Several federal agencies, including the CDC, have returned to their 2016 scientific staffing levels, a report has found.

Several federal agencies, including the CDC, have returned to their 2016 scientific staffing levels, a report has found. Anadolu Agency / GETTY IMAGES

Scientific federal agencies have restaffed to pre-Trump levels

While the Biden administration is finding success in its hiring efforts, a report finds diversity efforts are lagging.

The Biden administration has fully restored the number of federal employees in scientific positions at key agencies to the levels they saw prior to President Trump, according to a new analysis, though they are in some cases failing to diversify their workforces. 

From 2016 to 2020, scientific agencies across government experienced a drain of employees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics positions, according to a review by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In the subsequent years, the Biden administration has led hiring initiatives that have refilled vacancies and staffing levels at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have all surpassed where they stood in 2016. 

Source: UCS

At several agencies, however, it took five full years since workforce levels began to dip to recover. Scientific offices are still battling workforce losses suffered during the Trump administration, according to a recent UCS survey. More than 60% of respondents reported feeling burned out and 70% of those scientists said it was due to insufficient staffing at their agency. Still, UCS noted overall morale among federal STEM employees has improved and political interference has declined. 

“The work of federal scientists affects all of us,” said Anita Desikan, senior analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and lead author of the report. “Medical research, pollution monitoring, food safety inspection and disaster response all rely on getting trustworthy, reliable scientific information. It really matters to have federal agencies fully staffed with scientists who are empowered to do their best work.”

Employees at agencies like NASA, EPA and NOAA previously told Government Executive they faced unprecedented interference from political leadership under President Trump, including rollbacks of their past work and tampering with research.

Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. The issue was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic after repeated reports of political appointees altering or improperly influencing scientific and medical findings. High-profile officials such as former National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the Trump administration's coronavirus response coordinator, have said that their scientific work was frequently disrupted by Trump and his aides.

Biden’s primary avenue to reversing the trend of the Trump administration appears to be paying some dividends, however. The president launched his review of the government’s protections for scientists shortly after taking office, creating a task force made up of several dozen scientists from across government. Eight in 10 federal scientists in UCS’ survey said their agency had adhered to its scientific integrity policy and 73% said they were adequately trained on its contents.

While Biden has required a scientific integrity officer at every agency and his panel has released a framework to guide agency policies, some groups have voiced concern the guidance lacks any teeth to actually protect scientists from retaliation.

In addition to scientific protections, agencies have looked to add diversity to their workforces. Some agencies are still struggling, UCS found: FWS and NOAA, for example, are still 85% white. The report’s authors stressed the hiring and retention from historically discriminated against groups is both a moral and practical imperative. People of color in STEM fields can offer innovative ideas, improve outreach and help find new audiences in areas such as public health. 

Source: UCS

A historic lack of diversity in federal STEM roles has led to people of color receiving fewer grants, ideas not being valued in the workplace and employees feeling less empowered, UCS said. While agencies have taken on diversity and inclusion efforts, they are often subject to political whims of new administrations. The Trump administration canceled all diversity trainings at the end of his presidency, which Biden subsequently restored. 

Renewed efforts have not always borne success: NOAA has led a significant push for new hires of color, but the Black population of its workforce has only increased from 3.7% to 4.3%. UCS highlighted three key strategies for improving hiring from diverse communities, which included direct hire authority, increasing fellowship opportunities and expansion of student loan repayment programs. Mentorships, directives from agency heads, expansion of geographical areas in candidate searches and diverse hiring panels are all important tactics as well, UCS said. 

The group encouraged agencies to establish channels and pipelines with minority-serving institutions. In a random sample of federal scientists, NOAA and FWS had the most employees from such schools, while EPA and FDA had the least. 

UCS noted people of color in STEM positions may be more likely than their counterparts to leave government, or the entire field. 

“Because discrimination in the sciences is systemic and entrenched, people from historically marginalized groups can face a minefield of barriers at every stage of their STEM career, which may drive them out of the sciences altogether,” the report found. 

The group said agencies should ensure scientists’ pay remains comparable to the private sector, integrate diversity efforts into core operations, highlight the contributions of scientists, offer retention bonuses and create a retreat program for entry-level workers to protect against employees leaving.

Private sector scientists assume their federal counterparts are not engaged in interesting work and are mired in bureaucracy, UCS found, and agencies must therefore do a better job of telling their stories and highlighting the accomplishments of individual scientists. It called on the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to conduct a study on the needs of the federal STEM workforce. 

“There has never been a more urgent time to ensure that the federal STEM workforce is strong,” UCS said. “Climate change, new technologies such as artificial intelligence and a pandemic are quickly changing the world, sometimes in drastic ways. The federal government will need to make science-informed decisions to best protect and support people in the United States, and it needs a strong and diverse STEM workforce to meet this challenge head-on.”