Our Federal Science Agencies Are in Mortal Danger

Our Federal Science Agencies Are in Mortal Danger

Whether by strategy or ineptitude or both, the Trump administration is starving them of the expertise they need to fulfill their essential functions

  •  Andrew A. Rosenberg, Kathleen Rest

    Our national political landscape is in disarray. As scientists, we watch with dismay as senior positions in our federal science agencies remain unfilled, science advisory panels get disbanded, and science-based policies are undermined. The Union of Concerned Scientists and many other organizations are sounding the alarm and drawing attention to these issues each day. And the science community is mobilized as never before to speak out when the administration or congress act in ways that sideline science, favor private over public interests, or threaten the role that facts, evidence, and science play in our democracy.

    Amid this governmental turmoil, another longer-term development is underway that will affect the lives of everyone in the United States and impact others around the world—likely for decades to come: the loss of critical expertise and capacity in the science agencies of the federal government, including agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and others in the Department of Interior. Or the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Science Administration (NASA), among many others.

    Our Federal Science Agencies Are in Mortal Danger

    Sign at the April, 2017 March for Science in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Another Believer Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Thousands of highly trained scientists across a huge range of disciplines have worked diligently in these agencies for decades. These government scientists—and we were once among them at different stages in our careers—are critical to the missions of these agencies. And these agencies are critical to the health and safety of all Americans, protecting public health, ensuring clean air, water, and the safety of our food and consumer goods; protecting our natural resources, and responding to national emergencies of all kinds from terror attacks to natural disasters. There is no getting around it: to accomplish their missions, these agencies require strong and independent science.

    The Administration has proposed huge cuts in every one of these agencies, particularly in the science programs that deal with issues they oppose ideologically—such as climate change and the use of regulation to reduce pollution. So far, though, Congress doesn’t seem inclined to accept most of the shortsighted budget proposals from this White House.

    But budget cuts are only one highly visible strategy. Other administrative actions are already eroding the capacity of our nation’s science agencies. For one thing, the Trump administration is already taking advantage of other methods to reduce agency staffing that don’t require congressional approval. In the fine print of the President’s budget proposal are reductions in staffing by 20 percent or more in some agencies (the EPA, for example), often with science programs faring the worst. There are buyout programs for eligible employees and staff transfers to shut down specific areas of work. There are virtual hiring freezes in place for most civilian agencies. And there are ongoing consultations on how to conduct Reductions in Force, otherwise known as layoffs. These actions have been used in the past by other administrations. What is new is the blatant effort to “deconstruct the administrative state” (i.e., the federal agencies that safeguard our health, safety, and security) and use every tool in the toolbox to do so.

    What is the net effect of these actions, from pure rhetoric to actual changes in agency staffing? We are seeing three troublesome developments unfold—the loss of senior scientists in public service, the loss of new scientific and technical talent coming into public service and the chilling effect on the work of scientists who decide to stay.  

    A loss of senior scientists means a loss of significant expertise, institutional knowledge, and perhaps even whole programs and areas of work led by those scientists. Science that helps us identify, understand, and deal with existing risks, as well as anticipate and plan for future, unknown risks. Science that spurs innovation and incubates solutions. This loss of decades’ worth of experience will take decades to rebuild, precisely as the complexity and pace of the world’s science-based challenges increase

    Then there’s the pipeline issue—even more concerning from a public service perspective. All the signals seem to be telling scientists (and non-scientists as well) not to go into federal public service. Talented highly trained scientists early in their careers are turning away from the idea of working in federal laboratories or agencies. Many of these younger scientists tell us they just assume there are no opportunities with federal agencies, historically one of the major employers of scientists in many fields. Or that they worry about working in the current political climate.

    Our agencies need that new talent to draw on in years to come to protect our nation’s public health, safety, and environment. Government agencies, like most large organizations in any sector, depend on people. Without the influx of new talent, the Trump administration, whether by strategy or ineptitude or some combination, is threatening to hollow out these vital government agencies to the point at which they will cease to function as we need them to. We can’t let this happen.

    The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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