As Election Day Nears, Taking Stock of an Expertise Exodus

Eight former government scientists reflect on the circumstances that drove them to leave the Trump administration.

Starre Vartan and Jenny Morber

October 27, 2020

Betsy Southerland, who joined the Environmental Protection Agency in 1984, says this is the most important election of her lifetime. That's because she's seen the effects of the Donald J. Trump administration's policies on American science firsthand: "In all the Republican and Democratic administrations I've worked for, everyone really did want to protect public health and the environment," says Southerland, an environmental scientist who retired as director of science and technology in the Office of Water in 2017. But for this administration, she adds, "there is no intent to protect public health and the environment."

Southerland is far from the only former government scientist deeply concerned about the state of science-based policy under the Trump administration.

Since Trump took office in January 2017, many federal scientists have reported that the administration has undermined or dismissed their work. Some have been fired. Others have left in frustration or protest. Experts have described administration officials suppressing references to climate change in research, testimony, and public communication. They have also described Trump appointees meddling with everything from nutrition research to Covid-19 data to mining and survey reports.

Even long-term federal scientists accustomed to weathering the shifting priorities of new leadership have found themselves struggling to reconcile administration directives and scientific integrity. "In past administrations, even through the Bush years, there was at least a desire to recognize science," says Pasky Pascual, a former data scientist and lawyer at the EPA who left in 2017 after 23 years of service.

"With this administration," he adds, "there's both the rear-door, meta attack on science, as well as just a complete and blatant disregard for what I would consider to be sound peer-reviewed science."

Those conditions appear to have driven an exodus of expertise. In January, an analysis of Office of Personnel Management employment data by The Washington Post found that 1,600 government scientists had left in the first two years of Trump's presidency. Entire research groups have been eliminated or moved. A 2018 survey of more than 4,000 government scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 79 percent had experienced "workforce reductions during the last year due to staff departures, retirements, and/or hiring freezes."

Thinning the Ranks of Government Science

A survey of some of the government researchers, scientists, and related staff who have been sidelined, forced out, or compelled to leave during the Trump administration. (Sources: Interviews and media reports.)

NAME AGENCY DEPARTED REASON ROLE
Carter, Jacob EPA January 2017 Left believing that his work had no future in the EPA Postdoctoral Fellow, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
Hottle, Troy EPA September 2017 Left believing that his work had no future in the EPA Postdoctoral Fellow, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
Pascual, Pasky EPA September 2017 Retired early in frustration Data Scientist/Lawyer
Klein, Richard FDA September 2017 Retired in frustration Director, Patient Liaison Program
Etherton, Brian NOAA September 2017 Resigned in frustration Meteorologist, Global Systems Division, Earth System Research Laboratories
Clement, Joel DOI October 2017 Demoted, then resigned in protest Director, Office of Policy Analysis
Hitzman, Murray USGS December 2017 Resigned in protest Associate Director for Energy and Minerals
Meinert, Larry USGS January 2018 Retired due to incident Deputy Associate Director for Energy and Minerals
Costa, Dan EPA January 2018 Retired in frustration National Program Director, Air Climate & Energy Research Program
Zarba, Chris EPA February 2018 Retired in frustration Director of the Science Advisory Board Staff Office
Williamson, Ann EPA March 2018 Retired in frustration Associate Director, EPA Region 10
Bloom, Aaron DOE November 2018 Sidelined, then resigned because he felt his government career was over Manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Alson, Jeff EPA April 2018 Retired in frustration Senior Engineer and Policy Adviser, Office of Transportation and Air Quality
Smith, Betsy EPA June 2018 Retired in frustration Associate National Program Director, Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program
Etzel, Ruth EPA September 2018 Placed on non-disciplinary leave after conflict with EPA leadership Director, Office of Children’s Health Protection
Rockman, Marcy NPS November 2018 Resigned in protest Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources
Stacy, Brian USDA February 2019 Left after division suddenly relocated Economist, Food Economics Branch of the USDA’s Economic Research Service
Caffrey, Maria NPS February 2019 Dismissed, funding pulled Climate scientist, National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate
Borio, Luciana NSC March 2019 Left due to organizational and leadership changes Director, Medical and Biodefense Preparedness
Davis, Matthew EPA May 2019 Resigned in protest Congressional Liaison Specialist
Quick, Linda CDC July 2019 Position dissolved Resident Adviser to the U.S. Field Epidemiology Training Program in China
Melnick, Rachel USDA July 2019 Left after division suddenly relocated National Program Leader, Agroclimatology and Agricultural Production
Schoonover, Rod DOS July 2019 Resigned in protest Senior Scientist and Senior Analyst, Bureau of Intelligence and Research
Ziska, Lewis USDA August 2019 Resigned in protest Research Plant Physiologist, Agricultural Research Service
Johnson, Randi USDA September 2019 Resigned after office relocated Division Director, Global Climate Change
MacDonald, James USDA September 2019 Left after division suddenly relocated Chief of the Structure, Technology, and Productivity branch, Economic Research Service
Cavallaro, Nancy USDA September 2019 Retired early due to frustration with political appointees and office relocation National Program Leader, USDA NIFA
Rubenstein, Kelly Day USDA September 2019 Left after division suddenly relocated Economist
Crane-Droesch, Andrew USDA October 2019 Resigned after office relocated Research Economist
Lauxman, Lisa USDA October 2019 Retired after office relocated Director, Division Youth and 4-H, USDA NIFA
Bright, Rick HHS October 2020 Sidelined, then resigned Director, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority

