Tracking the Silencing of Science

BY HANK REICHMAN

Issued in December, the AAUP’s report, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom,” examines politically motivated threats to scientific research, with emphasis on threats to climate science and on the initial actions of the Trump administration.  As one of the authors of this report I learned how daunting, if not near-impossible, it can be to keep up with the administration’s myriad assaults on science.  In many respects the AAUP’s report only touched the surface.  Another report, Sidelining Science Since Day One, issued last summer by the the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, also cataloged incidents during the administration’s first six months.

Now the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia University School of Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund have joined to create a “Silencing Science Tracker,” which “is intended to record reports of government attempts to ‘silence science’ since the November 2016 election.”   Currently only actions taken by the federal government are covered, but the site plans to add state-level actions in the future.  The tracker defines “silencing science” to include “any action that has the effect of restricting or prohibiting scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information.”  The actions are organized into six categories:

Category Examples
Government Censorship
  • Changing the content of websites and documents to suppress or distort scientific information.
  • Making scientific data more difficult to find or access.
  • Restricting public communication by scientists.
Self-Censorship
  • Scientists voluntarily changing the content of websites and documents to suppress or distort scientific information, potentially in response to political pressure.

We note that it is often difficult to determine whether self-censorship is occurring and/or its cause. We do not take any position on the accuracy of any individual report on self-censorship.

Budget Cuts
  • Reducing funding for existing agency programs involving scientific research or scientific education.
  • Cancelling existing grants for scientific research or scientific education.

We do not include, in the “budget cuts” category, government decisions to refuse new grant applications or funding for new agency programs.

Personnel Changes
  • Removing scientists from agency positions or creating a hostile work environment.
  • Appointing unqualified individuals to, or failing to fill, scientific positions.
  • Changing the composition of scientific advisory boards or other committees to remove qualified scientists or add only industry-favored members.
Research Hindrance
  • Destroying data needed to undertake scientific research.
  • Preventing or restricting the publication of scientific research.
  • Pressuring scientists to change research findings.
Bias and Misrepresentation
  • Engaging in “cherry picking” or only disclosing certain scientific studies (e.g., that support a particular conclusion).
  • Misrepresenting or mischaracterizing scientific studies.
  • Disregarding scientific studies or advice in policy-making.

Visitors to the site can sort tracker entries by category, as well as agency and date.

The Sabin Center also maintains a Climate Deregulation Tracker which identifies attempts to scale back federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures.

One thought on “Tracking the Silencing of Science

  1. What is happening now with science stems from a growing problem over the last 20 years, which is the fact that both sides of the debate can no longer agree on what the FACTS are. Facts have become relative and the idea is now accepted (especially among the extreme right and extreme left) that you can have your own version of the facts. Of course, with science, it used to be that the consensus view within the scientific community is what policy was based on. Now, if there is even a small group of dissenters, their voices are magnified and used as the excuse to question the majority consensus, which is a slippery slope we can’t seem to get out of.

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