WASHINGTON — Former scientists and officials of the Interior Department blasted the agency on Thursday, alleging that top employees there routinely scrub research of mentions of human-caused climate change in their research.
Their testimony, submitted to the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources, included a wide-ranging list of accusations against the current leadership of the Interior Department, which manages and conserves federal lands. But they boil down to this: “Not only does this group ignore science and expertise, they cross the line by actively suppressing it,” Joel Clement, the former director of the agency’s policy analysis department, testified Thursday.
"It's no secret that this administration is not a big fan of science," subcommittee chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said during the hearing. "There are few places in the Trump administration where the attack on science has been more intense than in the Department of Interior."
Maria Caffrey, a scientist formerly employed by the National Park Service — an agency housed within the Interior Department — testified that her supervisors asked her, in 2013, to conduct an investigation into how climate change would affect sea level rise, which would in turn threaten the security of coastal national parks.
Though Caffrey submitted a final draft of the report in the spring of 2017, she said that supervisors delayed its publication for months, before asking her, in December, to remove references to human-caused climate change.
When Caffrey refused, she testified, senior Park Service officials threatened to remove the references without Caffrey’s consent or refuse publication of the report altogether. And when Caffrey was out of the office in early 2018 for maternity leave, her supervisors removed the references to human-caused climate change and totally rewrote some sections of the report, Caffrey said.
Her allegations echoed those of other witnesses at Thursday’s hearing.
Clement, formerly the director of the Interior Department’s Office of Policy Analysis, testified that, after talking about the threat of climate change at a 2017 United Nations conference, he was reassigned to a department in which he had no experience.
There were “dozens” of other similar reassignments, Clement said.
“Our scientific integrity policy is defined as the adherence to ethical and professional standards that lead to objective, clear, and reproducible science,” a spokesperson for the Interior Department said in a statement provided to VICE News.
An investigation of those reassignments in 2018 by the Office of the Inspector General said that agency leadership “did not document its plan for selecting senior executives for reassignment, nor did it consistently apply the reasons it stated it used to select senior executives for reassignment.”
But Republican members of the committee were dismissive of the allegations.
“The erosion of scientific integrity in government has hit a fever pitch in the last two years.”
“This show could also be titled ‘Democrats accuse Trump of whitewashing climate science,’ or ‘Democrats accuse Bernhardt of giving handouts to their buddies,’” Rep. Rob Bishop, the committee’s ranking Republican from Georgia, said in his opening statement.
He later referred to the hearing as “cute.”
Bishop and other Republicans emphasized that scientists have accused other presidential administrations, including George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s, of retaliating against employees and withholding reports on climate change.
“Listening to some of our panelists today, you’d think the Trump administration is the only one where there have been issues regarding scientific integrity,” Jody Hice, a Republican from Georgia, said. “That certainly is not the case.”
Andrew Rosenberg, director of The Center for Science and Democracy at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, tracks the number of “attacks on science” across presidential administrations, using congressional testimony and media reports.
A scientist who also used to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rosenberg testified that there have been 110 attacks on scientific integrity during the Trump administration. The examples Rosenberg provided include withholding from public view staff memos about oil and gas operations in Alaska, and eliminating federally-funded conservation groups that study the effect of climate change on wildlife.
“The erosion of scientific integrity in government has hit a fever pitch in the last two years,” he wrote in his testimony.
Cover: Visitors take a picture by a sign at the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming on August 22, 2018. Yellowstone is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)