Some analysts say even these statistics obscure the full scope of the impact. A report on EPA staffing changes by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a volunteer-run advocacy group, finds that "employees who have been there the longest and shouldered high levels of responsibility make up a disproportionate share of those departing." Our own reporting indicates the same pattern across other government agencies.

Administration policies have also led to changes in scientific advisory boards: expert panels, usually composed of academic scientists, that shape policy on everything from pollution standards to pandemic preparedness. Some have been cut. Others have been restructured, in ways that experts say produce more favorable outcomes for political leaders.

"The way [Trump] changes things is he breaks it apart and then tries to put it together again, and the problem is at a federal level, it's easy to break, it's hard to reassemble," says Randi Johnson, a plant geneticist who says she was pushed out of U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2019, after 28 years.

"Everything that's been undone is not going to be redone in four years," she adds. "This is a long-term impact."

With Covid-19 sweeping through the country and climate change contributing to increasingly frequent and extreme weather events, it is clear that scientific expertise means more than rocket launches and cell phones: It is safe food, breathable air, and human lives. To understand the depth and breadth of expertise lost during this administration, we drew on news stories, tips, and interviews with scientists who felt compelled to leave. We wanted to connect the dots between disparate stories, the full impact of which is sometimes lost in a rapidly churning news cycle. We tell eight of those scientists' stories below.

Jeff Alson, engineer. Former agency: Environmental Protection Agency. Date departed: April 2018.

During his 40-year career at the EPA, Jeff Alson helped create modern regulations on automobile emissions. Today, when a new car's fuel efficiency rating is posted on a window sticker, that is thanks, in part, to Alson. When a car accelerates without leaving a smoke cloud, Alson's work on reducing pollutants helped make that happen. And when a vehicle travels 30 miles for every gallon of gas instead of the 10 a car could manage in the 1970s, that progress reflects the fuel efficiency standards developed by Alson and his colleagues at the EPA.

But, soon after Trump's inauguration, Alson says his Michigan-based team found themselves stonewalled by administration officials and colleagues at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Finally, in January 2018 after a year of mostly silence and a few what Alson calls "sham meetings," Alson's team at the EPA met with experts at NHTSA over videoconference to review the data they would report to superiors on proposed fuel efficiency standards.

Alson had expected a somewhat routine review meeting. In 2016 under the Obama administration, NHTSA and the EPA had collaborated on a study confirming that, by implementing existing technology, automakers could dramatically improve fuel efficiency and save Americans $100 billion.

But he says, "All of a sudden, the very same standards that they had said back in 2016 would save American society nearly $100 billion, all of a sudden NHTSA is projecting that those same standards will cost American society over $200 billion.

"It was like you're telling me that the sky is green, you know, or the earth is flat," Alson says, recalling the table projected onto the wall in their conference room in Ann Arbor.

