A Brain Drain Among Government Scientists Bogs Down Biden’s Climate Ambitions
WASHINGTON — Juliette Hart quit her job last summer as an oceanographer for the United States Geological Survey, where she used climate models to help coastal communities plan for rising seas. She was demoralized after four years of the Trump administration, she said, in which political appointees pressured her to delete or downplay mentions of climate change.
“It’s easy quick to leave government, not so quick for government to regain the talent,” said Dr. Hart, whose job remains vacant.
President Donald J. Trump’s battle against climate science — his appointees undermined federal studies, fired scientists 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 environmental science across the federal government remain vacant.
Scientists 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 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 policy at Harvard a top science adviser to President Barack Obama during his two terms.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, new climate rules clean air regulations ordered by President Biden could be held up for months or even years, according to interviews with 10 current former E.P.A. climate policy staff members.
The Interior Department has lost scientists who study the impacts of drought, heat waves 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 like dishwashers 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 spokesman said.
Mr. 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 resources.
While the Biden administration has installed more than 200 political appointees across the government in senior positions focused on climate the environment, even supporters say it has been slow to rehire the senior scientists policy experts who translate research data into policy regulations.
White House officials said the Biden administration had nominated more than twice as many senior scientists science policy officials as the Trump administration had by this time, was moving to fill dozens of vacancies on federal boards commissions.
It has also created climate change positions in agencies that didn’t previously have them, like the Health Human Services Department or the Treasury Department.
“The administration has been very clear about marshaling an all-of-government approach that makes climate change a critical piece of our domestic, national security foreign policy, we continue to move swiftly to fill out science roles in the administration to ensure that science, truth discovery have a place in government again,” a spokesman, Vedant Patel, said in a statement.
During the Trump years, the number of scientists technical experts at the United States Geological Survey, an agency of the Interior Department 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 percent.
Two agencies within the Agriculture Department that produce climate research to help farmers lost 75 percent of their employees after the Trump administration relocated their offices in 2019 from Washington to Kansas City, Mo., according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.
And at the E.P.A., the number of environmental protection specialists dropped to 1,630 from 2,152, a 24 percent decline, according to a House science committee report, which called the losses “a blow to the heart” of the agency. The E.P.A. is operating under its Trump-era budget of about $9 billion, which pays for 14,172 employees. Mr. Biden has asked Congress to increase that to $11.2 billion.
At the same time, Mr. Biden has directed the E.P.A. to write ambitious new rules reining in climate-warming pollution from vehicle tailpipes, power plants oil gas wells, while also restoring Obama-era rules on toxic mercury pollution wetlands protection.
Some E.P.A. scientists are facing a mountain of work that was left untouched by the Trump administration.
One program, the Integrated Risk Information System, or I.R.I.S., evaluates the dangers of chemicals to human health. During the Obama administration, the program completed studies on the effects of 31 potentially harmful chemicals. During the Trump administration, the program completed just one — on RDX, a toxic chemical explosive used in military operations.
“There is a massive backlog,” said Vincent Cogliano, the former head of risk information system, who retired in 2019. “A lot of people have left, that will make it harder.”
The problem is made worse by a feeling among young scientists that federal research can be derailed by politics.
“My students have told me, I believe in what E.P.A.’s s trying to do, but I’m worried that the outcomes of my work will be dictated by the political leaders not by what the science actually says,” said Stan Meiburg, who directs graduate studies in sustainability at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. He left his 38-year career at the E.P.A. the day before Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
The U.S. Geological Survey lost hundreds of scientists during the tenure of James Reilly, a former astronaut petroleum geologist appointed to be director by Mr. Trump. Mr. Reilly sought to limit the scientific data that was used in modeling the future impacts of climate change.
“What I saw under the Trump administration, particularly under director Reilly, was a perfect storm — a situation where there was interference with the science, inefficient micromanagement that bogged us down, also negligence of key missions,” said Mark Sogge, a former research ecologist with the agency who retired in January after filing a complaint against Mr. Reilly.
“Were there long-term effects?” Mr. Sogge said. “I think so. Many of those projects are still behind struggling.”
Another author of the complaint against Mr. Reilly, David Applegate, a longtime scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, has been appointed the acting director of the agency. Mr. Biden has requested that Congress increase its budget to $1.6 billion from $1.3 billion, the agency has hired nearly 100 scientists under Dr. Applegate’s direction.
Still, vacancies abound.
As a research scientist at the Geological Survey, Margaret Hiza Redsteer ran the Navajo LUse Planning Project, which studied climate change to help tribal officials plan for drought. Funding for her project was abruptly canceled in 2017; Dr. Redsteer resigned shortly after.
Now, the Biden administration finds itself confronting a mega-drought in the Southwest, as well as pressure to address the effects of climate change on tribal nations. Dr. Redsteer said no one had been hired to continue her work.
The staffing challenges extend to national security intelligence agencies.
Rod Schoonover resigned from his job as a State Department analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research focusing on ecological destruction in 2019 after Mr. Trump’s national security adviser tried to block climate science from Dr. Schoonover’s written congressional testimony.
He was the only scientist at his level in any U.S. intelligence agency focused on the manifestations of climate change across the globe.
“There was one of me,” said Dr. Schoonover, whose position remains vacant.
“You hear a lot of rhetoric about how climate change some of the other Earth system issues are potentially catastrophic developments issues facing humanity,” he said. “But if you walk down the halls of one of our intelligence agencies, it would not reflect that.”
The agency is “continuing to assess and, as needed, expour capacity to prioritize the climate crisis,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement.
The Defense Department has hired eight climate change experts from the Army Corps of Engineers; Mr. Biden’s budget calls for 17 more.
“The impacts of climate change on the department’s mission are clear growing,” Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of defense for energy, environment resilience, said in a statement. “We need a work force that reflects that fact.”
For intelligence agencies, it will take time to ramp up be able to deliver risk assessments to the president regarding climate change, said Erin Sikorsky, who led climate national security analysis across federal intelligence agencies until last year.
“You’ve got to hire new people; you’ve got to train people to integrate this into their day-to-day work,” said Ms. Sikorsky, now deputy director of the Center for Climate & Security, a think tank based in Washington. “It’s not something that can happen overnight.”
Max Stier, president chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies the federal work force, said the Biden administration must focus on modernizing recruitment improving human resource departments.
“I don’t think it’s a simple story of ‘The last administration was anti-science the current administration is pro-science so everything’s going to be fine,’” Mr. Steir said. “And there’s no law you can pass that will fix all of this.”