Scientists Must Shape Our Future as They Have Shaped Our Past: Perspective of the Former US EPA Administrator

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Excerpt

As former Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Obama, I know that today is a time of significant challenge and perhaps change for public health and environmental protection in this country. That is why I spoke at the March for Science in Boston this year in support of our scientists. That is why I reminded the next generation of scientists of the importance of the work ahead when I was honored to deliver this year’s commencement address at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). And that is why I am writing this article today. I want to share some of the thoughts I delivered in these speeches with the scientists who are faithful readers and contributors of Epidemiology. I want you to know that in America we recognize and appreciate the work you do. Scientists have changed the world for the better, and we need you now more than ever before.
It is a time of great uncertainty for scientists and for science itself. It is a time when the progress we have made over the past 4+ decades to build the world’s strongest economy on a foundation of strong health and environmental standards is at risk of being rolled back or set aside.1 It is a time when science tells us that the risks to our health and well-being are growing increasingly complex, yet we are facing leadership in Washington that seeks to diminish investments in the very people, institutions, tools, and programs that deliver the data we need to survive and to thrive.
That’s why those of us who share a passion for public health and a respect for our environment and natural resources, must speak up for sound, credible, independent research. We must reject carefully disguised bills like the HONEST Act2 and the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act3 that claim to improve science transparency or the peer review process. If passed, they would undermine this country’s scientific credibility and act as a catalyst to unravel public health protections that have long enjoyed bipartisan support and helped deliver clean air, water, and land to millions of American families. We must reject budgets that slash support for science4 simply because the facts don’t conveniently align with political agendas or donor interests. We must reject current efforts to inhibit or eliminate public access to scientific data and analysis. And we must fight back against blatant attempts to limit the public’s ability to meaningfully participate in the rulemaking process, including budget riders that legislate science5 or eliminate the public’s right to appeal rulemaking decisions that could rollback critical clean water protections.6 We cannot fail to ensure that all final rules are actually being implemented and enforced unless a court has said otherwise.7
So we all have to be ready—even scientists—to speak truth to power as we said in the 60s or 70s. And we have to speak in ways that nonscientists can understand.
I was proud to stand with many scientists both young and old this spring at Boston’s March for Science. While the speeches were great, the signs were terrific. One of them said “Society should worry when geeks have to demonstrate”; another said: “Got polio? Me neither! Thanks, science!”
Clever, right? Well, scientists have to be clever these days. Many of you are being asked to not just conduct important research, but to professionally and personally defend that research.
I know that this is not the role you signed up for or were prepared to take on.
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