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June 14, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Science for All? Confronting Inequities and Envisioning Federal Science as a Public Good

by Gretchen T. Goldman

Science is a public good. This has long been the American vision, from Benjamin Franklin’s hope that the people, armed with knowledge, could govern effectively, to Abraham Lincoln’s belief that the power of innovation and advancement of scientific pursuits could lead us forward as a nation when he founded the National Academy of Sciences. But have we ever lived up to this vision?

Our history has told a different story. Much technical and ecological knowledge from the Native Americans was lost and, in fact, European settlers weaponized science against them in one of the greatest genocides in human history. Though long debunked, race science was used to justify slavery and continues to persist in different forms in the present day. It is clear that our nation has fallen short on the promise of science for the public.

Today, there are vast inequities when it comes to both who is conducting science and who benefits from its investments.

Today, there are vast inequities when it comes to both who is conducting science and who benefits from its investments.

Today, there are vast inequities when it comes to both who is conducting science and who benefits from its investments. The Joseph R. Biden Jr. administration has pledged to center racial equity and science across its administration and has taken some bold early steps. But we have an uphill climb. The new administration will be tasked not only with cleaning up the wreckage from four years of disdain for science and harm to already marginalized populations, but it also must address the longstanding inequities that existed long before President Donald J. Trump walked through the White House doors. Completing such monumental tasks will require more than the usual policy tools. We must rethink processes, structures, and personnel to even make a dent in the inequities we know exist across government and scientific and academic communities. Below is the federal scientific landscape the Biden administration has inherited and how new federal leadership can re-envision science as a public good that truly benefits everyone.

Building Back: Repairing Trump’s Damage to Science and People

The Trump administration sidelined, suppressed, and dismantled science across the government at an unprecedented rate. My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), documented 200 attacks on science under Trump, a number that dwarfs those of any president in the past seven decades. Each of these attacks represents real damage that will take time to repair. The Biden team is essentially starting the race several meters back from the starting line and will need to pick up the pieces before they can make progress toward their own agenda.

Some things will be quick fixes. The Biden administration has already begun revoking executive orders, reissuing agency guidance, and putting scientists back in the public light. But other elements will take longer to rebuild. The Trump administration wreaked havoc on the rulemaking system, jamming through rules that, if left in place, could hinder federal science agencies’ abilities to meet their missions for years to come. The courts have played a significant role in knocking down many of the most ill-advised and least defensible Trump actions, but others have survived the courts intact. The Biden administration will need to start the long rulemaking process again with all the work required to propose rules, collect and consider public feedback, and follow the necessary steps to enacting new agency rules robust enough to survive any legal challenges.

Unfortunately, significant time will need to be devoted to these efforts under the Biden administration. The best we can hope for is that new political leaders can kill two birds with one stone and introduce needed and strengthened rules at the same time they are revoking harmful ones. For example, the Trump administration greatly expanded opportunities for fossil fuel companies to lease, drill, and emit more on public lands. Repairing that damage to the climate, environment, and communities provides an opportunity to develop and implement public lands policies that better align with climate emissions reduction goals, environmental protection, and respect for Native sovereignty and culture. Likewise, addressing the Trump administration’s “gifts” to the chemical industry in the form of policy changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an opportunity to take a more holistic look at how we protect people, especially sensitive groups, from harmful chemicals from cumulative effects of all exposure pathways and sources.

Another significant barrier to advancing science-based policy decisions is a depleted and demoralized workforce. The last four years saw an exodus of scientific staff from federal science agencies. According to a 2021 UCS analysis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture lost 75 percent of their employees after offices were abruptly relocated by the Trump administration; and the EPA lost more than 1,000 scientific staff between early 2017 and mid-2019. The Biden team will need people, especially technical experts, to do the tremendous amount of work already stacked on their desks. Hiring must be prioritized and expedited across the government, especially for science positions.

Thankfully, the Biden administration appears to be tackling these issues head-on. In its first month, the administration issued the Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. The order lays out a path by which the administration can strengthen the federal scientific enterprise by putting in place policies and practices that will better protect science and scientists against any future presidents who might be hostile to science. The order asks for the regular review of scientific integrity policies at federal agencies, mandates that science agencies have chief scientists and scientific integrity officials, and provides a mechanism for public input into its review of agency scientific integrity.

On federal scientific integrity, the administration can hit the ground running. Years of surveys of federal scientists, policy analysis of agency scientific integrity and communications policies, and decades of case studies provide a wealth of data on how best to protect science and scientists from political interference. And many such protections are low-hanging fruit: ask all agencies to allow scientists to speak with the media; ensure that scientists have the right of last review on public-facing documents that rely on their work; prohibit political appointees from editing scientific content. These are no-brainer policies that some agencies have in place, but others alarmingly do not. The Biden administration could make quick and constructive progress by simply lifting the floor across all science agencies. On bigger lifts, like scientific integrity infrastructure and enforcement mechanisms, solutions will take longer to develop, but the presidential memo provides a path, and experts in both the government and public interest groups have the roadmap. From pandemic response to food safety to environmental protection, strengthening federal science allows the government to better serve the public.

Building Better: Addressing Disproportionate Harms Caused by Misuse and Neglect of Science

Black, Indigenous, and communities of color were disproportionately harmed by the Trump administration’s words and actions, and science policy is no exception. In many places across the federal government, agencies are charged with addressing inequities in government services or compensating for past damage, yet the Trump administration not only failed to follow these programs but actively worsened inequities by loosening pollution protections, imposing new restrictions on access to government services, and otherwise creating policies that benefit whiter, more affluent populations at the expense of communities of color and low-income communities. For instance, Trump officials ignored EPA scientists in failing to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that has been linked to neurological harm in children, notably in Latinx children who live near farmland or are the children of farmworkers.

