“Science is literally under attack,” Dr. Alan Finkel warned in a roundtable discussion at Australian National University.
Finkel’s comments come in light of the Trump administration reportedly barring employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies from releasing their work until political appointees review it, and appeared to gag them from speaking to the public and the press.
“It defies logic,” Finkel said. “It will almost certainly cause long-term harm. It’s reminiscent of the censorship exerted by political officers in the old Soviet Union.”
Finkel said Stalin used his “limitless power to ensure that ... unscientific ideas prevailed.” Under Stalin’s reign, scientific data was manipulated to suit his party’s agenda. Finkel gave this example:
Soviet agricultural science was held back for decades because of the ideology of Trofim Lysenko, who was a proponent of Lamarckism.
Lysenko believed that successive generations of crops could be improved by exposing them to the right environment, and so too could successive generations of soviet citizens be improved by exposing them to the right ideology.
So while Western scientists embraced evolution and genetics, Russian scientists who thought the same were sent to the gulag. Western crops flourished. Russian crops failed.
Today, the catch-cry of scientists must be frank and fearless advice, no matter the opinion of political commissars stationed at the U.S. EPA.
Doug Ericksen, the head of communications for Trump’s transition team, told NPR last month that EPA scientists’ reports would be reviewed on a “case-by-case” basis before being published to the agency’s website.
“We’ll take a look at what’s happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that’s going to reflect the new administration,” Ericksen said.
As NPR noted in its report, the move could be seen as a violation of the 2012 Scientific Integrity Act, which prohibits “all EPA employees, including scientists, managers and other Agency leadership from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions.”
There was an uproar after the EPA froze grants and altered information on climate change on its webpage. The White House also removed the Obama-era climate action page from its website, adding an “America First Energy Plan” page instead that focuses on “reviving America’s coal industry.”
Trump also picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier who has sued the EPA 14 times, to head the agency. Pruitt discussed his intention to reduce the EPA’s regulatory reach during his confirmation hearing last month ― on the same day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record. The Senate is expected to confirm Pruitt this week.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment in response to Finkel’s comments.