Mountain West Lawmakers, Scientist At Center Of Hearing On Scientific Integrity

Originally published on July 25, 2019 9:17 pm

The Mountain West featured heavily in a House Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday looking into issues of scientific integrity in the Interior Department. 

During the hearing, called “When Science Gets Trumped: Scientific Integrity at the Department of the Interior,” scientists detailed how the department has retaliated against their work on human-caused climate change.

A number of committee members including Utah Rep. Rob Bishop dismissed the event as “partisan propaganda.” 

“Let me start by giving you some kudos for having a very clever title in today’s hearing. It’s a very cute title. This show could also be titled ‘Democrats accuse Trump of whitewashing climate science’ or ‘Democrats accuse Bernhardt of giving handouts to their buddies,” said Bishop, who said the subject matter was the purview of a different committee. “This is going to be fun and interesting and cute … Let the games begin.”

“I don’t think what happened to Dr. Caffrey is ‘cute,’” Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette responded as she introduced a scientist who says she lost her job over a report on climate change.

Maria Caffrey, a Denver-based environmental scientist, was one of four people testifying. As Reveal and the Mountain West News Bureau have reported, she says she fought to keep wording about human-caused climate change in a National Park Service report on how sea level rise and storm surge could impact their sites. 

Caffrey told members of Congress that it cost her her job with the Park Service. 

“I was only concerned with offering the best available science, not what the political consequences of my work could be. The personal toll to this has been substantial. I had to remove my daughter from daycare and I’m now faced with the prospect of having to split up my family so I can continue my career in another state,” said Caffrey. 

She says colleagues working on the report urged her to remove language about the role of people in causing climate change, citing concerns that they’d lose funding or get reassigned.

“I’m doing this because we need more protections for federal scientists,” said Caffrey. “I’m certain I am not alone in experiencing this violation.”

Caffrey’s experience was reiterated by a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists as well as a former Interior Department executive, Joel Clement, who said the Trump administration “has sidelined scientists and experts, flattened the morale of the career staff, and ... is bent on hollowing out the agency.” 

Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher with the Heritage Foundation told lawmakers that scientists don’t necessarily deserve the public’s trust.

Sometimes, said Bakst, who is a lawyer by training, “Instead of actually answering scientific questions, what they’re doing is they’re actually answering policy questions disguised as science.” 

He suggested to lawmakers that the public be involved in reviewing the quality of scientific work coming out of federal agencies.

Representatives from Colorado, Idaho and Nevada are now among more than 200 backing a bill aimed at strengthening scientific integrity policies. A hearing on that legislation took place earlier this month in front of a different committee. 

As NPR has reported, “The proposed legislation would make it harder for the White House or political appointees at federal agencies to withhold data from scientific studies or bar scientists from discussing their findings.”

NPR reports the Environmental Protection Agency’s top scientific integrity official wasn’t allowed to speak to lawmakers at the hearing.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

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