'Not Even Invited Into the Room:' How the Trump Administration Is Treating Federal Scientists

NOAA employees install a tide gauge near Castle Cape, Alaska. NOAA employees install a tide gauge near Castle Cape, Alaska. Personnel of NOAA Ship RAINIER

These days at the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, employees are feeling resigned, hoping for a best-case scenario of simply flying under the radar.

“People want to stay on the straight and narrow,” said Sharon Bethune, an EPA employee of 37 years. “Come in, do your job. Just don’t cause any waves.”

Employees at science-based federal agencies across government have voiced concern about potential interference with their work since Donald Trump was first elected. Two years later, many of those employees are feeling targeted at an accelerating rate. The workers have been forced to roll back previously completed projects, faced shrinking workforces and heard their scientific assumptions questioned from the White House on down. Morale, they told Government Executive in a series of recent interviews, is at an all-time low and getting worse, with employees feeling disenchanted, disempowered and skeptical about the value of their public service.

“Management is getting bolder,” Bethune said, noting career workers feel they are walking on eggshells as political appointees look for any excuse to show civil servants the door.

Meddling From Political Appointees

The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey earlier this year that found many federal employees in scientific jobs were feeling stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees. About 20 percent of respondents said that influence of political appointees, or of the White House itself, was a top barrier to science-based decision-making. And 50 percent of scientists surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that political considerations are hindering agencies’ ability to make science-based decisions. Nearly one in three respondents reported that the presence of “senior decision makers…from regulated industries” has inappropriately influenced agencies' actions. At EPA, that figure was 70 percent.

Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, said the concerns he has heard from federal scientists are regarding both interference with and complete disregard of scientific work. Many of the political appointees at scientific agencies, he said, have demonstrated a lack of understanding of the research employees conduct. This has led to employees asking themselves, “Can I still be effective or should I go do something else?” Rosenberg said. In many cases, according to Rosenberg and the employees across government who spoke to Government Executive, they are finding a new place to work.

“It’s hard when you’ve spent a significant fraction of your career working on topics you really care about,” said Rosenberg, a former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that ultimately get “pushed aside by political appointees.” In some cases, rules were written and career scientists who have dedicated years to the topic at hand “were not even invited into the room,” Rosenberg added. “Nobody’s interested in what they have to say.”

Lee Stone, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and has worked at NASA for nearly three decades, said in his capacity as western area vice president for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers that things have take a noticeable turn.

“In the first time in decades of public service, there is a sense that people can reach down from the very top and screw with you,” Stone said. “I think that’s never been the case before.”

He added: “The general sense of fear is much more acute.”

Shrinking Resources

Another recent concern for EPA employees is a decision by the Justice Department to close its Environment and Natural Resources Division office in San Francisco. The office litigates on behalf of EPA’s Region 9 after it takes a civil enforcement action. Justice cited expensive real estate to justify the closure, while also noting most of the employees in the ENR division are located in Washington, D.C., and Denver.

California Democrats in Congress, however, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said in a letter to Justice that the closure “appears to be part of a broader agenda to undermine enforcement of environmental laws in the United States.” They noted the success the office had in reaching a $2 billion settlement with Volkswagen after the car company was found to be secretly violating emissions standards. The lawmakers asked for documents and analysis that went into the closure decision, including any increased costs resulting from employees having to travel to California to litigate cases.

Mark Sims, who works in enforcement at EPA’s San Francisco-based Region 9, said even before the Justice announcement that morale at the office had taken a big hit. The region has absorbed staffing cuts after a round of buyouts and early retirement offers—Sims said the office was “hemorrhaging experience”—and uncertainty about staffing and budget levels has persisted. The recent announcement has added to the pile.

The Justice attorneys in San Francisco are about one-quarter of a mile from his office, Sims said, which has provided a big advantage. Their move “takes away immediate access” and “makes it hard to have communications.” He added the attorneys will now have to fly out from Denver every time his office has to make court filings, and in a tight budget environment, that could spell less enforcement.

EPA has seen its workforce shrink by 6 percent, or 1,000 employees, since Trump took office. Other large science agencies, such as NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have endured smaller cuts of about 1 percent each.

An Uncertain Future

John Kelly retired from NOAA last month after 45 years largely for personal reasons, but said when he left a lot of things at his office in Honolulu, Hawaii, were “up in the air.” There were rumors his office would be folded into another program.

The employees he managed had calmed down somewhat from their initial post-election panic, Kelly said, but “they are still concerned about Trump and what he’s going to end up doing.” He said the political appointees at NOAA have meddled in some of the work at his former office, including by getting rid of regulations.

“This stuff is long term and it has deep ramifications,” Kelly said, “and to just willy nilly say, ‘Well we’re not going to do that anymore’...That was a concern.”

His young staffers have grown increasingly frustrated, he said, after observing the ease with which their work could be undone.

Like Kelly, Sims said the regulatory rollbacks have left employees feeling disenchanted. His office, for example, has dealt with the possibility of EPA rolling back a mercury and air toxics rule it worked on implementing. EPA has pursued an aggressive deregulatory agenda, while also disbanding two of its science advisory committees and replacing the scientists on others. Sims said his colleagues have actually gotten along well with the political appointees in his office and “all the aches” have instead come from headquarters.

Satisfaction with EPA as an organization dropped 16 percent this year, according to the government's annual Federal Employee Viewpoint survey. Rosenberg, another former NOAA employee and the current Union of Concerned Scientists leader, said feedback has varied by agency. Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, for example, have reported a good working relationship with their political appointees compared to those at EPA or the Interior Department. EPA employees rejoiced when former Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was largely seen by the workforce as adversarial to the agency’s agenda, resigned, said Bethune, the EPA headquarters employee, and are now in “wait-and-see mode” with regard to acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Trump said Friday that he plans to nominate Wheeler as the permanent administrator.   

Rosenberg said he worries most about the long-term fallout of the sidelining of federal scientists. Employees are heading for the exits, despite UCS’ efforts to shine a spotlight on the value of their work, and the next generation of researchers are not finding their way into government at all. Even long-time employees are reinvigorated when a new crop of talent enters their agency with fresh ideas and energy, he said, but the administration is “starving many of these agencies” of that opportunity.

Kelly called his employees “a credit to the federal system” for their commitment to get the job done no matter the conditions surrounding them. When he left, he told his workers not to panic. He still keeps in touch with them, and they have since told him that administration officials have instructed them not to work on certain issues. He advised them to fight back where they could and to otherwise maintain their focus on the job at hand, noting his repeated efforts over the last two years to convince his youngest employees not to leave federal service.  

“Don’t go to the edge of the cliff and jump,” Kelly told his former employees.

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