President-elect Joe Biden has a lot of repair work to do on America, much of which will be difficult, if not impossible, if Senate Republicans are bent on obstructing him. There's one area, though, where he could unravel a lot of Trump administration damage fairly quickly and easily: Biden can bring science back to Washington.
President Donald Trump has done the country's health and welfare a tremendous disservice by insulting and undermining scientists and the work they do. And he's done it in a particularly pernicious way by sometimes embracing good science, sometimes championing bad science and sometimes rejecting scientific facts altogether. He's switched his stances even on the same topics. Mask on, mask off? Are vaccines dangerous or lifesaving this week?
He spent inordinate amounts of time touting a particular drug to treat COVID-19 based on one poorly conducted study, then pushed for special dispensation to use it. The drug, hydroxychloroquine, has repeatedly proved ineffective in well-conducted trials.
But this is small potatoes compared with how Trump has debilitated important agencies in charge of guarding our health and safety. Hundreds of scientists and researchers have fled the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Agriculture during this administration after seeing policies based on sound science reversed, weakened, tinkered with, ignored and derided. So many researchers left the USDA's economic research arm when Trump moved the entire operation to the Kansas City area that ranchers couldn't get crucial information from the agency.
"Even with its limited ability to enact legislation, this administration has already proven to be the most anti-science executive branch in modern history," a 2017 Brookings Institution paper said. "At almost every turn, Trump has chosen to sideline scientists, leave vacant scientific appointments, reduce or eliminate federal independent scientific boards, and appoint anti-science individuals to powerful positions."
The paper came out a week after CDC staff were advised not to use seven words and phrases if they hoped to get federal funding for projects. The words included "transgender," "fetus," "evidence-based" and "science-based."
In September, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, whose agency should be treating climate change as an existential environmental threat, argued instead that stemming greenhouse gas emissions would be hard on the poor. Actually, it's the poor who stand to suffer most from climate change as well as from the administration's loosened air-pollution rules.
Just last week, the Trump administration removed the official in charge of coordinating climate-change research and producing the annual National Climate Assessment. The last report had angered the White House by painting a catastrophic scenario if climate change were not brought under better control.
Trump flubbed again when it came to water issues. To him, a river's purpose is to have its waters diverted for human use such as irrigation. That's certainly a justified use, but it has to be balanced against the need for healthy, flowing rivers that sustain endangered salmon runs and the orcas in the Pacific Ocean that feed on the salmon. When a government report last year called for less diversion of water for irrigation than the Trump administration wanted, the administration suppressed the report and dismissed the scientists who had produced it, and then assigned a new team with instructions to revise the findings — in essence, to invent scientific-sounding pseudo-facts — to support greater diversion of water to farms.
Biden could begin reversing this maceration of science by putting up a "scientists wanted and respected" sign, something he's already set in motion by making (evidence-based) calls for wearing face masks and by packing his COVID-19 transition advisory group with highly respected doctors and infectious disease researchers. Simply showing respect for CDC experts should eventually quiet many science skeptics after Trump's chaotic, ever-changing reliance on pseudoscience.
Trump hasn't inflicted as much damage as might have, thankfully, because of the limited time he's had in office. The oil industry hasn't snapped up Arctic oil leases, and many other moves are tangled in court cases.
And most of what he has done has been through executive orders (e.g., greenlighting the Dakota Access Pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation) and new regulations (e.g., rolling back fuel emission standards), which are easier to overturn than congressional mandates.
Biden can issue new executive orders that overturn old ones and appoint responsible administrators instead of the likes of Michael R. Caputo, a top-level White House official with no health care experience who pressured the CDC to make its weekly COVID-19 reports sunnier. Caputo eventually went on an extended leave after accusing CDC scientists of sedition while bizarrely warning of left-wing hit squads, but his work was done. The agency's reputation is nearly crippled now.
Undoing the rules adopted by the Trump administration will be more time-consuming than reversing executive orders, requiring a longer process of gathering public comments and justifying the change. But at least congressional approval isn't needed.
The Biden administration could also decline to defend problematic rules against lawsuits filed by environmentalists and other advocacy groups, and it can drop its own lawsuit against California's strict tailpipe emission laws.
Science is still science. Facts are still facts. No one is going to fall off the edge of the Earth if they sail far enough west, and rejecting face masks isn't going to protect anyone from COVID-19. And soon, but not soon enough, the White House is going to embrace science and facts again.
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