (@Enviro_Voter) September 10, 2018
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
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Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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