A brain drain among government scientists bogs down Biden’s climate ambitions

Written by: Coral Davenport, Lisa Friedman and Christopher Flavelle

Juliette Hart quit her job last summer as an oceanographer for the US Geological Survey (USGS), where she used climate models to help coastal communities plan for rising seas. She said she was demoralized after four years of the Trump administration, in which political appointees pressured her to delete or downplay mentions of climate change.

“It’s easy and quick to leave government, not so quick for government to regain the talent,” said Hart, whose job remains vacant.

President Donald Trump’s battle against climate science — his appointees undermined federal studies, fired scientists and drove many experts to quit or retire — continues to reverberate six months into the Biden administration. From the Agriculture Department to the Pentagon to the National Park Service, hundreds of jobs in climate and environmental science across the federal government remain vacant.

Scientists and climate policy experts who quit have not returned. Recruitment is suffering, according to federal employees, as government science jobs are no longer viewed as insulated from politics. And money from Congress to replenish the ranks could be years away.

The result is that President Joe Biden’s ambitious plans to confront climate change are hampered by a brain drain.

“The attacks on science have a much longer lifetime than just the lifetime of the Trump administration,” said John Holdren, professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard and a top science adviser to President Barack Obama during his two terms.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, new climate rules and clean-air regulations ordered by Biden could be held up for months or even years, according to interviews with 10 current and former EPA climate policy staff members.

The Interior Department has lost scientists who study the impacts of drought, heatwaves and rising seas caused by a warming planet. The Agriculture Department has lost economists who study the impacts of climate change on the food supply. The Energy Department has a shortage of experts who design efficiency standards for appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators to reduce the pollution they emit.

And at the Defense Department, an analysis of the risks to national security from global warming was not completed by its original May deadline, which was extended by 60 days, an agency spokesperson said.

Biden has set the most forceful agenda to drive down planet-warming fossil fuel emissions of any president. Some of his plans to curb emissions depend on Congress to pass legislation. But a good portion could be accomplished by the executive branch — if the president had the staff and resources.

Although the Biden administration has installed more than 200 political appointees across the government in senior positions focused on climate and the environment, even supporters say it has been slow to rehire the senior scientists and policy experts who translate research and data into policy and regulations.

White House officials said the Biden administration had nominated more than twice as many senior scientists and science policy officials as the Trump administration had by this time, and was moving to fill dozens of vacancies on federal boards and commissions.

It has also created climate change positions in agencies that didn’t previously have them, such as the Health and Human Services Department and the Treasury Department.

“The administration has been very clear about marshalling an all-of-government approach that makes climate change a critical piece of our domestic, national security and foreign policy, and we continue to move swiftly to fill out science roles in the administration to ensure that science, truth and discovery have a place in government again,” a spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said in a statement.

During the Trump years, the number of scientists and technical experts at the USGS, an agency of the Interior Department and one of the nation’s premier climate-science research institutions, fell to 3,152 in 2020 from 3,434 in 2016, a loss of about 8 per cent.

Two agencies in the Agriculture Department that produce climate research to help farmers lost 75 per cent of their employees after the Trump administration relocated their offices in 2019 from Washington to Kansas City, Missouri, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.

At the EPA, the number of environmental protection specialists dropped to 1,630 from 2,152, a 24 per cent decline, according to a House science committee report, which called the losses “a blow to the heart” of the agency. The EPA is operating under its Trump-era budget of about $9 billion, which pays for 14,172 employees. Biden has asked Congress to increase that to $11.2 billion.

At the same time, Biden has directed the EPA to write ambitious new rules reining in climate-warming pollution from vehicle tailpipes, power plants, and oil and gas wells, while also restoring Obama-era rules on toxic mercury pollution and wetlands protection.

Some EPA scientists are facing a mountain of work that was left untouched by the Trump administration.

The USGS lost hundreds of scientists during the tenure of James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist appointed to be a director by Trump. Reilly sought to limit the scientific data that was used in modelling the future impacts of climate change.

As a research scientist at the USGS, Margaret Hiza Redsteer ran the Navajo Land Use Planning Project, which studied climate change to help tribal officials plan for drought. Funding for her project was abruptly cancelled in 2017; Redsteer resigned shortly after.

Now, the Biden administration finds itself confronting a megadrought in the Southwest, as well as pressure to address the impacts of climate change on tribal nations. Redsteer said no one had been hired to continue her work.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies the federal workforce, said the Biden administration must focus on modernizing recruitment and improving human resource departments.

“I don’t think it’s a simple story of ‘The last administration was anti-science and the current administration is pro-science so everything’s going to be fine,’” Steir said. “And there’s no law you can pass that will fix all of this.”

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