"It's like, you know, what the fuck, how in the world could these numbers be real?" he adds. The new, seemingly doctored analysis would rob the public of savings at the pump, exacerbate climate change, and increase pollution. (EPA and NHTSA have said the fuel efficiency rules that emerged from this analysis were based on "hundreds of thousands of public comments" and "extensive scientific and economic analyses".)

Feeling betrayed by people he had worked with for years, and worried that his decades of contributions to the public were being unraveled, Alson decided to leave the agency in April 2018. "I left when I did," he says now, "because of what was going on with this work that I had been so proud of."

Marcy Rockman, archaeologist. Former agency: National Park Service. Date departed: November 2018.

Marcy Rockman was the first person to hold her position at the National Park Service. She now fears she will be the last, at least for awhile.

An archaeologist who was "really interested in solving modern environmental problems, using archaeology as a tool," Rockman was hired in 2011 to lead efforts of the National Park Service to understand how climate change would affect the national parks system's cultural resources — including archaeological sites, landscapes, and historic buildings — and to help park managers prepare for those coming changes.

One-quarter of the country's 400-plus national parks are in coastal areas that are already being affected by sea-level rise. Some inland sites are threatened by extreme weather events.

Her job was unique: On U.S. federal lands, the work of preserving and protecting ancient and historical sites mostly falls to the NPS. Rockman drew on scientific research to help parks figure out what was happening on their land and plan for changes — identifying if a historic building was threatened by sea-level rise, for example, or ensuring park infrastructure was built or rebuilt in places that were less vulnerable.

In some cases, Rockman also advised entire parks under threat from climate change impacts. Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of mainland Florida, built in the 19th century, is sinking as sea level rises. Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what became the United States, is being saturated by rising groundwater – an issue that Rockman helped the park manager map.

Shortly after Trump's inauguration, Rockman says, several officials who had been supportive of her work left. In an email, she wrote that she began seeing "career level officials taking steps that blocked action on climate change." She also says she saw two incidents of scientific misconduct that were ignored by her superiors. Frustrated, and feeling that others in the agency, taking cues from the administration, were retaliating against her, Rockman left NPS in 2018 — in order, she says, "to protect the integrity of my position.

Chris Zarba, environmental scientist. Former agency: Environmental Protection Agency. Date departed: February 2018.

Over his 38 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, Chris Zarba developed new methods to assess hazardous waste sites, worked to reduce harmful substances after disasters like the 9/11 attacks, and helped foreign governments develop safety standards for contaminants in water and seafood. In 2012, he became director of the EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) Staff Office, managing a carefully vetted group of experts tasked with reviewing the science behind important EPA directives.

"I have been in the job under Republicans and Democrats, and they all had their emphasis, but it was always within the bounds of reasonable," says Zarba. Under the Trump administration, he says, science itself was being attacked.

"I truly believed in what that organization did," Zarba says of his work at SAB. "It's amazing how important it is to the credibility of the agency." Soon after Trump tapped Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator, Pruitt told Zarba many of his experts had to go, forcing him to fire any scientist who had an EPA grant. "We had to exclude anybody from being considered that had a grant, but those same rules didn't apply to industry folks," Zarba says.

"Basically, they wanted to clean house and then put the people that they wanted into those positions that they thought they could get more favorable reviews from," Zarba adds. (Pruitt defended the decision as a way to prevent conflicts of interest. Courts later struck down the policy of excluding EPA grantees as illegal.)

Feeling that there was little more he could do to help under an administration with a "clear and consistent emphasis on sidelining science and circumventing the mission of the EPA," Zarba retired in February 2018. He now does work for the nonprofit Environmental Protection Network, analyzing EPA policy under the Trump administration.

"If you know what's going on and you care, you really can't just walk away from it," Zarba says. "I see what's going on. This is not what I wanted to be doing in my retirement, but how can you not step up?"

Larry Meinert, geologist. Former agency: U.S. Geological Survey. Date departed: January 2018.

After 30 years as a geology professor at Washington State University and Smith College, Larry Meinert took his training and expertise to the federal government. He spent one year advising Congress on resource and environment issues. Then, Meinert says, he was recruited into the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 as coordinator of the mineral resources program.

