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Australia’s chief scientist: Trump’s EPA changes akin to Stalin’s censorship of science

Aude Guerrucci, Pool/Getty Images

Australia's top government scientist is likening President Donald Trump's changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to scientific censorship under Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin.

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, speaking during a roundtable discussion in Australia's capital city of Canberra, said Monday that science is "literally under attack" in the United States, according to the Guardian:

The Trump administration has mandated that scientific data published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency from last week going forward has to undergo review by political appointees before that data can be published on the EPA website or elsewhere.

It defies logic. It will almost certainly cause long-term harm. It’s reminiscent of the censorship exerted by political officers in the old Soviet Union.

Every military commander there had a political officer second-guessing his decisions.

Finkel was referring to a decision by the Trump administration last month for political appointees to review all the scientific data found by scientists at the EPA before it can be cleared for publication. Doug Ericksen, communications director for Trump's EPA transition team, said that the review also applies to information on the agency's website and social media accounts.

And in January, EPA staffers said that the Trump White House ordered the agency to remove its webpage on climate change — a move that ruffled the feathers of many environmentalists.

"If the website goes dark, years of work we have done on climate change will disappear," one unnamed EPA staffer told Reuters last month, adding that some employees were working to preserve the data stored there.

"We’re taking a look at everything on a case-by-case basis, including the web page and whether climate stuff will be taken down," Ericksen told the Associated Press. "Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we’ll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA."

Climate Central reported last week that the EPA has, in fact, started removing Obama-era information from the government website. "They’re mostly scrubbing it of anything that has a hint of Obama," Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said.

The administration, however, has downplayed the ordeal. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who first denied Trump directly ordered the EPA's data scrub, said in January that the communications clampdown on scientific data was not out of the ordinary, telling reporters, "I don’t think it’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, that we’re going to review the policy."

But George Gray, who was the assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development under former President George W. Bush, told the Guardian that scientific studies are typically reviewed at lower levels and rarely by political appointees.

"Scientific studies would be reviewed at the level of a branch or a division or laboratory," he said. "Occasionally, things that were known to be controversial would come up to me as assistant administrator and I was a political appointee. Nothing in my experience would go further than that."

Finkel, for his part, sees the White House's decision as akin to Stalin's efforts to censor science.

"Soviet agricultural science was held back for decades because of the ideology of Trofim Lysenko, who was a proponent of Lamarckism," he said. "Stalin loved Lysenko’s conflation of science and Soviet philosophy and used his limitless power to ensure that Lysenko’s unscientific ideas prevailed."

As the Smithsonian Magazine outlined, Lysenko was Stalin's director of biology and he led a group of animal and plant breeders who rejected the science of genetics. He worked to discredit the genetic discoveries of Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan, attacking them for being foreigners with idealistic ideas that were the product of "bourgeois capitalism."

Lysenko argued that he could quickly force plants and animals — and even the Soviet people — into forms that could meet practical needs and that those characteristic changes could be passed on to their offspring — a debunked theory known as Lamarckism.

One of Lysenko's most infamous claims was that he changed a species of spring wheat into winter wheat after just a few years. That was, of course, impossible, but it fed into Stalin's mantra that the Soviet government could create the perfect utopia.

"So while Western scientists embraced evolution and genetics, Russian scientists who thought the same were sent to the gulag. Western crops flourished. Russian crops failed," Finkel said. "Today, the catch-cry of scientists must be frank and fearless advice, no matter the opinion of political commissars stationed at the U.S. EPA."

Last week, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works suspended rules to approve Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA without any Democrats present. The Democrats boycotted Pruitt's hearing last Wednesday, citing concerns over his rejection of climate change science.

A date for the Trump appointee's full Senate vote has not yet been set, but given Republicans lead the Senate, his nomination is expected to be approved.

One last thing…
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