- REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
When Andrew Bergman found out that President-elect Donald Trump may strip NASA’s earth science division of funding and appoint a climate-change denier to run the Environmental Protection Agency, he started to worry about data.
Bergman, a Ph.D. student in applied physics at Harvard, knows firsthand how much research is conducted by government scientists at agencies like the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And he understands how heavily scientists around the world depend on it.
As of now, many government-produced reports about climate change, greenhouse gasses, ocean temperatures, and more are available to the public online. But Bergman realized that if Trump’s administration were to indeed slash research budgets as promised, or even if a new agency head didn’t want data on a topic like climate science to be as easily accessible, scientists might soon find it much harder to find the data they need.
“Explicit threats in our mind have been made to research programs, regulatory programs, and data-collection programs that the scientific community – through many conversations I’ve had – has said are crucial to the work that we do,” Bergman tells Business Insider. “For example, there’s a number of climate models that run on NOAA’s computers – really complex, fluid, dynamical models that essentially are only running on government computers.”
In November, Bergman got together with some friends and other Ph.D. students at Harvard and started brainstorming how to preserve the data that scientists think is valuable. They soon found other scientists and policymakers with the same concerns and joined a group called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which formed after the election and is working to archive publicly available information and monitor changes in government websites.
The group has about 50 members, and it is rapidly working to download and store the government’s scientific data. The members are interviewing scientists, policymakers, and current and former agency employees to prioritize which websites and data to protect for the scientific community.
They have proprietary software that is crawling government websites and downloading all the information they contain, including both what the sites say and look like as well as the PDFs, links, and other reports they contain. For things the crawler can’t catch – like online databases or interactive platforms – the group is assembling volunteers and paid coders to capture and archive the data.
For reports and information that aren’t available online, the group is working with the Sierra Club to submit requests under the Freedom of Information Act. According to a Bloomberg report, the requests could ensure that agencies don’t get rid of files, since government agencies aren’t permitted to destroy files that are pending public release.
It’s a massive project – one that won’t be complete by Friday, when Trump is inaugurated. But the group doesn’t expect data to disappear immediately. Plus, Bergman says the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative’s long-term goal goes beyond fears about Trump’s possible agenda. The group plans to eventually create an open, independent server that stores the government’s scientific data and makes it searchable, regardless of the administration in power. (The group is raising money to further that goal.)
“Our work is motivated by making sure that scientific works that we know are being done or have been done, and data out there that is so important, are preserved in a way that can be useful for ongoing research and ongoing regulatory practices,” Bergman says. “We believe that this stuff should be stored on servers throughout the country that are public so that nothing can ever be removed from the internet.”
Bergman says EDGI doesn’t yet have reason to believe that the Trump administration will intentionally burn or delete data on, say, climate change or pollution. Instead, he says, scientific reports might simply become harder to find because an agency lacks funding to keep servers running. Or if projects get combined or moved, data sets might slip through the cracks in that shift. And if that research ceases to be listed online, future researchers might not even know it exists.
- NASA/Pat Izzo
“When you’re defunding something, sometimes you intend to reduce capacity – you believe that the expense is not worthwhile and you genuinely don’t want a supercomputer on as much because it costs money,” Bergman says. “In that way, even though it doesn’t have a political impact, it does have the intention of reducing the amount of scientific research that can be done.”
Some of the information EDGI is seeking in FOIA requests is as basic as records of budgets, salaries, and numbers of employees in various science-related agencies. If the group has a record of the research being done today and the kind of resources and personnel that are available, it can then track the Trump administration’s actions and analyze their impact. After Trump’s first 100 days, EDGI plans to produce a report detailing any changes the new administration has made to public data and the funding and staffing of federal agencies.
The scientists’ concerns are rooted in historical examples of other administrations they consider to be antiscience. Canadian researchers are part of EDGI as well, and they have compared Trump’s rhetoric to that of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who prevented scientists from speaking to the media and denied funding for climate-change research.
And in December, the website for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources altered its wording on climate change to eliminate all mention of human causes, replacing the wording with descriptions of how the reasons for earth’s changes are “being debated.”
314 Action, a nonprofit that supports the STEM community and combats political attacks on scientific funding, research, and consensus, has partnered with EDGI to prevent the same thing from happening on a national level. Shaughnessy Naughton, the organization’s founder, tells Business Insider she believes that the work is especially necessary because of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, including Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy.
“This is probably the most antiscience proposal for Cabinet candidates in modern US history,” she said. “The greatest predictor for future behavior is past behavior. People like Pruitt and Perry have such a strong history of being bought and sold by the fossil-fuel industry that we cannot trust them to safeguard the climate data scientists rely on to do their jobs.”
Bergman says he doesn’t use any government data in his research at the moment but plans to continue working on EDGI’s projects for years to come so the broader community is less vulnerable to the way scientific research gets politicized.
“I think while not every scientist makes use of one of these data sets, every scientist has thought about this at this point,” he says.