Sait Serkan Gurbuz / AP

Federal Scientists March for Their Work, and Against Trump

We have "devoted our lives" to fields now in flux, some federal employees say.

In Mark Sims’ 30 years as an engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency, he never experienced anything like on April 22, when he and 100 of his colleagues joined thousands to stand up for the very essence of their professional lives: science.

“The mood was pretty festive,” said Sims, who works at EPA’s Region 9 based in San Francisco, of his local March for Science, one of more than 600 that recently took place worldwide on Earth Day. People were marching, he said, “to support science over pseudoscience or alternative facts.”

A week after the science marches, hundreds of thousands marched for climate action. Federal employees working in the sciences at a variety of agencies participated in both events, and several told Government Executive they did so directly because they feel threatened by the new presidential administration. In his fiscal 2018 budget proposal, President Trump proposed cutting 31 percent of EPA’s budget and slashing 20 percent of its workforce.  

Other science-based agencies would sustain much smaller cuts under Trump’s blueprint. At NASA, for example, the White House proposed trimming spending by just 0.8 percent. Still, Lee Stone, a NASA employee who works at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., felt the need to join in the march as well. The administration, Stone said, is failing to distinguish between those who set the policy and those who provide policymakers and lawmakers with the underlying scientific data that inform those decisions. On top of that, he said, he and his colleagues feel that just doing their jobs -- “merely reporting the data as they measured it” -- could get them in trouble.

Stone said he has come to expect that those who “challenge the system” by engaging in whistleblowing would face retaliation, but no one should have to fear reprisal for carrying out their day-to-day duties.

“That is why everyone was marching,” Stone said. “We have devoted our lives to inquiry.” He and his colleagues are “at the bottom of the food chain,” he added, and are only interested in designing experiments, collecting data and conducting models and analyses to help others draw conclusions.

Sharon Boyde, who has worked at EPA for more than 36 years as a contract specialist, participated in the climate march in Washington, D.C. She said she had never seen an “outpouring” like the one she saw on Saturday; event organizers said 200,000 people participated in the march.

She said she and her colleagues were motivated to march by the fear and uncertainty at the agency, as well as a desire to have their work recognized.

“We’re not giving up,” Boyde said. “We’re going to fight this to the end, even though there is fear.” She added she hoped the administration heard their message: “No, we’re not going to back down. No, we’re not going to fold.”

Stone acknowledged that elections have consequences, but argued those should not include undermining accepted scientific fact. The Trump administration has come under fire for challenging widely held conclusions in the scientific community, such as the harmful impacts of climate change. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, said regarding climate change: “We’re not spending money on that any more. We consider that to be a waste of your money.”

“No one is saying the new administration can’t come in and design its new policies based on the democratic will of those who chose this new administration,” Stone said, “but what they’re not allowed to do, even in a democracy, even with the First Amendment, is to write new laws of physics.”

Sims, who now works in enforcement after spending most of his career in EPA’s air program, said Trump is threatening “sound science” that underlies research and eventually leads to “sound judgment.”

“The administration has made its intent pretty clear,” Sims said.

Ultimately, Stone said, he marched for his family, for he feared the Trump administration would usher in a descent into “arbitrary political totalitarianism.”

“I’m a father of two younger daughters, and I want to leave them a country better off,” he said. “If we go into a realm where decisions are made by assertions that have no basis in fact and have no scientific underpinnings to them, then we are really doomed. Once you leave that track and you are inventing facts, then there are no restraints on decision making.”