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Skeptical about a defense of science?

Posted on 26 April 2021 by Doug Bostrom

On April 21 US House Representative Frank Lucas (3rd District, Oklahoma)  transmitted an urgent inquiry to the White House concerning the abrupt reassignment of Dr. Betsy Weatherhead, out of her position as head of the Fifth United States Climate Assessment and into another role at the United States Geological Survey. Rep. Lucas expressed dismay with this decision while asking for background information, writing: "While Administrations are free to hire their own political appointees, penalizing and removing civil servants represents disturbing political interference in the federal scientific enterprise." He went on to express that it was "difficult to think of a more clear example of political interference and bias than this leadership change."

Representative Lucas' claims and complaints are puzzling in light of his personal context of career, experience and habits of attention.

Representative Lucas assumed office in 2003, and as with the rest of us has just emerged from a period of interference in the scientific activities conducted by the federal government unequaled in modern history and arguably during any period since congress and the executive branch first began integration of science into the apparatus of national government. This meddling significantly degraded scientific capacities and capabilities intended to help improve the lives of US citizens. The previous administration's tampering was breathtaking in its sweeping scope and brazen nature, widely publicized, impossible to ignore. Mr. Lucas was a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology while this maelstrom swept over the federal scientific enterprise, on watch.

By his office, by his party affiliation, and by his deep experience with affairs and practices of the federal government Mr. Lucas was ideally positioned to monitor the rough handling of scientific integrity during a period of exceptionally transgressive actions. Thanks to the efforts of previous administrations, protection of scientific integrity within federal departments and agencies is a formally recognized, codified priority throughout the federal government. The performance of the government in respect of this is monitored both within the government and by independent organizations.  Representative Lucas has enjoyed continuous, easy access to multiple channels of surveillance of scientific integrity prior to April 21. 

Graph: Tallies of assaults on functions and integrity of federal government scientific endeavor during first two years of previous administration, unnoticed by Representative Lucas. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

The pattern of priorities and choices made during this concerted campaign of injecting narrow concerns into scientific practice and communication leaves no doubt that improvements to science and public information were not the objectives of this activity. There is a clear trail of subordination of the public good to needs of special interests discernible in the previous administration's arc of behavior visible now that the entire record is available to view.

Below is a list of examples* of political interference during the prior administration directly germane to Mr. Lucas' concern, that of performing climate science work in connection with the federal government and communicating valuable scientific information  about climate to the US public. Patterns and biases in direct conflict with scientific underpinnings of departmental and agency missions are easily visible in this recap. In the purely political vein, an attempt to shape public perception and hence public influence by withholding information from the public is crisply apparent, consistent government-wide. 

A notable item from that list, impossible to ignore in light of Rep. Lucas' specific worry and complaint:

On November 6, 2020, the Trump administration removed Michael Kuperberg from his position as the director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).

The USGCRP oversees the preparation of the Congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment. The USGCRP had been led by Mr. Kuperberg since July 2015, and he was widely expected to remain director through the production of the fifth version of the assessment, which is due to be released in 2023. White House officials did not offer any explanation for Mr. Kuperberg's removal. 

Where was the concerned letter sent to the White House about this exact analogue to Dr. Weatherhead's reassignment from Representative Lucas when it was needed, not half a year ago? After all, this is the same fellow who as of the day this post was written - not a week ago - stated that it was "difficult to think of a more clear example of political interference and bias than this leadership change." For reasons we can't know or describe, Mr. Lucas was silent at the time.

Beyond their common connection to climate science, the dismal litany of events shown below is distinguished by another feature: somehow U.S. House Representative Frank Lucas failed to notice this methodical assault on public understanding and scientific practice while it was happening beneath his nose, in plain view and much remarked. Mr. Lucas' concern for the integrity of science and science communications seemed to be asleep at the switch, for years.

It's entirely appropriate and healthy for a well-functioning member of congress to hold the feet of the executive branch to the fire, should there be intimations of misbehavior. On the other hand, when we're confronted with a glaring, prolonged and inexplicable inconsistency of behavior on the part of this particular congressperson, we must wonder where Mr. Lucas' concern is truly rooted. A cynic might call this concern politically expedient.

Is Representative Lucas practicing politics with his missive to the White House?

One cannot help but wonder if Representative Lucas' own congressional web site tells us something about how sincerely invested he is in accurate communications of our best information on climate change. As well the circumstance of Rep. Lucas' acceptance of oodles of fossil fuel industry campaign cash support from entities simultaneously retarding progress on remedying our climate problem needs accounting for, in the mind of a circumspect, judicious person.

Mr. Lucas has created a history for us to look at. One must reconcile Representative Lucas' obligations, stated preferences and record of failure as a science integrity watchguard with his unusual attention to Dr. Whitehead's experience, this particular choice to intervene. 

