In our latest episode of Ars Technica Live, Ars editors Annalee Newitz and Joe Mullin talked to UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Lindsey Dillon about how the Trump administration has been removing scientific and environmental data from the Web. Lindsey is part of a group called Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI), which is working on ways to rescue that data and make it available to the public.Lindsey told us how EDGI got started in November 2016, within days of the presidential election. Its founders are scientists and academics whose main goal was to make sure that researchers and citizens would continue to have access to data about the environment. They organized data rescue events around the country, where volunteers identified vulnerable climate information on websites for several government agencies, including the EPA, DOE, and even NASA. The Internet Archive helped by creating digital records of all the at-risk pages.
Though there are various records laws that prevent the government from completely purging information gathered by its agencies, the government can take information offline. That means the data is available, but only in one physical location. Lindsey pointed out that this makes it very difficult for community organizers to get access to data about their home regions.Lindsey also talked about a new report that EDGI has released on the history of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA, created under President Nixon during the 1970s, is responsible for many protections we take for granted today. Protections that guarantee clean water, toxic waste cleanup, and good air quality are all part of the EPA’s mandate.
Today, the Trump administration promises to cut the EPA’s budget by one third, and it has appointed Scott Pruitt to head the agency. Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General, has just launched an initiative to “challenge” climate change data.By conducting interviews with over 60 current and former EPA workers, Lindsey and her colleagues gained insight into how the agency is changing under the new presidential administration. They also highlighted two other examples of governments cracking down on environmental research: in Canada under the Harper administration, and in the US during the early 1980s.
Interestingly, the early days of the Reagan presidency in the ’80s marked a period for the EPA that was very similar to what the agency faces today. Reagan cut the EPA’s budget by 21% and appointed anti-environmental protection attorney Anne Gorsuch (the mother of newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) to run the agency. Within two years, Gorsuch and several other EPA administrators quit after congressional investigations revealed conflicts of interest, lying under oath, and obstruction of justice.
What saved the EPA and its mission in the 1980s could help save it today, said Lindsey. Groups like EDGI are a big help, but the real life-savers are people within the agency who become whistleblowers. They can alert the public to ways that our protections are being eroded, as well as what kind of data is being sequestered offline.
Another challenge to the EPA that Lindsey discussed is the so-called HONEST Act, a piece of legislation that limits the kinds of scientific data that the EPA can use to enforce protections. The act would disallow any scientific papers whose data cannot be “reproduced,” which basically includes all studies of toxic cleanup and contamination. We can’t reproduce those events, and, therefore, any data about them would be disallowed by the HONEST Act. Essentially, the EPA would no longer be able to use any scientific studies that explore environmental disasters.Lindsey encouraged people interested in preserving scientific data, or maintaining the public’s access to it, to get involved with EDGI by visiting its website.
For more from Lindsey, check out the full interview above in either video or audio form. And don’t forget to come to the next Ars Technica Live at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, California, on July 19. Our guest will be Lisa Ling, a former US military technician who was one of two whistleblowers to expose software-related problems with the drone program being used in Afghanistan.
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