What you can do

Researchers concerned about border wall's impact on endangered species

Before leaving for the August recess, the House approved $1.6 billion in funding for the Trump administration's proposed border wall, a move that has worried conservation biologists who believe the project will hurt efforts to recover endangered species, including the jaguar. A recovery plan for the jaguar released last year requires connectivity across the border to rebuild the population. In an interview with Science magazine, Sergio Avila, a conservation scientist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, said "[As conservation researchers,] we see beyond borders. The way we see conservation does not stop at a political border just because our interests stop there." Environmental and social justice groups are holding demonstrations along the current wall in southern Texas from August 12-13 to call attention to the environmental and social impacts of the wall. The action follows a July incident at Texas's National Butterfly Center, when staffers at the private wildlife sanctuary discovered a work crew clearing vegetation on their property in unannounced preparation for wall construction.

Scientists concerned about administration's reaction to climate change report

The Trump administration has received a draft version of a comprehensive climate change report, part of a new National Climate Assessment (currently required every four years). The 673-page draft, written by scientists from 13 Federal agencies, outlines evidence that greenhouse-gas emissions and other human activities contribute heavily towards extreme heat waves, sea level rise, and other harmful consequences of global warming. The agencies must produce a final version by August 18, and climate scientists are concerned that its conclusions will be suppressed or weakened by political pressure from the Trump administration. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director Scott Pruitt, who must approve the final release of the report, is on the record as stating he does not believe that carbon dioxide emissions contribute significantly to climate change. The draft version is, however, available for downloading or online reading by the public.

EPA scientific integrity panel clears Pruitt's remarks on carbon dioxide

On August 2, the Environmental Protection Agency released a four-page report detailing the findings of a panel of senior staffers who determined that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt did not violate the agency's scientific integrity policy when he said that carbon dioxide is not the primary driver of climate change. The report states that Pruitt was "expressing an opinion," and that his comment was not a "significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant scientific or scholarly community," despite the scientific consensus on the connection between carbon dioxide and warming temperatures. The Sierra Club issued a statement that "the letter and the panel decision it describes provide a fundamentally flawed reading of the Scientific Integrity Policy. The decision … relies on partial quotes from the Policy, and provides Pruitt with special protections afforded to actual scientists working at the agency, although he is—quite obviously at this point—not a scientist."

USDA emails reveal internal concerns over use of the term "climate change"

Earlier this week, the Guardian reported on emails between Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees showing that staff of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have been asked to substitute language like "weather extremes" for the term "climate change," and that some staff have pushed back against the language changes. However, in response to the story, a NRCS spokesperson said, "The Natural Resources Conservation Service has not received direction from USDA or the Administration to modify its communications on climate change or any other topic. The agency continuously evaluates its messaging to America's farmers, ranchers, and foresters as they work to implement voluntary conservation on their operations to improve the health of our soil, air, water, and habitat." It also noted that the USDA climate change website continues to highlight program areas and agencies working on climate change. The DTN Ag Policy Blog concluded that "it seems NRCS hasn't actually eliminated or banished 'climate change' from its lexicon, but NRCS leaders certainly do seem to be overly concerned over the past six months about finding euphemisms that appealed more to their farmer customers."

Trump's deregulation teams staffed by former industry lobbyists

The teams assembled to enforce President Trump's executive order on deregulation are staffed heavily by former lobbyists, many with ties to the industries they are tasked with regulating. These include a former pesticide lobbyist appointed to the deregulation team at the Department of Agriculture, former lobbyists for the auto and airline industries to the Department of Transportation team, former consultants to electrical utilities and the oil industry to the Department of Energy, and executives from the charter-school and for-profit college sectors to the Department of Education. Some agencies have not, to date, released the names of their deregulation team members. Four House Democrats, all ranking members of House committees, have signed a letter denouncing the lack of transparency surrounding these appointments, and requesting that the White House release the names of all members of all deregulation teams.

Environment suffers at hands of Trump deregulatory push

In the past week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke increased royalties for oil, gas, and coal by $75 million, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a cable to US diplomats instructing them to effectively sidestep questions related to the Paris agreement and US withdrawal. The cable contained specific guidelines for communications surrounding the Paris climate accord—and climate change in general—urging that "diplomats should make clear the United States wants to help other countries use fossil fuels." These moves, taken with a range of other actions by the administration over the past weeks, demonstrate the administration is making good on its promise to roll back environmental protections and rewrite the rulebook for how government workers, diplomats, and scientists are able to communicate both internally and externally on these public issues. This chilling effect has already led senior scientists to protest and even resign.

EPA official resigns after 30 years, citing Trump and Pruitt policies

Two years ago, Elizabeth "Betsy" Southerland, director of science and technology in the EPA's Office of Water was awarded the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, given to just one percent of Senior Executive Service members for "sustained extraordinary accomplishment." However, Southerland resigned last week, becoming the latest in a series of federal scientists to do so because of the administration's actions and policies. In a statement, Southerland said, "There is no question the administration is seriously weakening EPA's mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs."

