The Trump Administration Has “Corroded” Federal Environmental Science

A watchdog group’s new report documents the heavy toll that Trump-era attacks have had on environmental and public health research at government agencies.

by | May 7, 2020

Pro-science protesters at the People's Climate March 2017. Credit: Dcpeopleandeventsof2017 / CC BY-SA

The Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on the budgets, staffing, and priorities of federal environmental agencies have “corroded our government’s ability to protect our nation’s ecology and public health,” according to a new report from Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a government science watchdog.

Congress has generally rejected annual White House proposals to slash the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other key environmental agencies.

But political appointees have managed to fulfill many of the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory wishes in other ways. At EPA they have decreased staff numbers largely via hiring freezes, or by not filling positions that open up when senior staffers retire.

Appointees have also targeted research into areas like toxic chemical safety, climate change, and air pollution for particularly severe budget cuts, said the report’s lead author, Christopher Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University in New York, who has testified to Congress on plummeting enforcement of environmental regulations at Trump’s EPA.

“If there’s one overriding principle involved, it’s a pretty strategic taking-apart of government capacity to act in the public good,” said Sellers

The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative formed in late 2016 to archive and monitor federal climate and other environmental data, and to track changes to environmental, energy, and climate information on government websites.

The Trump-era push “to really crush the federal regime built over the last 50 years” is “historically anomalous,” said Sellers, but also the culmination of longstanding conservative campaigns to politicize climate and other environmental science, and roll back or eliminate environmental regulations aimed at reining in pollution caused by businesses and industries.

The Trump administration’s year-on-year proposals to crater environmental spending are “a clear strategy fully in line with a lot of conservative think tank proposals,” said Sellers, notably the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The other networks they’re drawing on are the sort of energy industry lobbying efforts,” he said, “the anti-regulatory and especially anti-climate mobilization that had happened over the previous decades.”

Among the report’s findings:

— Overall employee numbers have gone down at several science-centric federal agencies, ranging from a 4.5% decrease at NOAA, to nearly 5% at the Centers for Disease Control, about 6% at the Fish and Wildlife Service (part of the Department of Interior), and more than 7% at the EPA.

— Budgets at environment-related agencies are flat or lower than they were at the end of the Obama administration, including a 14.3% drop at NOAA, and increases of just 2% and 1.3% at the Fish and Wildlife Service and EPA, respectively.

— The Trump administration has disproportionately targeted research and data gathering activities that factor into climate, air pollution, and toxic chemicals regulations for budget cuts.

— At NOAA, the budget for the agency’s Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which manages instruments in orbit that monitor environmental conditions on Earth, has dropped over 40% since 2016.

— EPA’s overall funding of science and technology research has dropped by more than 23% under Trump, including a 36% cut at the Chemical Safety and Sustainability program, over 22% for Air and Energy (formerly named “Air, Climate, and Energy”) program, and about 18% for Sustainable Communities.

— The number of scientists, engineers, and related staff at the EPA’s main scientific research office has dropped by 16%, from 1,305 at the end of 2016 to 1,095 in late 2019.

“The Trump administration comes into office, and targets precisely that research that deals with that expert reliable knowledge,” Sellers said. “It’s as if they don’t want to know, and then use that lack of knowledge as a pretense for not regulating.”

May 7, 2020, 12:45pm ET: This story has been updated.

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Emily J. Gertz is senior editor of Drilled News. A longtime environmental reporter and editor, her work has appeared in HuffPost, Reveal, Arctic Today, The Guardian, Popular Science, Scientific American, Sierra, and more.