The USGS wanted to "turn the program around," Meinert says, and so "I was brought in because of my standing in the field, not only as a professor, but I'm also the editor of the main scientific journal in this field." Meinert oversaw the funding and research of teams of scientists who did resource assessments. Using geological, geophysical, geochemical, and remote sensing data, they would estimate the amount of a resource in a location.

These official USGS estimates are "the gold standard for these sort of assessments," says Meinert. State governments, international agencies, and companies all draw on the reports.

"The information has direct economic impact on people," he says. "It affects stock prices."

As a result, these USGS reports are published under what Meinert describes as a "fairly strict scientific protocol," and nobody outside the research team is able to view the results before they are released. Doing so, according to USGS guidelines called the Fundamental Science Practices, could "result in unfair advantage or the perception of unfair advantage."

USGS scientists in Meinert's division were working on a report on oil and gas on the North Slope of Alaska in 2017 when, he says, the protocol was violated for its release. Political appointees at the Department of the Interior, later identified as then-Secretary Ryan Zinke and his deputy, "basically insisted upon seeing it beforehand," Meinert says, a move that "violates our fundamental scientific protocols." (In 2018, a department spokesperson argued the officials did have legal authority to view the information.)

Meinert's supervisor, the associate director of the energy and minerals program, Murray Hitzman, quit because of the breach. In January 2018, Meinert retired due to this incident, as well as other "disagreements with the administration."

Brian Etherton, meteorologist. Former agency: National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration. Date departed: September 2017.

Brian Etherton specializes in predicting hurricanes, major storms, and droughts. Trained as a meteorologist, he joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in March 2011, helping the agency create computer models of the atmosphere, and improve their efficiency, for quicker, for more accurate weather prediction from its offices in Boulder Colorado.

After Trump won the election, Etherton made another kind of prediction: that the government would put policy over science and slash NOAA's budget. (He was partly correct: The administration has consistently pushed for substantial cuts to NOAA funding, but final Congressional appropriations have softened the impact, and research budgets have remained relatively stable, including moderate increases to Etherton's former division.) In September 2017, he took his high-tech prediction skills to private industry. "There was an element of, well if the American people, if this is what you all chose, then why should I carry on working on your behalf?" Etherton says now of his decision.

Today, Etherton helps high-paying customers use weather data to make trades on commodities markets. "If someone can know before everybody else, what the forecast is going to be, then they can position themselves financially to benefit from it," he says.

Etherton admits that with his move from NOAA to private industry, he has become part of a kind of de-democratization of information about the planet, which evokes, he says, "a very unpleasant feeling." He remains conflicted about his choice to leave. His work today, unlike that for NOAA, is valuable precisely because it's not public. "We're actually trying to limit what we do to maybe five or six customers, each paying you know, six figures," he says.

"We would absolutely not want it freely available because then nobody would pay us for it," he adds.

Etherton says his particular skill set at NOAA has not been replaced. "What I did, there's now nobody there that does it," he says. "I still get emails like, 'What does this mean? We are still working on this, but we don't quite understand.'"

Nancy Cavallaro, soil scientist. Former agency: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Date departed: September 2019.

As a senior official at USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Nancy Cavallaro helped set the agenda for government agricultural research. Trained as a soil scientist, Cavallaro reviewed grants for research, education and outreach aimed at improving U.S. agriculture and nutrition, and communicated the results of this work to Congress and the public. She enjoyed connecting the dots and bringing the science to the people. "It's just a nice, a nice mission," she says.

Cavallaro, who joined the USDA in January of 2001, had served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. But under Trump, Cavallaro says, political agenda began pushing the science aside. Trump administration appointees elbowed into decisions about what projects should get funding, and how much money should be allocated. Those decisions were supposed to be decided by outside panels, based on scientific merit. But increasingly, she says, political appointees who "didn't even understand the science" or "how science works" insisted on full control over the process.

At first, Cavallaro stayed, feeling an obligation to the scientists who had worked so hard on programs she helped to build. But when the Trump administration suddenly announced they were moving her office from Washington, D.C. to Missouri — a contentious relocation, defended as a cost-saving measure, that, according to one estimate, had cost the USDA 250 employees as of September 2019 — she decided to leave. "It's not just the policies, it's also the treatment, you know?" she says. "When they decided to move our agency, they were just really nasty to people who were having problems with it."