As to the absolute importance of the matter at hand, if Representative Lucas is truly concerned about scientific integrity in the US government, he has an enormous backlog of inquiry to dig through as indicated by the list below, which is in chronological order starting a little over four years ago. Dr. Weatherhead's reassignment is a minor detail compared to the chronicle of damage caused by the late administration, again leaving the question "why this, and now" hanging.

By piping up with his admonishments only now, Representative Lucas has provided us a reason to compare his longitudinal record of attention with this sudden, highly unusual and very belated fixation on politics colliding with scientific integrity. This is helpful in assessing his seriousness of purpose and adequacy as a steward of efficiently functioning government. That record and this unusual discontinuity in Mr. Lucas' behavior together are an unfavorable signal; Mr. Lucas seems a markedly unsteady, unreliable champion of scientific integrity in the US government. 

Doubtless Representative Lucas will receive a reply and information from the White House. What we will never learn is exactly what aroused this politician from such a deep, oblivious sleep,  a slumber lasting for years during a conspicuous, loud clamor of public protests and pleas about attacked, failing scientific integrity in the federal government. Parsimony suggests there are simpler explanations than a prolonged coma, to explain Mr. Lucas' startled eruption from somnolence and into action. Sadly, sunlight on government doesn't reach some of the most important places.

For Dr. Weatherhead, herself a scientist widely described as having built an admirable, unimpeachable record, this is an unfortunate outcome of lousy timing and falling into bad company despite what are surely good intentions. Dr. Weatherhead's appointment came during a frenzy of actions and appointments to further hobble our ability to deal with climate change, a desperate last-ditch push  to dump more sand in the gears of policy progress conducted during the last days of the recently departed administration. This hasty push devolved to a panicked shambles, resulting in an abortive, clownish attempt to rewrite the reality of climate science and climate change on official stationery, employing a warmed-over crew of "usual suspects" from the retail market of professional climate science misinformers (tragi-comic buffoonery becoming the subject of a Skeptical Science special project).

Representative Lucas' astonished mystification at Dr. Weatherhead's dismissal from her brief appointment is itself a mystery. Confronted by extensive wreckage created by a spectacular collision of bad faith and incompetence, a complete systems crash of sorts, the new administration's pressing the equivalent of "CTRL-ALT-DEL" at the upper levels of late appointments is hardly surprising. It's worth remembering: all the faulty, sloppy pilotage leading to this catastrophic wreck was in the hands of Mr. Lucas and his party colleagues; this smoking hole in the ground is entirely owned by the previous crew, not the relief. 

Dr. Weatherhead is yet another bystander victim of an administration unbeaten in its reckless disregard for facts and telling the truth, thereby careless about the welfare of the United States. That administration is the former administration, not the present one. The former administration's astoundingly poor record won't easily be erased or forgotten, and certainly won't be vanished via distractions thrown up by suddenly "woke to science" Frank Lucas. 

Partial list of Trump administration transgressions against scientific functions of the US federal government, 2016-2020

 References to “Climate Change” Removed from DOE Documents

“Climate Change” References Removed from EPA Documents

Climate Change Pages Removed from State Department Website

CDC Climate Change Summit Cancelled

EPA Scientist’s Participation in Public Events Restricted

“Climate Change” References Removed from White House Website

NPS Climate Change Tweets Deleted

Impact of Fossil Fuels Downplayed by DOI

DOE Website Rewritten to Downplay Impact of Fossil Fuels

EPA Staff Prevented from Attending Climate Conference

USDA Staff Told to Avoid References to “Climate Change”

DOE Staff Told to Avoid References to “Climate Change”

Word “Science” Removed from EPA Science Office Website

DOE-Funded Research Paper Subject to Additional Review Due to Climate References

Climate Change Resources Removed from DOE Website

Release of Climate Change Study Blocked by Amtrak

Climate Change Information Removed from DOI Website

EPA Climate Change Website Removed

Climate Change Page Removed from BLM Website

Word “Climate” Removed from BIA Program Name

“Climate Change” References Removed from FHWA Website

“Climate Change” References Removed from USGS Press Release

DOE Grantee Directed to Remove References to Paris Agreement from Report

EPA Climate Change Staff Reassigned

DOE Office of International Climate and Technology Closed

DOI Scientists Involuntarily Reassigned

EPA Adaptation Staff Reassigned

References to “Climate Change” Removed from NIH Website

Human Role in Climate Change Downplayed by NOAA

Climate Change Information Removed from USDA Website

DOE-Funded Scientists Told Not to Reference “Climate Change”

