House Panel Tackles Scientific Integrity at Interior Department

WASHINGTON (CN) – A trend at the Interior Department under President Donald Trump has persisted for two years: climate science is being squeezed out and retaliation can be swift for those who speak up. But beyond professional ramifications, scientists told lawmakers Thursday they mostly worry censorship today will lead to public health and economic problems tomorrow.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks during a tour at Zion National Park in Utah on Sept. 24, 2018. (Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via AP, File)

The House Natural Resources Committee gathered Thursday for a hearing on scientific integrity at the Interior Department under the Trump administration. The subject comes up frequently in the House. Democratic Representative Paul Tonko of New York and Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii even introduced legislation in March known as the Scientific Integrity Act to address what they and many government scientists see as a recurring problem.

The bill would cement transparency protections and improve scientific reporting methods to federal agencies, something that Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said would significantly help get critical information into the public sphere.

The legislation also sets a 30-day deadline for agency reviews of scientific findings and allows scientists to present findings to the public and media without restraints from their respective agencies.

“Scientists could speak out and political manipulation of that information would be revealed. People would have to justify a policy decision on its merits, not by constructing a false scientific argument for why something should be done,” Rosenberg said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed 63,000 scientific experts who work for the federal government last year and the study found that censorship, self-censorship, political interference and undue industry influence were prevalent.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service bowed to political pressure and circumvented environmental assessment impact studies on species in southeast Arizona. The department suppressed 18 memos from staff scientists about the threat oil and gas operations posed to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A recent Interior study on grey wolves that supported moving them off the Endangered Species Act list was riddled with errors. The department blocked the release of reports on the dangers pesticides posed to 1,400 endangered species,” Rosenberg said at Thursday’s hearing.

He said the Trump administration has eliminated scientific advisory panels across all branches of government and placed arbitrary restrictions on access to information informing public health policy.

“I’m not concerned the attacks will hurt my feelings,” Rosenberg said. “I can take the heat and so can my colleagues but censorship and manipulation of our results is misuse of our work and results in bad policy.”

He pointed to Interior’s decision to abruptly stop a state-requested study on mountaintop removal run by the National Academy of Sciences.

“It was cancelled mid-stream, which I find strange because it was commissioned by states to study health issues. The Interior also canceled a study on the safety of offshore drilling rigs because they said they ‘didn’t need the information.’ The idea that the information is not needed is shocking. We need the best possible information on issues like drinking water safety because that’s what dictates policy,” Rosenberg said.

Joel Clement, a Harvard University scientist and senior fellow at the Arctic Initiative, studies the impact of climate change – in particular, its effect on 30 Native Alaskan villages in a region the Interior has previously admitted is under “acute threat” by climate change.

“They are one bad storm away from being wiped off the map. It should be a top priority to get these Americans out of the way of danger as soon as possible,” Clement said.

He worked with interagency teams at the Interior and later went to the United Nations to discuss climate resiliency. But on the night of his speech, he paid the price.

“I received an email that evening that I was being reassigned to an auditing office that collects checks from the oil and gas industry. I have no experience in auditing or accounting at all. It was clearly retaliation,” Clement said.

Before current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt replaced Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid a slew of ethics investigations, the situation was no better, Clement said.

“Zinke instituted a political review of science grants led by an old football buddy. That decision led to canceled research at the U.S. Geological Survey. These are dark times for science and we need to do better. We’ve seen a collapse of ethic and integrity norms at the agency in general,” he said.

Republicans, who frequently and vehemently disagreed with Democrats about the state of transparency at the Interior, were at times visibly miffed during the hearing.

The committee’s ranking member, Representative Rob Bishop, R-Utah, blasted the hearing’s subject matter as “cute” and at one point raised his voice and waved his finger from across the dais at Maria Caffrey, a University of Colorado research assistant contracted by the federal government to study the impact of rising sea levels on national parks.

Caffrey led the study for years but it was halted after Trump was elected. Once resumed, she resisted efforts by federal officials to remove all mention of the human causes of climate change.

She was fired.

Bishop pointedly asked Caffrey how much she was paid.

Caffrey said it was just $25,000 a year for her work. Bishop, loudly and waving his finger responded: “No. No you weren’t. You were paid $500,000.”

Caffrey, unable to be heard as the Republican lawmaker began speaking over her, tried to correct the record and offer a fact for the sake of transparency.

The $500,000 grant was the entire sum given to all researchers working the study, she said, as the sound of Bishop’s criticisms against Democrats nearly drowned her out.

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