When she retired in 2019, Cavallaro gave up a portion of the pension and recognition that comes from 20 years of service, having missed the benchmark by just five months. She worries now whether the institute will be able to replace the lost expertise — and the years of connections, relationships, and knowledge that staff had accumulated. "A lot of good people have left," she says. "A lot."

Rod Schoonover, senior scientist. Former agency: Bureau for Intelligence and Research, Department of State. Date departed: July 2019.

In June 2019, Rod Schoonover, a senior intelligence analyst, testified before a congressional committee about the national security implications of climate change. His written testimony, though, is not available on any government website. The Trump administration took the rare step of preventing it from being entered into the Congressional Record.

It wasn't the first time Schoonover had faced resistance from the administration. As a senior scientist for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) — a small agency known for expressing skepticism regarding the belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction — Schoonover studied how climate change, scientific breakthroughs, emerging technologies, and other forces would affect the security interests of the United States.

Formerly a chemistry and biochemistry professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Schoonover joined INR in 2009 on a one-year fellowship, found he was good at the work, and stayed on. When the Trump administration took over in 2017, he says he "expected the policy change," but kept doing the work he says he loved.

He soon faced hostility from officials, though, for his analysis of environmental issues. He describes his interactions at the White House as "some of the worst meetings I've experienced as an adult."

In June 2019, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence invited him to testify on climate change impacts to national security. Schoonover drafted a statement beforehand, and INR's senior leadership approved it. But he says the White House, objecting to the inclusion of climate science, suppressed the testimony. "They had personnel on staff whose only job, it seemed, was to fight mainstream climate science," Schoonover says. "When this statement for the record came across their inboxes they jumped on it. He describes their responses as "highly personal, unscientific, largely cherry picked" and in keeping with "the climate denial industry that has popped up in the last 20 years."

Schoonover resigned in protest in July 2019. "I'm a pretty firm believer that if you resign for either professional reasons or moral reasons," he says, "that you should do it noisily."

 

Maria Caffrey, climate scientist. Former agency: National Park Service. Date departed: February 2019.

Maria Caffrey joined the National Park Service full time in 2012, modeling the effects of sea-level rise on coastal sites in the park system. She was soon tasked with producing a major report on climate change and coastal parks, which she submitted in the summer of 2016. Then she waited. She kept waiting through the 2016 election and Trump's inauguration in January 2017. The head of the NPS Climate Change Response Program told her it would be released that May.

In May, it was still delayed. Her supervisor, she says, told her that the Trump administration didn't want to generate press about climate change. In September, NPS staff delayed further, citing the then-active hurricane season.

The funding for her job ended that month, but NPS kept her on at a much-reduced rate. Caffrey stayed, even taking maternity leave without pay. In an email, she said she was "devoted to the NPS mission," and that "as an immigrant, one thing that always drew me to NPS is that it was a way to contribute to America's legacy in a really meaningful way."

Meanwhile, her report was still on hold. "While I was out on maternity leave, they had sent it up the chain to the associate director, a guy named Ray Sauvajot," she says, "and he was making edits to take out the human causes of climate change from that report, without my permission."

Caffrey also says Sauvajot shouted at her for using scientific terms like "anthropogenic climate change." After she changed it to the more accessible "human-caused climate change," she says, "that's when they came clean and said, 'No, we don't think the Trump administration will like that.'" The words stayed after NPR reported on the fight, and the report was released in May 2018. (NPS did not respond to Undark's request for comment.)

Caffrey worked for another year at the intern pay level of $25,000 per year. When her boss applied for money to hire her back at full salary, the request was denied. Caffrey left the NPS in February 2019 and filed a whistleblower complaint that July. "I have no doubt in my mind, this was retaliation," she says, for "saying no to the associate director of the National Park Service."

Starre Vartan is a former geologist who's now an independent science journalist; but she still picks up rocks wherever she goes. Jenny Morber is a former researcher and current freelance science writer and journalist in the Pacific Northwest.

Fran Monks is a British portrait photographer who, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been experimenting with remote portraiture through video calls.

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