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Loss of scientists bogs down climate ambitions

By Coral Davenport, Lisa Friedman and Christopher Flavelle © The New York Times Co.

WASHINGTON » Juliette Hart quit her job last summer as an oceanographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, where she used climate models to help coastal communities plan for rising seas. She said she was demoralized after four years of the Trump administration, in which political appointees pressured her to delete or downplay mentions of climate change.

“It’s easy and quick to leave government, not so quick for government to regain the talent,” said Hart, whose job remains vacant.

President Donald Trump’s battle against climate science — his appointees undermined federal studies, fired scientists and 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 and environmental science across the federal government remain vacant.

Scientists and 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 Joe 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 and policy at Harvard and a top science adviser.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, new climate rules and clean-air regulations ordered by Biden could be held up for months or even years, according to interviews with 10 current and former EPA climate policy staff members.

The Interior Department has lost scientists who study the impacts of drought, heat waves and 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 such as dishwashers and 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 spokesperson said.

Although the Biden administration has installed more than 200 political appointees across the government in senior positions focused on climate and the environment, even supporters say it has been slow to rehire the senior scientists and policy experts who translate research and data into policy and regulations.

White House officials said the Biden administration had nominated more than twice as many senior scientists and science policy officials as the Trump administration had by this time, and was moving to fill dozens of vacancies on federal boards and commissions.

During the Trump years, the number of scientists and technical experts at the USGS, an agency of the Interior Department and 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%.

 

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