A Brain Drain Among Government Scientists Bogs Down Biden’s Climate Ambitions
WASHINGTON – Juliette Hart quit her job last summer as an oceanographer for the United States Geological Survey, where she used climate models to help coastal communities plan for rising seas. She was demoralized after four years of the Trump administration, she said, in which politician appointees pushed her to remove or downplay references to climate change.
“It’s easy and quick to leave government, not so fast for government to regain talent,” said Dr Hart, whose post remains vacant.
President Donald J. Trump’s battle with climate science – his appointees have undermined federal studies, fired scientists, and prompted many experts to resign or retire – continues to reverberate six months after the start of the season. ‘Biden administration. From the Department of Agriculture to the Pentagon to the National Park Service, hundreds of climate and environmental science jobs in the federal government remain vacant.
Scientists and climate policy experts who resigned have not returned. Recruitment is suffering, federal employees say, as government science jobs are no longer seen as isolated from politics. And congressional money to replenish the ranks could take years.
The result is that President Biden’s ambitious plans to deal with climate change are hampered by a brain drain.
“Attacks on science have a much longer lifespan than that of the Trump administration,” said John Holdren, professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard and leading science adviser to President Barack Obama during his two terms. .
At the Environmental Protection Agency, new climate rules and air quality regulations ordered by President Biden could be on hold for months or even years, according to interviews with 10 current and former staff responsible for EPA climate policy.
The Home Office has lost scientists studying the impacts of drought, heat waves and rising seas caused by global warming. The Agriculture Ministry has lost economists who study the impacts of climate change on the food supply. The Department of Energy lacks experts who design efficiency standards for appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators to reduce the pollution they emit.
And at the Defense Ministry, a national security risk analysis from global warming was not completed until its initial May deadline, which was extended by 60 days, an agency spokesperson said. .
Mr Biden laid out the strongest agenda to reduce the global warming fossil fuel emissions of any president. Some of its plans to reduce emissions depend on Congress to pass legislation. But much could be accomplished by the executive branch – if the president had the staff and the resources.
While the Biden administration has installed more than 200 political appointees across government in leadership positions focused on climate and environment, even supporters say it has been slow to rehire scientists and political experts professionals who translate research and data into policies and regulations.
White House officials said the Biden administration appointed more than twice as many scientists and science policy officials as the Trump administration at that time, and was set to fill dozens of positions vacancies in federal councils and commissions.
He also created positions on climate change in agencies that had none before, such as the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of the Treasury.
“The administration has been very clear on putting in place a whole-of-government approach that makes climate change a critical part of our domestic policy, national security and foreign policy, and we continue to act quickly to fulfill scientific roles within government to ensure that science, truth and discovery once again have a place in government, ”spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement.
During the Trump years, the number of scientists and technical experts at the United States Geological Survey, an agency of the Home Office and one of the nation’s leading climate science research institutes, fell to 3,152 in 2020 versus 3,434 in 2016, a loss of around 8 percent.
Two Department of Agriculture agencies that produce climate research to help farmers lost 75% of their employees after the Trump administration moved their offices in 2019 from Washington to Kansas City, Missouri, according to a report. study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.
And at the EPA, the number of environmental protection specialists fell from 2,152 to 1,630, a drop of 24%, according to a report by the House scientific committee, which called the losses ” blow to the heart “of the agency. The EPA operates under its Trump-era budget of around $ 9 billion, which pays 14,172 employees. Mr. Biden has asked Congress to increase that amount to $ 11.2 billion.
At the same time, Mr Biden called on the EPA to write ambitious new rules to limit pollution caused by global warming from vehicle exhaust pipes, power plants, and oil and gas wells. , while restoring Obama-era rules on toxic mercury pollution and wetland protection.
Some EPA scientists face a mountain of work that has not been touched by the Trump administration.
One program, the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, assesses the hazards of chemicals to human health. Under the Obama administration, the program completed studies on the effects of 31 potentially harmful chemicals. During the Trump administration, the program only completed one – on RDX, a toxic chemical explosive used in military operations.
“There is a huge backlog,” said Vincent Cogliano, the former head of the risk information system, who retired in 2019. “A lot of people have left, and that’s going to make it more difficult. . “
The problem is compounded by the feeling among young scientists that federal research can be derailed by politics.
“My students have told me, I believe in what the EPA is trying to do, but I’m concerned that the results of my work are being dictated by political leaders and not by what science actually says,” Stan said. Meiburg, who directs graduate studies in sustainability at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He quit his 38-year career with the EPA the day before Mr. Trump was inaugurated.
The US Geological Survey lost hundreds of scientists during the tenure of James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist appointed director by Mr. Trump. Mr. Reilly sought to limit the scientific data used to model the future impacts of climate change.
“What I saw under the Trump administration, and in particular under Director Reilly, was a perfect storm – a situation where there was interference with science, ineffective micromanagement that got us bogged down, and also the neglect of key missions, “said Mark Sogge, a former environmentalist researcher at the agency who retired in January after filing a complaint against Mr Reilly.
“Were there any long term effects? Said Mr. Sogge. “I think so. A lot of these projects are still late and struggling.”
Another author of the complaint against Mr Reilly, David Applegate, a longtime scientist with the US Geological Survey, has been appointed acting director of the agency. Mr Biden has asked Congress to increase its budget from $ 1.3 billion to $ 1.6 billion, and the agency has hired nearly 100 scientists under the leadership of Dr Applegate.
However, there is no shortage of vacancies.
As a researcher at the Geological Survey, Margaret Hiza Redsteer led the Navajo Land Use Planning Project, which studied climate change to help tribal leaders plan for drought. Funding for his project was abruptly canceled in 2017; Dr Redsteer resigned shortly after.
Now, the Biden administration is facing a mega-drought in the southwest, as well as pressure to tackle the effects of climate change on tribal nations. Dr Redsteer said no one had been hired to continue his work.
Staffing issues extend to national security and intelligence agencies.
Rod Schoonover resigned as a State Department analyst in the Office of Intelligence and Research focusing on ecological destruction in 2019 after Mr. Trump’s national security adviser tried to block science impact of Dr. Schoonover’s written testimony to Congress.
He was the only scientist at his level in a US intelligence agency focused on manifestations of climate change around the world.
“There was one of me,” said Dr Schoonover, whose post remains vacant.
“You hear a lot of rhetoric about how climate change and some of the other issues in the Earth system are potentially catastrophic development issues facing humanity,” he said. “But if you walk through the halls of one of our intelligence agencies, it won’t reflect that.”
The agency “continues to assess and, if necessary, expand our ability to prioritize the climate crisis,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The Department of Defense hired eight climate change experts from the Army Corps of Engineers; Mr Biden’s budget includes 17 more.
“The impacts of climate change on the department’s mission are clear and growing,” said Richard Kidd, Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Energy, Environment and Resilience, in a statement. “We need a workforce that reflects this fact. “
For intelligence agencies, it will take time to ramp up and be able to provide the president with climate change risk assessments, said Erin Sikorsky, who led the climate and national security analysis in federal intelligence agencies until last year.
“You have to hire new people; you have to train people to integrate that into their daily work, ”said Ms. Sikorsky, now deputy director of the Center for Climate & Security, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s not something that can happen overnight.”
Max Stier, president and CEO of the Public Service Partnership, which studies the federal workforce, said the Biden administration needs to focus on modernizing recruiting and improving human resources services .
“I don’t think this is just a story of ‘The last administration was anti-science and the current administration is pro-science, so everything will be fine,” Mr. Steir said. “And there is no law you can pass that will solve all of this.”
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