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Interior Reverses Trump Science Policy, Vows to Free Career Staff From Political Interference

Biden administration announces its latest move to reverse Trump-era science policies.

The Interior Department is reversing a policy implemented under President Trump that sought to restrict the scientific research its employees could conduct, saying the move will shield career workers from political interference. 

The order will revoke a 2018 policy that required Interior employees to only use scientific information publicly available in rules and other decision making documents, which detractors have called an overly restrictive policy that would block career employees from using the best available data. The rescission follows an order Biden signed in January to protect career scientists and limit the role political appointees play in science-based decision making. 

The Trump-era policy was issued “without permitting the due consideration and review by the department’s career officials or the broader scientific community,” acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega said in his order. It prevented the department from using “cutting-edge research” that used proprietary data and sensitive information to help navigate “complex policy decisions,” he added. The rule allowed for a waiver process, but de la Vega said it made Interior’s “scientific endeavors vulnerable to political influence.” 

The acting secretary further ordered Interior to to update its scientific integrity policies to ensure they are setting high standards and to bring them in line with Biden’s directive. Specifically, he called for the policies to ban political interference, prevent the suppression or distortion of data and support scientists and researchers of all backgrounds. Each Interior bureau and office must report to the secretary within 90 days on its actions to comply with the new directives. 

Tanya Trujillo, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science, called the order an “important step toward restoring trust in government.” 

“Science is at the heart of Interior’s mission, from protecting endangered species to conducting environmental assessments for energy projects,” Trujillo said. The order “puts the evaluation and decision-making authority regarding scientific information back where it should be: in the hands of the scientists.”

Jacob Carter, a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, praised the order, saying the previous policy prevented Interior employees from using data on endangered species' locations or individuals' health. 

“With the order rescinded, scientists and decision makers can now once again bring the best available science to help inform decisions and continue to make progress on protecting endangered species, people’s health, and our country’s natural resources and cultural heritage,” Carter said.

The Biden administration has broadcast its effort to roll back the science policies of the Trump administration, during which career scientists said they faced unprecedented interference from political leadership. Per Biden’s directive, a task force is currently reviewing the scientific integrity policy at every federal agency. 

“We will protect our world-class scientists from political interference and ensure they can think, research and speak freely and directly to me, the vice president and the American people,” Biden said in January. 

The Trump administration in its closing days finalized a similar policy to Interior’s that blocked the use of “secret science” at the Environmental Protection Agency, which attracted significant controversy and lawsuits. A federal judge has since vacated the rule.