EPA Grants Reviewed by Political Appointee

Climate Change Omitted from White House’s List of FY2019 R&D Priorities

National Climate Assessment Advisory Committee Disbanded

Forest Service Scientist Prevented from Attending Conference

References to “Climate Change” Removed from EPA’s International Website

References to “Climate Change” Removed from DOI Strategic Plan

EPA Scientists’ Speaking Engagements Cancelled

NPS Staff Reprimanded for Climate Change Tweet

10 Year Research Project Cancelled by DOE

References to “Climate Change” Removed from FHWA Program

Climate Change Dropped from National Security Strategy

Climate Change Documents Removed from NPS Website

References to “Climate Change” Removed from Amtrak Strategic Plan

NPS Scientist Asked to Remove References to Climate Change from Paper

References “Climate Change” Removed from FEMA Documents

EPA Talking Points Misrepresent Climate Science

References to Humans’ Role in Climate Change Removed from NPS Report

DOE Researchers Prevented from Publishing Work

NASA Climate Research Program Cancelled

References to “Climate Change” Removed from DOD Report

EPA Research Grants Cancelled at Direction of Political Appointee

Public Communication by USGS Scientists Restricted

References to “Climate Change” Removed from Treasury Department Report

Impacts of Climate Change Downplayed by FEMA

References to “Climate Change” Removed from USAID Report

Scientific Research Subject to Political Interference at NOAA

USGS Scientists Prevented from Researching “Politically Contentious” Topics

FWS Scientists Prevented from Discussing or Researching “Politically Contentious” Topics

USDA Scientists Prevented from Researching “Politically Contentious” Topics

References to “Climate Change” Removed from EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis

References to “Climate Change” Removed from NPS Report

Climate Change Omitted from National Biodefense Strategy

References to “Climate Change” Removed from EPA Document

Climate Change Materials Removed from DOT Website

Climate Change Omitted from List of EPA Research Objectives

Climate Change Omitted from Oceans Research Plan

EPA Staff Prevented from Updating Climate Change Indicators Website

NASA Pressured to Remove Climate Change Information from Website

References to “Climate Change” Removed from EPA Document

National Park Service Sent "Cease and Desist" Letter to Climate Scientist

USGS Scientists Ordered Not to Model Long-Term Climate Impacts

State Department Scientist Prevented from Submitting Written Testimony to Congress

Studies Showing Damages from Climate Change Buried by USDA

References to "Climate Change" Removed from USGS Press Release

References to "Climate Change" Removed from Forest Service Document

USGS Removes Climate Change Links and Page from its Website

OSHA Removes References to Climate Change from Page About Heat-Related Illnesses

EPA Removes Climate Change References from “Heat Island Effect” Webpage

DOE Removes References to Climate Change from Biological and Environmental Research Group Webpages

EPA’s Website Reclassifies Research Groups to Remove Climate Change Group

USGCRP Removes Sections on Climate Change from its Website

USFS Removes References to Climate Change from Wilderness Webpage

DOI Removes References to Climate Change from WaterSMART Program Webpage

U.S. Navy Shuts Task Force on Climate Change

Interior Department Arctic Drilling Study Concludes there is not a Climate Crisis

White House Strikes Climate Change Language from Vehicle Emissions Proposal

Climate Change Omitted from FEMA Report

USGS Scientist Prevented from Publishing Research in Official Capacity

Scientific Research Subject to Political Interference at EPA

NOAA's Acting Chief Scientist Reassigned

Presentation Slides Misrepresenting the Causes of Climate Change Published by EPA

Head of U.S. Global Change Research Program Removed

* List derived from Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Environmental Law Silencing Science Tracker. 

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Comments 1 to 3:

  1. Nice analysis DB. Mr Lucas' hypocrisy is, unfortunately, more the rule than the exception these days.

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  2. I smell a smell.  The smell started about 1948.

    After the first Arab-Israeli war, I believe a group of unnamed people concocted a long term plot ot deny the Arabs oil money, which they were using mainly to arm themselves to the teeth with Russian, American, British and French weapons which those countries were falling over themselves to supply in order to get some of their oil money back.  The plot I believe originated in Sweden, which I deduced from absorbing the sentiment through living there. Sweden is a very pacifist country and this would be an in-character idea of how to keep the peace-   cutting off the oil  money should cool things down!

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Offtopic for starters and well in breach of comments policy.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can be rescinded if the posting individual treats adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  3. Good piece, I hope it's widely circulated. As much as I take umbrage at Rep. Lucas's hypocrisy, however, he clearly has no qualms about saying baldly contradictory things in public. He is presumably doing as his constituents wish, which is to take the offensive in the culture war against climate science and other excrescences of 'liberalism'. The rest of Oklahoma's seven-member congressional delegation are all Republicans, with predictable voting records.  That is, Oklahoma is firmly Trumpist. The best hope, for those of us who defend science, is that by raising yet more awareness of outrages like Lucas's in this country's slim majority of Biden voters, we harden our resolve to turn out for coming presidential elections.

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