Fate of Department of Labor rule may impact postdoc pay

On May 23, 2016, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced a new rule allowing overtime pay for certain professionals making less than $47,476, including most postdoctoral researchers. The rule would effectively incentivize a pay increase for postdocs making less than $47,476. Indeed, after the announcement, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) adopted a new pay scale for one of its most widely awarded postdoctoral fellowships. However, the rule, which was supposed to take effect December 1, 2016, was blocked by a federal judge in Texas on November 22, 2016. The rule, along with the potential postdoc pay raise, has been frozen, awaiting further determination by the court ever since.

On Wednesday, July 26, 2017, the DOL published a Request for Information (RFI) in the Federal Register seeking responses to a series of detailed questions concerning this rule, likely in anticipation of pending legal action (the legal challenge to the rule is currently being reviewed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals). According to the DOL, "the RFI is an opportunity for the public to provide information that will aid the department in formulating a proposal to revise these regulations." The future of the much-anticipated increase in postdoc pay may depend on the legal fate of this rule. Public comments must be submitted on or before September 25, 2017, and additional instructions can be found at Regulations.gov referencing the Regulatory Information Number 1235-AA20. Read more about the rule and the RFI in RISE Stronger's policy and action brief on this topic.

Senate Confirms Deputy Energy Secretary

On August 3, the Senate confirmed Dan Brouillette by a 79-17 vote, finally filling the Deputy Secretary of Energy post that has been empty since President Trump's inauguration. Brouillette is a veteran of the Department of Energy (DOE), serving as assistant secretary from 2001-2003 under Pres. Bush. He has also worked on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, served on the Louisiana State Mineral and Energy Board, and represented Ford in policy and government affairs. Brouillette is only the second confirmation to the Trump administration's DOE, where 17 positions remain without a nominee.

Senate confirms FCC commissioners, holds off on reconfirming Chairman Pai

Also on August 3, the Senate confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Carr to be commissioners for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but delayed until later this fall a vote on approving another term for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Breaking with precedent, Republicans also attempted to nominate Carr to two terms—one for a year and a half, the second for a five years. Democrats demurred, with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voicing concern over Carr's independence from Chairman Pai, noting that she would like to "check back in a year and a half to make sure that he demonstrated 'independent views' from the commissioner." The reluctance to both nominate Pai to a second term and authorize two terms for Carr seems to be warranted, given other FCC developments. The good news is that the FCC now has a quorum allowing it to tackle many of the somewhat workaday, but critical, responsibilities of the Commission.

Chairman Pai has made it his mission to dismantle the FCC's net neutrality rules, and this stance has been an issue in ongoing hearings. Ten Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee submitted a public comment to the FCC, stating their belief that "the FCC's proposal to undo its net neutrality rules fundamentally and profoundly runs counter to the law." They requested that additional witnesses participate in the hearings, excoriated the process to date, and questioned whether Chairman Pai had inappropriately taken direction from the President. Earlier this spring, under Pai, the FCC revived the UHF (ultra high frequency) discount, an outdated loophole from the 1980s. Revival of this ownership rule, that allows for expansion through mergers and acquisitions of organizations that would otherwise be blocked from further expansion, has enabled Sinclair Broadcast Group to plan to buy 42 stations from Tribune Media in cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—adding to the 170 stations it already owns—far exceeding the previous federal limits on media ownership.

Tech leaders, venture capitalists raise objections to Trump's immigration plans

On August 2, President Trump introduced new measures to restrict legal immigration. Tech companies and venture capitalists have emerged as some of the most vocal opponents of these immigration restrictions—the so-called "merit-based" immigration bill. New policies would limit the number of legal immigrants up to 50% in the coming decade and would introduce a points-based system that would effectively allow the government to direct hiring practices and required skills for particular positions. At the same time, the National Venture Capital Association joined sixty national and regional groups representing a coalition of investors, startups and tech industry groups in denouncing a proposal by the Department of Homeland Security to scrap an Obama-era rule that would encourage foreign entrepreneurs to start companies in the US.

Understaffed OSTP compels Congress to seek scientific advice from former staffers

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) remains critically understaffed, and President Trump has still not appointed a science advisor (despite rumors that he will soon). As a result, Congress has fallen back on several former Obama-era OSTP staff members to provide informal guidance on science-related issues, as reported by STAT. The President, however, is not reported to be seeking out scientific advice, which is evident in his continued pursuit of misinformed policies.

Congress on Recess

The House and Senate have adjourned for their August recess, and members will return to work on September 5.

Highlights from partner organizations

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) wants to support the next generation of science advocacy leaders through its Science for Public Good Fund. Proposals are due September 1. Learn more here.

Have comments or something to add? Contact the RISE Stronger Science & Technology Policy Working Group at [email protected].

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