Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science Already Surpass Two Bush Terms
By Elliott Negin
On July 19, President Trump hosted Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and their families, along with the family of their deceased colleague Neil Armstrong, at a White House event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon.
"Tomorrow will represent 50 years from the time we planted a beautiful American flag on the moon," Trump said. "And that was an achievement, possibly one of the great, considered one of the great achievements ever."
Trump's fractured syntax notwithstanding, the Apollo program was indeed a stunning triumph of federal science, involving more than 34,000 National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees and 375,000 industry and university contractors. It was one of many spectacular achievements by federal and federally funded scientists over the last half-century, such as the creation of the internet, fiber optics and magnetic resonance imaging technology, not to mention the role those scientists played in providing the technical underpinning for health and environmental standards that save lives and protect critical ecosystems and wildlife habitats.
Trump's lauding of the Apollo 11 mission rang a particularly discordant note given the lengths to which his administration has gone to destroy federal science by censoring scientific findings, gagging agency scientists and fostering a hostile working environment. Since taking office, the administration has launched more than 100 attacks on science, according to my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists — more than the George W. Bush administration amassed over its two four-year terms.
Just a day before Trump's Apollo photo op, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would reject scientific evidence and the recommendation of its own staff scientists by not banning chlorpyrifos, the widely used agricultural pesticide shown to hamper childhood brain development. It was the agency's second scientifically indefensible chemical-related decision of the year. In April, it overruled the advice of its own scientists who urged the agency to follow the example of 55 other countries in completely banning asbestos, a known carcinogen.
“By allowing chlorpyrifos to stay in our fruits and vegetables, Trump’s @EPA is breaking the law and neglecting the… https://t.co/DCZpzQKdi9— On Capitol Hill (@On Capitol Hill)1566388800.0
Today's EPA offers a stark example of the Trump administration's crusade to dismantle science-based agencies. Nearly 1,600 employees left the EPA during the first year and a half of the EPA administration, while only 400 were hired, according to data obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. Of 1,600 employees who left, at least 260 were scientists, 185 were "environmental protection specialists" and 106 were engineers. The total number of employees at the agency today — 14,172 — is the lowest in 30 years.
Besides chopping staff, the EPA has dramatically reduced the role of outside science advisers. Last fall, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, failed to convene a similar panel on ozone, and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.
The EPA is not the only agency pushing scientists out the door. The same day the EPA made its chlorpyrifos announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that nearly two-thirds of 395 Washington, D.C.-based employees in its Economic Research Service, which provides analyses on a range of issues, and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which oversees $1.7 billion in scientific funding, will quit rather than relocate to Kansas City.
The department's dubious rationale for moving the Research Service and National Institute is placing researchers closer to farmers and cutting costs, but its ulterior motive is to hollow out their staffs, hindering their ability to carry out their missions. Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, acknowledged as much during a speech he gave at an Aug. 2 Republican fundraiser in South Carolina.
"You've heard about 'drain the swamp.' What you probably haven't heard is what we are actually doing," he said. "I don't know if you saw the news the other day, but the USDA just tried to move, or did move, two offices out of Washington, D.C…. Guess what happened? More than half the people quit…. What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government, and do what we haven't been able to do for a long time."
Capitol Hill Science Defenders
Some members of Congress are fighting back. Late last month, for example, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress — a temporary committee with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans — unanimously approved a recommendation to resurrect the Office of Technology Assessment, a congressional watchdog agency that then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich killed in the mid-1990s.
The select committee's recommendation comes on the heels of a draft House spending bill for the 2020 fiscal year that includes $6 million to jumpstart the agency, which provided Congress with analyses on a range of topics, from acid rain to climate change to renewable energy, from 1972 to 1995.
Meanwhile, House Democrats and Republicans alike voiced their support for protecting federal science during a recent Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on scientific integrity. Two dozen federal agencies have adopted scientific integrity policies since 2010, but they are inconsistent and difficult to enforce, so some members of Congress want to codify protections in a law.
"Allowing political power or special interests to manipulate or suppress federal science hurts, and hurts all of us," said New York Rep. Paul Tonko at the July 17 hearing. "It leads to dirtier air, unsafe water, toxic products on our shelves, and chemicals in our homes and environment. And it has driven federal inaction in response to the growing climate crisis."
Earlier this year, Tonko introduced the Scientific Integrity Act, which would guarantee federal scientists the right to share their findings with the public, ensure the accuracy of government science-related communications, and protect scientific research from political interference.
Federal science has taken an unprecedented beating during the Trump administration and remains a long way from its glory days half a century ago when it landed men on the moon. Tonko recognizes that protecting scientific integrity is a critical first step to rebuilding American scientific enterprise and that it deserves bipartisan support.
"Scientific integrity is a longstanding concern that transcends any one party or political administration," Tonko said. "The abuses directed by this president and his top officials have brought a new urgency to the issue, but the fact remains whether a Democrat or Republican sits in the [House] speaker's chair or the Oval Office, we need strong scientific integrity policies."
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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