Federal bill strengthens separation of science and politics

February 11, 2017 GMT

Congressional Democrats including New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are pushing back against the Trump administration to prevent it from interfering with scientific research and publicly available information.

The state’s senators are among 27 co-sponsors of a bill introduced into Congress this week that would amend the 1998 Scientific Integrity Act to prohibit political will from influencing scientific data or research produced by federal agencies.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., states that all federal agencies must produce independent and impartial science that the public can trust and is “free from political, ideological, or financial influence” and does not prevent “the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion” of data.

Scientific conclusions and the hiring or firing of scientists should be made without political influence, the bill states. It also gives scientists the ability to approve publicly released material — documents, reports and news releases — to ensure scientific accuracy.

“Science should never be silenced,” Heinrich said in a statement. “In its first month, the Trump administration has taken disturbing actions that send a chilling message to scientists working on applied energy research and climate science at New Mexico’s national laboratories and universities.

“Attempts to squash scientific endeavors to advance purely ideological or political agendas will greatly damage our nation’s ability to develop new technologies and compete in the global economy,” he said.

The bill is the most recent effort by Democratic lawmakers to block the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress from rolling back environmental regulations, and attempts to undermine and censor science at federal agencies, including the national laboratories.

In early December, the Trump transition team sent a 74-question document to the Department of Energy that caused alarm to ripple throughout the scientific community. Many called it “unusually intrusive.” The Energy Department oversees staff at 17 laboratories, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

The questionnaire asked officials to divulge the names of staff who had attended climate and carbon-reduction conferences, to list the publications and websites used by scientists, and to name the professional societies employees were affiliated with.

A spokesperson for the transition team later said the questionnaire had not been authorized. But many saw it as the first sign that the new administration planned to defund or censor government-funded research that conflicted with political ideology.

President Donald Trump has referred to climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” has pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement — a multinational climate accord aimed to reduce carbon emissions — and has filled top positions at key environmental agencies with appointees who have questioned or outright denied a human contribution to a warming climate.

In the days following President Trump’s inauguration, he ordered a freeze on federal grant spending at the Environmental Protection Agency. He also told several agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior, which oversee national parks and federal lands, not to send out news releases, post new web content or use social media.

Legislation was introduced this month by freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would abolish the EPA outright.

Many of former President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives were wiped from the home page of the White House website and other federal sites and moved to the websites’ archives.

Fears have been raised that scientists from the seven countries listed under Trump’s travel ban could be impeded from continuing their research in the U.S.

An official at Los Alamos National Laboratory confirmed last week that no employees were currently being detained or otherwise affected by the ban.

In response to the new administration’s early actions, more than 5,000 scientists have written to Trump, urging him to protect scientific integrity. Marches also have been planned in Washington, D.C., to support climate change research and other science later this spring.

Udall said in a statement that the Scientific Integrity Act will “protect the ability of scientists in our government agencies to convey the truth to the American people.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.