Critics have condemned the Trump administration for dismissing and contradicting science in its response to the coronavirus crisis — pointing to everything from the muzzling of CDC experts to the president’s own unfounded claims from the White House podium on potential cures. Yet these attacks on science-based policymaking during the pandemic are only the latest examples of a disturbing pattern throughout the Trump administration, one with potentially grave long-term consequences.
The administration’s longstanding hostility to science has been especially evident in the realm of environmental policy. The Environmental Protection Agency has used the historic pandemic as an excuse to stop enforcing environmental laws, such as rules for water pollution and storing hazardous waste. Additionally, over the last two weeks the agency sought to press forward with public hearings on what many scientists consider dangerously weak air quality standards for soot and other air pollutants, also known as particulate matter or PM2.5.
New research strongly indicates that current allowable levels of particulate matter pollution are too high, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths per year. Because of large racial inequities in housing and wealth, Black and Latino communities are more likely to be exposed to high concentrations of these particles than white people. And evidence suggests that high exposure to particulate matter and other air pollutants increases mortality from Covid-19, which may be a factor in the disproportionately high death rate in communities of color in the United States.
Based on the growing evidence of the inadequacy of the current PM2.5 regulations, the EPA’s own staff has called for a more stringent air quality standard. Former government science advisors and a wide range of outside experts also support tightened rules. But the Trump administration has decided not to change the standard.
To get to its preferred result, the administration has systemically marginalized its own scientific experts. This was especially evident in the reduced role of the EPA’s scientific advisory committees, which are panels of outside experts who provide independent advice to policymakers. Across government agencies, these committees allow policymakers to tap into expertise from outside the government on a range of topics. Although they rarely make headline news, scientific advisory committees play a critical role in ensuring that policy decisions with potentially massive impacts on public health and security are guided by the best available evidence.
The PM2.5 standard review ought to have included independent analysis from the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), with assistance from a dedicated Particulate Matter Review Panel of PM2.5 specialists. But instead of relying on the experts who were serving on these committees, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt purged them by barring membership for advisory committee members who had received EPA research grants, as many top scientists who are not affiliated with industry do. This not only deprived the agency of guidance from leading research scientists in the field, it also allowed Pruitt and his aides to fill new vacancies with their ideological allies.
The grantee ban was later struck down in federal court, but only after Pruitt and his successor, Andrew Wheeler, had replaced many experienced scientists on CASAC with former Republican state government officials and industry consultants. Several of these new appointees had a history of questioning the scientific consensus about the harmful effects of air pollution.
The EPA also shut down entirely the specialized Particulate Matter Review Panel — many of whose former members have since endorsed tighter PM2.5 regulations — despite strong objections from two CASAC members, including the only remaining independent scientist. Freed from having to consider this additional independent recommendation, the reconstituted CASAC voted to overrule the EPA staff scientists’ proposal to tighten the PM2.5 standard. Wheeler approved CASAC’s decision, claiming the science was too uncertain to justify a rule change. Despite voluminous testimony to the contrary presented over the four days of hearings that concluded last week, this will almost certainly be a final decision.
As with the administration’s flawed coronavirus response, the EPA’s process for assessing the PM2.5 standard shows how easy it has become for political officials to ignore science to manipulate policy-making processes. To ensure that government decision-makers can adequately protect the health and safety of Americans, Congress must safeguard the role of independent scientists at critical agencies like the EPA.
The Brennan Center’s bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy has published a series of legislative proposals to strengthen science-based policy-making, including reforms to safeguard the proper functioning of scientific advisory committees. The Scientific Integrity Act, which the Task Force has endorsed, recently passed the House of Representatives as part of the Heroes Act and contains several provisions that align with the Task Force’s legislative proposals.
The PM2.5 saga also illustrates how wealthy individuals and special interest groups can subvert policy-making procedures to advance their own interests rather than those of the public, both through campaign spending and the appointment of industry representatives to senior government positions. The EPA’s proposal to leave the PM2.5 standard unchanged will benefit the financial interests of oil and gas companies. Major Republican donors and campaign spenders like the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce support this policy. Wheeler himself worked as a lobbyist for the coal industry (chiefly top Trump donor Robert Murray) and other energy groups before joining the EPA. But he was not required to recuse himself from the PM2.5 standard process despite the significant financial benefit to his former employers and clients. Properly safeguarding the role of science in government also requires broader ethics and campaign finance reforms to address such concerns, like those in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a landmark democracy reform bill passed by the House last year.
The coronavirus crisis has shined a spotlight on the potentially catastrophic impact of the Trump administration’s disrespect for scientific expertise in government. Political interference in government science, especially on sensitive issues like the environment, didn’t start with the Trump administration, but it has escalated to unprecedented levels in the last three years. Congress must take action to reverse this trend — the health and safety of all Americans depend on it.