Richard Botzler: Disappearing the data is the first step to silencing science

As a scientist and retired university educator, I am very concerned with the strong anti-science perspectives being expressed through President Trump’s policies.

I share a frequently cited concern over the Trump administration’s negation of the extensive scientific evidence about global warming, even though an overwhelming majority of climate scientists acknowledge the reality of global warming and the important role humans play in this change.

I also am very concerned by the Trump Administration’s planned deep budget cuts for a number of government agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others.

More subtle, but equally serious, are policies by the Trump Administration to reduce, sequester or remove key scientific data from government agency websites, as noted by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

On the EPA’s website, for instance, the science and technology office changed one mission from the “scientific and technological foundations to achieve clean water” to develop “economically and technologically achievable performance standards.”

Also, data have been removed from a Department of Energy website illustrating the link between coal use and greenhouse gas emissions; data also were removed from an Interior Department webpage on the potential environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing on federal land.

I fear that the Trump Administration has begun a process of undermining the scientific foundations that are needed to make fair-minded and fully informed environmental decisions.

While it is illegal to destroy government data, removing data from accessible agency websites can effectively impede accessibility. Revising websites or creating other barriers to the underlying information can make it very difficult to find vital information.

Also, much of the scientific information painstakingly collected over past decades, and costing hundreds of billions of dollars, remains held only by the government, and it is distributed through thousands of servers in hundreds of federal departments where it might not be backed up, making it difficult or impossible to find.

Once information becomes sequestered, it becomes nearly impossible to know what has been lost if one doesn’t know what originally was there.

Thus, there is growing anxiety developing among many scientists who rely on the vast cache of data housed on government servers that key data may become sequestered or unavailable for public access.

Many researchers further fear a crusade by the Trump Administration against the scientific information provided to the public; the National Centers for Environmental Information may be one federal agency especially vulnerable to having vital information sequestered or removed from ready access.

The proposed deep budget cuts for several government agencies have added to the fears of important databases being selectively reduced or removed

Very often, public discussions on controversial topics such as climate change are based on summaries, reviews, and interpretations of the scientific data collected by research scientists.

Such documents, often prepared by administrators, generally are valuable; but it also is essential that the primary scientific reports on which these summaries are based continue to be available to “fact-check” the ideas on which the summaries are based, or to verify that one is receiving a balanced rather than a biased selection of information.

If original data and reports are difficult to access, we become vulnerable to an Administration and its interest groups who may provide the public with incomplete or biased information.

It is essential that, whatever our political orientations, and even independent of our personal views on controversial issues such as climate change, that all sides have full access to all of the primary data and original studies. While it is proper and healthy to have disagreements on interpretations, we still need all of the information to be available to everyone if we are to fairly and fully resolve these issues.

If access to full information continues to be restricted by the Trump Administration, a serious risk is that we could become vulnerable to hearing only the information that the Administration and their special interest groups deem suitable.

Sequestering data prevents the free access that is essential to progress. I firmly believe it is essential to ensure that all scientific data on government websites and in government libraries remain fully accessible to the public.

Similarly, the summaries, reviews and interpretations of those data developed by agency scientists also must remain fully accessible.

Only then can there be genuine and fair-minded discussions for making rational decisions. Good science, effective problem solving, and genuine societal growth and maturity depend on that.

Richard G. Botzler is a scientist and McKinleyville resident.

Note: The Humboldt March for Science takes place Saturday, April 22 in Arcata. Further details check the Humboldt March for Science facebook page, and this newspaper. – Ed.

 







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