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Science Off to A Rough Start in the Trump Administration

The evidence is pretty clear: the transition team's policies are problematic and unprecedented. So much so that at least some Trump administration officials have backed away from them once they became the subject of news stories.

Michael Patrick Ramirez / Weekly Standard

Every day seems to bring more bad news for science in the US. Websites vanish, funding is cancelled, and scientists are denied the ability to address the public. But each time something terrible happens, we only have to wait a few days before half of these ideas gets changed or completely rescinded. It can be hard to tell what's going on and what that means for the future of science in the world's leading producer of the stuff.

The fact is, it's perfectly reasonable to expect some approaches to communicating with the public to change with a turnover in administration. It's also not unreasonable to limit communications until the new people can set policies and determine how to communicate them.

At the same time, the Trump transition team seems to be unusually chaotic. Questionable policies have been disavowed in a surprising number of instances once senior officials were installed. And some of the things that have been left in place are clearly problematic.

In the following piece, we'll try to go through some examples and identify cases that are worth following carefully, and we'll analyze what this tells us about President Trump's future science policies.

Vanishing web pages and Twitter users

One of the earliest items that triggered outrage was the disappearance of the White House pages on climate change (archived here). But that's to be expected. An administration's White House pages should reflect its policy interests, and Trump could not have been more clear that he didn't consider climate change to be a priority.

Similarly, we shouldn't be surprised that Trump's energy policy page only mentions fossil fuels. While this is a questionable policy—especially when we consider the amount of job growth that renewable energy has driven—it's appropriate for the pages to represent the administration's policy.

Twitter accounts have also been reined in. The National Park Service is responsible for the Mall in DC and thus the events (like the inauguration) that take place on it. Would tweeting a picture of the event be appropriate? Absolutely. Is retweeting someone else's photo comparison that shows this year's event was poorly attended appropriate? That clearly sends a message that's at odds with the administration that now runs the National Park Service. Pulling that image is not unreasonable.

(NB: this is not to say that Trump's reported response to the photo comparison was appropriate or even sane.)

But the kerfuffle surrounding the Badlands National Park's Twitter account is sketchier. A number of the park's tweets about climate change were deleted. This could be viewed as an attempt to undercut the incoming Trump administration, but a look back through the account's history reveals a steady stream of tweets on climate change, not all of them directly related to the park in question. Given that, deleting some tweets of scientifically valid information just because they attracted attention smacks of censorship.

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Other potential actions clearly fall into problematic censorship. Last week, sources indicated that Trump's EPA transition team was considering removing the climate change section from the EPA's website. Doing so would lead to a loss of public access to government data. For example, the EPA aggregates government and external data to create a set of climate indicators to help track the progress of our climate's warming. Presumably, that set of indicators would go, too—certainly the most prominent link to it would be eliminated.

But climate change isn't just a policy issue for the EPA. It's a legal issue. The Supreme Court has determined that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to evaluate whether greenhouse gasses were pollutants. Upon evaluating the scientific evidence on climate change, the EPA determined that they were. That decision has since been upheld in court. As a result, the EPA is legally required to deal with climate change.

That legal requirement is unlikely to change during the Trump administration, as the science is such that it would be nearly impossible to revisit the endangerment finding in a manner that could withstand legal scrutiny. Trump's EPA will undoubtedly devise policies that don't deal with climate change effectively, but that won't change the EPA's overall legal position. As such, eliminating these pages would be a denial of the very basis of the laws that the EPA exists to manage. Which may be why the original plan seems to have been dropped.

Money and information

Not every problem with climate change is a direct result of the administration's actions. For example, the cancellation of a conference on climate change and health, cosponsored by the Centers for Disease Control, wasn't cancelled due to a decision within the CDC. Instead, the non-governmental partners got nervous that the CDC might pull out at an inconvenient point in the future.

Yet a pattern of censorship of inconvenient facts appears to be a prospect at several other agencies. The Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service put in a ban on "any public-facing documents," including "news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content." Once the policy leaked, however, it was quickly rescinded.

A similar ban appears to have been put in place at the EPA, but there are two key differences. The ban is much more extensive, apparently including scientific publications and any interactions with the public that might be considered "controversial." The second difference is that, even after the policy became public, it was left in place, its duration unspecified.

According to the AP report, past EPA officials say that this sort of censorship has no precedent in the organization. But a spokesman for the president's EPA transition team told NPR that "We'll take a look at what's happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that's going to reflect the new administration." Given that the EPA's scientific conclusions (along with everyone else's) don't reflect the new administration's positions, it's not clear how this can be resolved.

The transition team also froze the EPA's grants at the same time. If left in place for long enough, this has the potential to derail cleanup projects or disrupt scientific research.

The evidence is pretty clear: the transition team's policies are problematic and unprecedented. So much so that at least some Trump administration officials have backed away from them once they became the subject of news stories.

A troubling pattern?

Some degree of message control should be expected of any administration, and some of the examples that have become widely publicized are well within the range of a normal transition. But others are not. They involve attempts to stifle valid scientific information and prevent scientists from communicating further results with the public.

One possible explanation for this is that the incoming administration, staffed largely by people with little previous executive branch experience, is simply in over its head and can't recognize the difference. This would be in keeping with past events, like the attempt to get the Department of Energy to name all its climate scientists; the request was refused, then withdrawn, and later disavowed by Trump's pick to run the DOE.

But it's notable that the problematic actions have been left in place longest at the EPA, an agency frequently targeted by Trump and the people he has named to his transition and administration. And the repeated pattern of aggressive moves followed by retreats suggests a widespread strategy of testing the waters to see what restrictions will be tolerated. Until the transition is over and we see which policies are left in place, it's impossible to tell which explanation—chaos or cynicism—fits the pattern better.

John Timmer John became Ars Technica's science editor in 2007 after spending 15 years doing biology research at places like Berkeley and Cornell.

Email // Twitter @j_timmer