On Wednesday, NPR reported that research studies put out by the EPA may be subject to political review by the new administration on a “case by case basis.” This comes on the heels of a media blackout for federal agencies that deal with scientific information pertaining to our environment, including the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior. The administration also ordered the EPA to remove pages on its website dealing with climate change data and climate education. Which itself followed a (temporary) freeze by the administration on all EPA grants and contracts. And just yesterday, the administration declared that it will likely withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement as early as this week. With just over a week into his new job, the president has sent a clear, unnerving message to the scientific community: Politics will inform scientific research.
While the president’s handling of the EPA seems extreme, the EPA is a government agency and, unfortunately, is subject to partisan politics. But the more troubling aspect of the new Administration isn’t necessarily the restrictions it imposed on the EPA, but rather its seeming skepticism or complete disregard for the value of scientific research. Its refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change, its desire to subject EPA data and research to political review prior to release, and, yes, its Counselor’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” appear to reflect a fundamental mistrust of accepted truths. And while I acknowledge that, for better or worse, presidents mold government agencies to reflect their specific agendas, I cannot remember a president in recent memory who has tried so hard to discredit data shown to be accurate.
The potential case-by-case political review of EPA research is particularly unnerving, since a nonpartisan, peer-review of scientific literature prior to publication is critical to the advancement of science and technology. Any manuscript that has been published in a scientific journal goes through some form of peer-review, where the submission is distributed to a handful of subject matter experts throughout the world. These experts thoroughly examine the purpose, methods, results, conclusions, and cited literature within the manuscript to ensure that incomplete or inaccurate research does not make it to publication. If you know anyone who has gone through this process, they will tell you it can be tedious, frustrating, and even infuriating at times. However, research that successfully makes it through a peer-reviewed process is considered within the scientific community to be legitimate; it has withstood questioning and criticism, and can now be distributed to the scientists and inform future research. This practice of peer-review is a pillar of the global scientific community, including government agencies like the EPA. While it’s by no means flawless, peer-review adds a stamp of credibility to scientific research that is necessary for it to advance human understanding and improve our quality of life.
Inserting a separate, political, review process for research conducted by governmental agencies will chip away at that credibility. One can very easily imagine a scenario where scientifically-sound research is withheld or altered because it contradicts the current Administration’s policies. In fact, the EPA put forth a Scientific Integrity Policy in 2012 to protect the agency from such a scenario. What our president does not understand, though, is that the scientific process is not political. Science has no partisan affiliations, it is not Republican nor Democrat, left-wing or right-wing. Science has no agenda, and does not alter its outcomes to fit the ever-changing agendas of our government. The validity of rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific research is not dependent on a president’s endorsement. The consent of the governed, however, is a necessary prerequisite to implementing any scientifically-informed policy. If we as a country do not stand up for scientific research, we will find our nation’s laws and policies as equally misinformed as our president.