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New Tracker Keeps Tabs on Government Attacks on Science

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The Silencing Science Tracker records the Trump administration’s attempts to restrict or prevent scientific research; it will eventually include state-level actions as well. (Karl-Ludwig Poggemann via Flickr)

Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund have launched a new online resource to track actions by the government to silence scientists working on environmental, public health and climate issues. The launch of the Silencing Science Tracker coincides with the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, on January 20, 2017.

The tracker is aimed at documenting government attempts to restrict or prevent scientific research, education, discussion or publication. It currently contains 96 entries drawn from media reports, and links to other resources that complement the database. The tracker organizes attacks into specific categories: government censorship (currently 41 entries); personnel changes (20); budget cuts (15); self-censorship (11); bias and misrepresentation (8); and research hindrance (5). (Some entries are listed under more than one category.)

The largest number of anti-science actions taken so far were by the Environmental Protection Agency (28 percent of the total), followed by the departments of the Interior (18 percent) and Energy (13 percent).

The tracker will be updated on an ongoing basis. It currently records only federal government actions, but state-level actions will be added in the future.

Some of the actions have been widely reported; others have received relatively little attention. Among those noted:

–In December 2017, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were given a list of words and phrases forbidden for use in budget documents, including “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

–In December, the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering were told to halt a study of offshore gas and oil drilling safety, part of an effort to implement lessons learned from past disastrous oil spills.

–In November, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke reprimanded the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park for sending out two tweets mentioning climate change.

–In October, a former chemical-industry lobbyist who is now an EPA official pushed to loosen more than a dozen rules related to the tracking of the health effects of various hazardous substances, against the advice of agency scientists.

“When the government ignores science, it’s like a truck driver who wears a blindfold and drives based on what is whispered into his ear — dangerous and intolerable,” said Michael Gerrard, faculty director of the Sabin Center and a professor at Columbia Law School. “The vital work of scientists must be supported, made public, and listened to. When government officials block this, we plan to shine a harsh light.”

Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, said, “Political and ideological attacks on science have a long and shameful history, and such attacks are the most dangerous when carried out or condoned by government authorities. Our tracker is designed to provide a tally of government-sanctioned threats to the scientific endeavor.”

The Sabin Center develops and promulgates legal techniques to address climate change and trains lawyers to help lead the field. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund provides free support and resources to scientists who are threatened, harassed or attacked for doing their jobs.

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