Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., said the Trump administration's "hostility towards evidence-based decision-making often created significant tension with scientists attempting to carry out their duties.”

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., said the Trump administration's "hostility towards evidence-based decision-making often created significant tension with scientists attempting to carry out their duties.” J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Lawmakers Discuss Ways to Rebuild Federal Scientific Workforce After Exodus Under Trump

Staffing shortages are forcing agencies to defer action on critical work.

Lawmakers and good government experts on Wednesday lamented the exodus of career scientists from government during the Trump administration, while offering potential solutions to restaff vacant positions. 

Thousands of federal employees in scientific positions headed for the exits during President Trump’s term, which saw a spike in allegations of political interference in the work of career employees. Lawmakers and witnesses at a hearing hosted by a panel of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee noted the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies were among the hardest hit.  

“Unfortunately, recent years have been difficult for career government scientists,” said Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., who chairs the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee. “The last administration’s hostility towards evidence-based decision-making often created significant tension with scientists attempting to carry out their duties.”

He added the consequences of that environment led to low morale, ignored expertise, dismissed work and “far too many scientists” deciding to leave. Foster called it imperative for Congress and the Biden administration to address the situation. 

“The departure of so much scientific talent and institutional knowledge from the government represents a competitive disadvantage for the United States,” he said. “We must fix this.”

Betsy Southerland, who headed the Office of Science and Technology in EPA’s Office of Water before she resigned in August 2017, said the Trump administration ignored the precedent of its three most recent predecessors when its political appointees failed to develop relationships with career staff. She called on new leadership to once again welcome career scientists into key meetings and to reinstate a “free exchange of ideas.” 

The staffing shortage, Sutherland said, is forcing managers to focus on time-consuming administrative tasks, which is damaging productivity and morale. Rules without court-ordered deadlines are being kicked down the road “no matter how important for public health and environmental protection.” 

Committee members on both sides of the aisle, and each of the witnesses testifying, discussed the need to improve recruiting and retention of highly qualified scientists at federal agencies. They criticized a slow and burdensome hiring process and other factors that cause the government to lose out on top candidates to academia and the private sector. They also faulted the government for repeatedly tapping into the same wells to find talent.

Several individuals at the hearing, including Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, urged agencies to make greater use of internships to get soon-to-be graduates in the door. Stier called on the government to do a better job of telling the stories of its unique mission and opportunities, create new pathways to federal careers, such as through fellowships, and to develop strategies specific to STEM hiring. 

Candice Wright, the acting director for science and technology assessment at the Government Accountability Office, said agencies must adapt to the times to reflect the evolving expectations of applicants for scientific jobs. 

“As science and technology continues to rapidly evolve, so too must the government’s recruitment and retention efforts,” Wright said. “How the government responds or doesn’t to face its human capital challenges today will have lasting effects for the future workforce it needs.”  

Some Republican lawmakers sought to divert blame away from the Trump administration, noting the exodus of staff from EPA has been ongoing for more than a decade. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested Trump-era policies accelerated that trend. 

“The Trump administration isn’t the only administration that has had challenges on issues related to things like scientific integrity—the ability to do their work without political manipulation or censorship—but it was a more extreme circumstance,” he said. 

The Biden administration has sought to address those allegations, issuing memoranda to reverse policies that restricted the type of science employees could use in their research and a governmentwide order to protect career scientists and limit the role political appointees play in science-based decision making. Per President 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.

Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., the top Republican on the panel, expressed optimism that Congress could work in a bipartisan fashion to improve and bolster the government’s scientific workforce. 

“Let’s definitely continue this discussion as things move forward,” Obernolte said. “I think there were a lot of excellent ideas raised here today and we stand with you, unified and ready, to try to implement some changes to enhance the competitiveness of the government.”

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