Some Federal Scientists, Miserable Under Trump, Cautiously Optimistic About A Biden Future
Now that Joe Biden has been elected President, we wanted to find out how scientists are feeling about this last presidential term, and whether they're looking forward to what a Biden-Harris administration might bring.
FOUR DEMORALIZING YEARS
In short, the majority of scientists LAist spoke with said that they'd found the last four years demoralizing. Some said it had led them to question whether they should continue to work for the federal government, and that there's a lot of work to be done to repair the damage the Trump administration had done.
"I think it's clear that science has been suppressed, has been in some cases manipulated and distorted," said scientist Jane Lubchenco, who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President Obama.
"People need to know that the information the government is providing is accurate and not manipulated for selfish reasons," Lubchenco said, "And that's true whether it's a weather forecast or information about the pandemic."
A number of scientists who work for federal agencies echoed her thoughts, but they asked for anonymity so that they could speak candidly about how they felt their work had been stifled, and their communications with the press and public stymied.
Multiple scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey told me that speaking with the press is now an overly cumbersome process, a problem detailed in a Los Angeles Times story back in 2018.
While in the past they could casually speak with reporters, under Trump, the scientists said they had to submit both questions and potential answers to the Department of the Interior, which would either approve or deny the request. Interviews were regularly delayed, sometimes for days.
"In practice, the department can simply prevent the interview they don't want to happen by being slow — a soft refusal of sorts," said one federal scientist who didn't want to be named. "It is quite annoying not being free to talk about my own research results when they are published, for example. These results are taxpayer funded. The public and media have a right to know about them."
In that same vein, another federal scientist whose work touches on the impacts of climate change said that press releases about their work had downplayed the severity of some of their findings.
"The message has been clear that this isn't a priority. Understanding climate impacts and things like that. And I think if left to their whim they'd do away with it completely," the scientist said.
"It's very demoralizing and it's hard to take. It's hard to handle it," said Andrew Leising, a research oceanographer at NOAA.
"We need career scientists who are in sync with reality at the top."
Some were so unhappy with how things were going that they left their jobs.
A SIGH OF RELIEF
Nearly everyone I spoke with is cautiously optimistic about what's to come. President-elect Biden has emphasized the importance of science, and specifically, climate change. Though it'll take some time to see which policies are reversed, and how they choose to allocate funding.
"What's exciting for federal scientists is that we don't have to tiptoe around these issues in public," said one federal scientist who wished to remain anonymous, for the same fear of retribution expressed by others.
"A Biden/Harris administration would mean finally letting sunlight, fresh air and evidence back into the room where decisions are made about peoples health, lives and future," Lubchenco said.
She added, "I think there's a lot of work to do."
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