Janine Jackson: Any administration would like to restrict what the public knows about its actions — an unpopular one, all the more so. Combine that with a frank hostility to government regulations and you have the present moment, with Trump White House efforts to make federal agencies limit what they tell the public, and efforts to give them less to talk about in the first place. It may not get the same sort of headlines, but the White House’s war on science could well yield casualties as great as other violent acts more traditionally defined.
Here to tell us about the pressures and the resistance is Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He joins us now by phone from Cambridge. Welcome to CounterSpin, Andrew Rosenberg.
Andrew Rosenberg: Thank you very much, Janine.
The Washington Post says for a new White House to take centralized control of PR is fairly typical, but “the sweeping nature of some of the new controls is unusual.” Well, the hostility to science, to intractable facts, you know, fairly wafts off this new cabinet. But what are some of the particular moves that worry you right now?
Well, what we’ve seen in the first days of the administration, and it’s hard to believe that it’s only been a few days, but we’ve seen the rollout of bans on scientists — as well as other employees — being on social media, speaking to the press, releasing any reports or other products. And while I would agree that it might be typical to hold off on making policy pronouncements for a new administration, it is not at all typical to stifle scientific products — which is basic scientific information, coming out to the public — from public employees.
So that’s one thing we’ve seen, which has been announced and then walked back. We’ve seen a hold on grants and contracts, which was touted as being the usual course of business. I’ve never seen that before, and I’ve been involved in several transitions before. So it is an extraordinary level of not only control, but of pushback on federal scientists.
And in addition to that, all of the messaging around the transition, as well as the new administration, has been very negative towards public employees generally, and in some cases toward scientists in particular.
I wanted to draw you out on just that, because it isn’t just pressure on science, the product, but of course on scientists themselves. And I wonder if you could talk about the re-introduction that we saw in January of the Holman Rule and what implications that may have for government scientists.
Well, the Holman Rule was — in some sense, we hope it’s symbolic, but it says that Congress can target an individual employee and reduce their salary down to one dollar. This is something that is a holdover from the 19th century and has been revived in the House of Representatives. They would have to do that through appropriations, but the very idea that Congress should target individual employees for doing their jobs if somebody doesn’t like the answer — so this is not personnel action where somebody isn’t doing their job, this is, you did your job but I didn’t like the answer and, therefore, we may be able to target you. So whether it actually gets implemented in an appropriations bill or not, it’s sending the signal to every public employee: Beware, we’re going to come after you.
And further than that, when State Department employees raised concerns about the immigration actions, using a channel that’s been used since the 1960s and has been designated for that purpose — in other words, a specific communication mechanism that’s been set up by the State Department to voice their concerns — they were effectively told by the White House press secretary if you don’t like it, then get out. If you tell technical experts — and, frankly, foreign service officers are technical experts, but not scientists — you have to only give us information that we like, then you’re not getting technical advice. You’re telling them not to do their jobs. And so that level of disrespect, I think is incredibly alarming.
And, of course, from the point of view of the public, we can imagine the sorts of findings that this administration will be inclined to dislike, and they will have to do with pollution and fuel emission standards and things like that. I mean, there definitely are public health and safety implications of these sorts of moves; they’re not, strictly speaking, about mere information, if you will.
Absolutely. And, you know, I think this is an incredibly important point, because the rhetoric from the administration and from Congress has all been about rollback of regulations, because these regulations impose costs on businesses, and we really need to get rid of these useless regulations because of the costs. Two things I point out there. First is, never in those discussions is anyone pointing out the benefits to the public from reducing pollution or providing safe water or providing product safety, food safety, all of those things are benefits to the public. And secondly I point out, yes, there are costs to businesses from doing this, and if the businesses don’t bear those costs, who do you think bears them? The public bears them, and so it’s not like they just go away.
There is a false narrative that implies there’s thousands of regulations out there that are just totally unneeded and they’re there because nobody can be bothered to remove them. And that’s a completely false narrative; it’s just not the case.
Tell us about what the Union of Concerned Scientists is doing, and in fact has been doing since before this administration came in. And then also maybe a little more broadly about what you see as the role of the scientist in the resistance.
Union of Concerned Scientists has been very active at trying to strengthen the case for science-based policy-making across a wide range of areas. The institution was formed in the 1960s by scientists who were concerned that the discussion of the Vietnam War and the nuclear weapons program really was not getting the proper information out to the public. And since then, we’ve gone on to work on major issues: climate, energy, food and the environment broadly, clean vehicles, and we continue to work on global security. And we also work on just the role of science generally, the program I lead for the role of science generally, in public policy and democratic discussion.
So we have seen an incredible level of energy in the science community since the election. So while we have in the past worked to try to ensure that the scientific information coming out of government agencies followed what are called scientific integrity policies, that you were hearing from the scientists, not someone’s political spin, and so on, we have ramped up those efforts very substantially for the new administration, because of the level of attacks that have come out from both the administration and Congress.
And the response that we’ve seen from our 20,000-strong network of scientists — so those are credentialed scientists who’ve said that they want to do specific work with us; this is not just membership — is really extraordinary. And people are helping us watchdog what will be going on in Congress and in the administration, and reaching out to their elected officials as constituents and saying, I’m a scientist, I’m very concerned about these issues.
I think it’s important to bring scientific information to the fore. And some of the actions that are being taken — particularly in Congress, but some also in the new administration — will undermine that role of science. This is not about science funding. That’s an important issue, too, but we’re focusing on the way that science is treated in our public policy and our public discussion.
We’ve been speaking with Andrew Rosenberg of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can find their work online at UCSUSA.org. Andrew Rosenberg, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thank you very much, Janine.