As scientists, we have watched with dismay as senior positions in our federal science agencies remain unfilled, science advisory panels get disbanded and science-based policies are undermined.
But amid this governmental turmoil, another, longer-term development is under way that will affect the lives of everyone in the U.S. and take its toll on others around the world—the loss of critical expertise and capacity in the science agencies of the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among many others.
The science-related cuts proposed by the Trump administration come in programs that deal with issues it opposes ideologically, such as climate change and the use of regulation to reduce pollution. These changes are only part of a larger effort to “deconstruct the administrative state,” as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has put it, and they reflect this administration's uniquely antiscience attitude.
Thousands of highly trained scientists across a huge range of disciplines have worked diligently at the federal level for decades. These government scientists—and we were once among them at different stages in our careers—are critical to the missions of these agencies. These departments are essential to the health and safety of all Americans: protecting public health; ensuring clean air, water, and the safety of our food and consumer goods; protecting our natural resources; and responding to national emergencies of all kinds, from terror attacks to natural disasters.
Budget cuts are only one highly visible strategy. Other executive actions are eroding the capacity of our nation's science agencies. For one thing, Trump officials are taking advantage of additional methods to reduce agency staffing. In the fine print of the president's budget proposal are reductions in staffing by 20 percent or more in some bureaus (the EPA, for example), often with science programs faring the worst. There are buyout offers for eligible employees and staff transfers to shut down specific areas of work. Virtual hiring freezes have been put in place for most civilian agencies. And there are ongoing consultations on how to conduct “reductions in force,” otherwise known as layoffs.
We are seeing three troublesome developments unfold: the loss of senior scientists in public service, the dwindling of new scientific and technical talent coming into public service, and the chilling effect on the work of scientists who decide to stay. These issues have come up over and over again in many conversations with our colleagues who have experience as scientists and managers in the federal agencies.
A loss of senior scientists means a downgrading of expertise, institutional knowledge, and perhaps even entire programs and areas of work led by those scientists. This is the science that helps us identify, understand and deal with existing risks, as we anticipate future, unknown risks. Science that spurs innovation and incubates solutions. This loss of decades' worth of experience will take even more time to rebuild, precisely as the complexity and pace of the world's science-based challenges increase.
Then there's the pipeline issue—even more concerning from a public service perspective. All the signals seem to be telling scientists (and nonscientists as well) not to go into federal public service. Talented, highly trained scientists early in their careers are turning away from the idea of joining federal laboratories or divisions. Many of these younger scientists tell us they just assume there are no opportunities with federal agencies, historically one of the major employers of scientists in many fields. Or that they worry about working in the current political climate.
Our agencies need that new talent to draw on in years to come to protect our nation's public health, safety and environment. Government organizations, as with most large groups in any sector, depend on people. Without the influx of new talent, the Trump administration, whether by strategy or ineptitude, or some combination thereof, is threatening to hollow out these vital government bodies to the point at which they will cease to function as we need them to. We can't let this happen.