In other examples, several Trump moves worsened existing inequities in air pollution exposure. The federal Clean Air Act is a blunt tool for addressing environmental justice issues, but the Trump administration took a sledgehammer to some of those few existing protections. Reversing three decades of precedent, the Trump EPA finalized a rule that allows major sources of hazardous air pollutants to be reclassified as area sources and increase emissions, putting nearby communities at risk of facing an even higher burden of industrial air pollution. When the Trump administration sidelined science, it was Black and brown communities that were harmed the most.

Both at the White House and federal agencies, the Biden team has taken some positive steps to address these inequities that were exacerbated under Trump. The Biden campaign named racial equity a top priority early on, and the administration’s political appointments and early actions have been promising. As one example, the Biden EPA has opened $6 million annually in environmental justice grants to communities and small nonprofits. Combined with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the EPA Office of Environmental Justice now has more funding than it has ever been provided since its founding.

The Biden White House also has begun taking steps to center racial equity issues within scientific work in novel ways. The presidential memo on scientific integrity mentioned above asks agencies to consider equity dimensions of federal scientific integrity in ways that were absent from the Obama White House (i.e., the last significant White House effort on the topic). The memo directs science agencies to advance “the equitable delivery of policies, programs, and agency operations,” including considerations for “community engagement and inclusion in research.” Further, it tasks agencies with publicly providing federal data disaggregated by gender, race, ethnicity, age, income, and other demographic factors that support researchers in understanding the effects of policies and programs on equity and justice. Such equity-focused data sharing efforts can go a long way in identifying communities most in need of government services in the wake of Trump. Such efforts are especially needed now in light of the threats to the U.S. Census made under Trump that may undercount undocumented immigrants and other marginalized groups.

The open-ended nature of several of the equity charges in the memo gives science agencies the flexibility to think outside the box and grants them the cover to try novel approaches that challenge processes that have long led to inequitable distribution of government services at science agencies. At the same time, it will be crucial for the Biden administration to fully implement the aims of the presidential memo and other efforts to make meaningful gains in addressing inequities at federal science agencies.

Building Bolder: Reckoning with Systemic Inequities

Political leaders must not fool themselves into believing that longstanding inequities can be addressed with quick or even feasible policy fixes. Even an incredible set of minds working steadily for four or eight years could not even hope to address the vast historic inequities that have been perpetuated in science and policy throughout U.S. history. These problems are bigger than a provision of a scientific integrity policy or changes to a federal budget. The Biden administration must think bigger, and now is the moment to start.

Many across the country are awakening to the reality of racial injustice that has always been. This provides a key opportunity for the Biden administration to take bolder actions, try new ideas, and head into unfamiliar territory when it comes to federal science and policy. If federal leaders put the same people in the room, we will get the same answer. Instead, the Biden administration can lift new voices and listen to those who have never before had the opportunity to implement their ideas on a large scale.

The Biden administration has already begun to disrupt longstanding precedent about who gets to sit at the decision-making table. The nation’s science advisor has been elevated to the cabinet level for the first time in U.S. history. Notably, the administration has appointed experienced environmental justice leaders to high-level posts. Dr. Cecilia Martinez is an environmental justice leader who, for decades, has directed and advised science and environmental justice initiatives, from working with grassroots organizations to fight environmental pollution, to advising Senator Cory Booker’s environmental justice legislation. Dr. Martinez is now the senior director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). In March, the administration announced the formation of a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. The 26-member panel brings directly to the White House an unprecedented level of depth, breadth, and diversity of expertise on the science, policy, and community engagement elements of environmental justice.

Thus far, there is indication that the administration is serious about taking on bold new policies when it comes to addressing racial and economic inequities. One example is the Justice40 Initiative in the Biden executive order, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The order includes a bold proposal mandating that, government-wide, 40 percent of benefits from federal investments around climate and energy go directly to disadvantaged communities and provides a mechanism to track progress toward that goal. CEQ and other agencies must now implement a never-before-done idea, but the administration has put Dr. Martinez and other experts and community voices in place to do the job right.

These are the kind of new leadership and ideas needed across the government and issue areas when it comes to science and equity. The Biden administration must keep going, keep listening to communities, and keep utilizing experts to ensure that the nation thinks bigger and bolder about how to chip away at longstanding inequities in who is served by the government’s use of science.


Internationally renowned environmental justice leader and 24-year EPA veteran Mustafa Santiago Ali has talked about pivotal moments in his career when factors aligned, mobilization happened, and big, seemingly immovable entities were moved; and real changes toward justice were enacted. It seems that we are now on the cusp of such a moment when it comes to science in U.S. policy.

Science can serve everyone, but, in a world of inequities, this doesn’t happen unless the people insist on it, unless our leaders use every legal and policy tool possible to ensure that inequities in the broader world aren’t reflected in scientific work and in government. Federal leaders must consciously step away from policy models that have long perpetuated inequities and push against the temptation to do what is comfortable, familiar, and easier. Only then can the United States hope to work toward science and policy that serve the long underserved.

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Dr. Gretchen T. Goldman

Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists

Dr. Gretchen T. Goldman is the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and has a decade of experience in science policy advocacy. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in atmospheric science from Cornell University.