WASHINGTON – Juliette Hart quit her job as an oceanographer for the United States Geological Survey last summer, where she uses climate models to help coastal communities plan ocean rise. After four years in the Trump administration, she said she was demoralized and pressured by political officials to erase or downplay mentions of climate change.
“It is easy and quick to get out of government, but not so quick that the government reclaims talent,” said Dr. Hart, whose position is still vacant.
President Donald J. Trump’s struggle against climate science – his appointments undermined federal studies, fired scientists, and drove many experts to quit or retire – reverberates in the Biden administration after six months. From the Department of Agriculture to the Pentagon to the National Park Service, hundreds of positions in climate and environmental science remain vacant across the federal government.
Scientists and climate politicians who have left have not returned. According to federal officials, recruitment is suffering as state science jobs are no longer viewed as isolated from politics. And money from Congress to fill the ranks could be years away.
The result is that President Biden’s ambitious plans to combat climate change are being hampered by a brain drain.
“The attacks on science have a much longer lifespan than just those of the Trump administration,” said John Holdren, Harvard professor of environmental science and policy and a top science advisor to President Barack Obama during his two terms.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, new climate and air pollution regulations mandated by President Biden could be delayed for months or even years, according to interviews with 10 current and former EPA employees on climate policy.
The Home Office has lost scientists studying the effects of drought, heat waves and rising sea levels from a warming planet. The Department of Agriculture has lost economists studying the effects of climate change on food supplies. The Department of Energy has a shortage of experts developing efficiency standards for appliances like dishwashers and refrigerators in order to reduce their pollutant emissions.
And the Department of Defense did not complete an analysis of the national security risks posed by global warming by its original deadline in May, which was extended by 60 days, an agency spokesman said.
Mr Biden has set the most energetic agenda to cut the fossil fuel warming emissions of all presidents. Some of his plans to curb emissions depend on the passage of laws by Congress. But a big part of it could be done by the executive branch – if the president had the staff and resources.
While the Biden administration has put more than 200 policy officers across government in senior positions focusing on the climate and the environment, even proponents say it has been slow to reinstate senior scientists and policy experts, research and data into policies and regulations implement.
White House officials said the Biden administration had nominated more than twice as many senior scientists and science policy officials as the Trump administration at the time, and intends to fill dozens of positions on federal boards and commissions.
It has also created positions on climate change in agencies that they did not have before, such as the Ministry of Health and Welfare or the Ministry of Finance.
“The government has made it very clear that it is taking an intergovernmental approach that makes climate change a crucial part of our domestic, national security and foreign policies, and we continue to move quickly to fill academic administrative roles ensure that science, truth and discovery have a place back in government, ”a spokesman, Vedant Patel, said in a statement.
During the Trump years, the number of scientists and technical experts in the United States Geological Survey, a Home Office agency and one of the country’s leading climate science research institutions, fell from 3,434 in 2016 to 3,152 in 2020, a loss of about 8 percent.
Two Department of Agriculture agencies doing climate research to help farmers lost 75 percent of their workforce after the Trump administration moved their offices from Washington to Kansas City, Missouri, in 2019, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group Group.
And at the EPA, the number of environmental professionals dropped from 2,152 to 1,630, a 24 percent decrease, according to a report by the House of Representatives Science Committee that described the losses as “a blow to the heart” of the agency. The EPA is operating on its Trump-era budget of approximately $ 9 billion that pays 14,172 employees. Mr Biden has asked Congress to increase this to $ 11.2 billion.
At the same time, Mr Biden has directed the EPA to enact ambitious new rules that will curb climate-warming pollution from vehicle exhaust pipes, power plants, and oil and gas wells, while restoring the Obama-era rules on toxic mercury pollution and wetland protection.
Some EPA scientists face a mountain of work that has been left untouched by the Trump administration.
One program, the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, assesses the dangers of chemicals to human health. During the Obama administration, the program completed studies of the effects of 31 potentially harmful chemicals. During the Trump administration, the program completed only one thing – on RDX, a toxic chemical explosive used in military operations.
“There is a lot of catching up to do,” said Vincent Cogliano, the former head of risk information system who retired in 2019. “Many have left, and that will make it more difficult.”
The problem is exacerbated by the feeling of young scientists that federal research could be derailed by politics.
“My students have told me that I believe in the efforts of the EPA, but I worry that the results of my work will be dictated by the political leaders and not by what science actually says,” said Stan Meiburg. who is leading a graduate degree in sustainability from Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, NC. The day before Mr Trump was inaugurated, he left his 38-year career with the EPA.
The U.S. Geological Survey lost hundreds of scientists during the tenure of James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist who was appointed director by Mr. Trump. Mr. Reilly tried to limit the scientific data used in modeling the future effects of climate change.
“What I saw under the Trump administration, and under Director Reilly in particular, was a perfect storm – a situation where there was interference with science, inefficient micromanagement that blocked us, and also neglect of important missions,” said Mark Sogge , a former research ecologist at the agency who retired in January after filing a complaint against Mr Reilly.
“Are there long-term effects?” Said Mr. Sogge. “I think so. Many of these projects are still behind schedule and have difficulties.”
Another author of the lawsuit against Mr. Reilly, David Applegate, a longtime scientist with the US Geological Survey, has been appointed as the agency’s deputy director. Mr Biden has requested that Congress increase its budget from $ 1.3 billion to $ 1.6 billion, and the agency has nearly 100 scientists led by Dr. Applegate discontinued.
Nevertheless, there are many vacancies.
As a researcher with the Geological Survey, Margaret Hiza Redsteer led the Navajo Land Use Planning Project, which studied climate change to help tribal officials plan drought. Funding for their project was stopped abruptly in 2017; Dr. Redsteer resigned shortly thereafter.
Now the Biden government in the southwest is facing a mega-drought and pressure to tackle the effects of climate change on indigenous nations. Dr. Redsteer said no one was hired to continue their work.
The personnel challenges extend to national security and intelligence services.
Rod Schoonover resigned from his job as a State Department analyst with the Bureau of Intelligence and Research focusing on ecological destruction in 2019 after Trump’s national security adviser tried to extract climate science from Dr. Block Schoonover’s written testimony to Congress.
He was the only scientist at his level in a US intelligence agency focused on the manifestations of climate change around the world.
“There was one of me,” said Dr. Schoonover, whose position is still vacant.
“You hear a lot of rhetoric about climate change and some of the other problems in the Earth system are potentially catastrophic developments facing humanity,” he said. “But if you walk down the aisles of one of our intelligence agencies, that wouldn’t reflect.”
The agency continues to evaluate and expand our capacity as needed to prioritize the climate crisis, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The Department of Defense has hired eight Army Corps of Engineers climate change experts; Mr Biden’s budget includes 17 more.
“The impact of climate change on the division’s mission is clear and growing,” Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of defense for energy, environment and resilience, said in a statement. “We need a workforce that reflects this fact.”
It will be some time for intelligence agencies to provide the president with risk assessments related to climate change, said Erin Sikorsky, who led climate and national security studies at federal intelligence agencies until last year.
“You have to hire new people; You need to train people to incorporate this into their daily work, ”said Ms. Sikorsky, now deputy director of the Center for Climate & Security, a Washington-based think tank. “That can’t happen overnight.”
Max Stier, president and executive director of the Civil Service Partnership, which studies the federal workforce, said the Biden government needs to focus on modernizing recruitment and improving human resources departments.
“I don’t think it’s a simple story of ‘the last government was anti-science and the current government pro-scientists’,” said Mr Steir. “And there’s no law you can pass to fix it all.”