Why scientists fear a second Trump term, and what they are doing about it

When the union representing nearly half of Environmental Protection Agency employees approved a new contract with the federal government this month, it included an unusual provision that had nothing to do with pay, benefits or workplace flexibility: protections from political meddling into their work.

The protections, which ensure workers can report any meddling without fear of “retribution, reprisal, or retaliation,” are “a way for us to get in front of a second Trump administration and protect our workers,” said Marie Owens Powell, an EPA gas station storage tank inspector and president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238.

The agreement signals the extent to which career employees and Biden administration officials are racing to foil any efforts to interfere with climate science or weaken environmental agencies should former president Donald Trump win a second term. Trump and his allies, in contrast, argue that bloated federal agencies have hurt economic development nationwide and that the Biden administration has prioritized climate science at the expense of other priorities.

“One of the things that is so bad for us is the environmental agencies. They make it impossible to do anything,” the former president said in an interview with “Fox & Friends” that aired June 2, claiming that “they’ve stopped you from doing business in this country.”

The Trump administration sidelined, muted or forced out hundreds of scientists and misrepresented research on the coronavirus, reproduction and hurricane forecasting, environmental advocates said. Now as an example of what’s to come, they point to a blueprint called “Project 2025,” a plan for the next conservative administration drafted by right-wing think tanks in Washington.

The plan calls for a sweeping reorganization of the executive branch, one that would concentrate more power in Trump’s hands. At the EPA, it recommends eliminating the office of environmental justice, which was created in 2022 to address the pollution that disproportionately harms poor and minority communities.

Soon after President Biden took office, his administration began imposing scientific integrity policies across the federal government, setting rules that protect research from political interference or manipulation. Many such policies are in place - though research advocates say they aren’t durable because they aren’t enshrined in federal law, and could be undone with new executive actions.


At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where a 2020 investigation found that agency leaders violated its scientific integrity policy after Trump showed a doctored hurricane forecast map, stricter standards took effect in March. A similar policy will soon be extended to the Commerce Department, including to the political appointees whose violations were detailed in the 2020 probe.

At the EPA, the new scientific integrity provision is part of a four-year contract with the agency. The provision ensures that workers’ complaints will be assessed by an independent investigator, rather than a political appointee.

While any new president could quickly transform policies around scientific integrity through new executive orders, the union contract provision is one advocates had urged as a way to make the protections harder to undo without a legal fight.

Powell said the Trump administration especially targeted climate researchers at the agency. Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and during his first year in office, his political appointees barred three EPA scientists from speaking about climate change at a conference in Rhode Island.

Mandy Gunasekara, who served as EPA chief of staff under Trump, rejected allegations that his administration tried to suppress climate science. She said this research is likely to continue regardless of who’s in the White House.

“Climate change will continue to be an important issue in a future conservative administration, but it’s not going to be the most important issue so that it displaces the agency fulfilling its full mission,” said Gunasekara, who wrote the chapter on the EPA in “Project 2025.”

EPA spokesman Remmington Belford said in an email that the agency is “pleased” with the contract provision and “committed to ensuring the agency has a strong foundation of science that is free from political interference and inappropriate influence.”

While helpful, the provision won’t be a panacea, said Tim Whitehouse, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit advocacy group, which helped advise AFGE on the scientific integrity language.

“It will be impossible to fully Trump-proof any agency or protect any scientist if Trump wins a new term and either the House or Senate is in Republican control,” Whitehouse said. “Then there will be absolutely no meaningful oversight.”

Interior Department braces for more cuts

The Interior Department - which manages vast swaths of public land and federal waters and oversees everything from offshore oil drilling to endangered species protections - could come under intense scrutiny in a second Trump administration.

In the interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump was asked about government programs that he would slash in a second term. “We’re going to do, like, Department of Interior,” he said in response.

It remains unclear whether Trump wants to eliminate the Interior Department or merely reduce its budget and staffing levels. Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Trump’s 2024 campaign, did not directly respond to a request for clarification.

Trump “cut red tape and gave the [oil and gas] industry more freedom to do what they do best - utilize the liquid gold under our feet to produce clean energy for America and the world - and he will do that again as soon as he gets back to the White House,” Leavitt said in an emailed statement.

Career employees exited the Interior Department in droves during Trump’s four years in office. At the end of his presidency, there were 4,900 fewer employees at the agency than at the beginning, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.

The exodus was especially large at Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees roughly 245 million acres of public lands. After Trump briefly moved the BLM’s headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo., more than 87 percent of the affected employees either resigned or retired.

William Perry Pendley, who served as acting BLM director under Trump, defended the relocation, saying the vast majority of public lands are in the West.

“If you want to be involved with the stakeholders - the governors, the county commissioners, the local people - then you’ve got to be out West,” Pendley said, adding that Biden administration officials in Washington are “badly out of touch.”


In addition to the BLM move, in July 2017, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reassigned dozens of top career officials as part of a broader reorganization of the department. Joel Clement, a scientist and policy expert, was removed from his role as director of Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis and reassigned to an accounting position for which he had no experience.

In a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel - and in an opinion piece in The Washington Post - Clement accused Zinke of illegally trying to force career staffers to quit.

“That incident was a case study in them going after the people who do the science,” Clement, who now works at a philanthropic foundation, said in an interview. Ultimately, Interior’s internal watchdog found no written communications from Zinke that supported the allegation.

In April, the Office of Personnel Management finalized a rule that will allow federal employees to keep their existing job protections and right to due process, including the right to appeal a reassignment or firing. The rule overturns a Trump directive, known as Schedule F, that allowed his administration to force out thousands of career employees by changing their status to at-will workers who could be fired without due process.

New federal law is needed, some say

NOAA leaders and observers said the agency is better equipped to withstand the sort of pressure scientists faced when Hurricane Dorian was approaching the U.S. coast in 2019, and Trump used a marker to extend the hurricane forecast cone to include Alabama.

His warning prompted a quick clarification from NOAA forecasters that Alabama was not, in fact, in the likely path of the storm, and then a statement from agency leaders reaffirming Trump’s incorrect assertion. An investigation found undue political influence led to the release of that statement, violating NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.

The agency has since updated that research policy - in January 2021 and again this March, said Cynthia Decker, NOAA’s scientific integrity officer.

The policy includes guidelines on how scientists should conduct themselves, and asks them to articulate their findings openly and clearly to the public. It establishes that “credible allegations of fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, and interference with or undue influence on accurate public reporting of science” can result in “personnel actions” and even referral to the inspector general’s office.


An extension of those policies to cover the Commerce Department is expected in the coming months, Decker said. It would include a mechanism by which even political appointees could be subject to allegations that they violated the integrity policy, something that could lead to a review or investigation and potential discipline, Decker said.

These updates are important because they set “that moral and intellectual compass to remind people where the curbs are in the road,” said Craig McLean, a 40-year veteran of NOAA who served as the agency’s acting chief scientist during the Trump administration.

But as strong as the policies may be, they aren’t permanent, some critics note. Legislation introduced in the two most recent sessions of Congress would have codified a requirement that federal agencies adopt scientific integrity policies and could establish legal penalties for violating them.

With such a law in place, “the next president can’t say, ‘No, I don’t care,’” when violations of scientific integrity arise, said Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA official and a senior adviser at the Center for Ocean Leadership at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Daniel Weiner, director of the elections and government program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said government scientists will inevitably face pressures from on high.

“There are always going to be political concerns pushing back on the science,” Weiner said. “I would expect that regardless of who wins the election.”