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How scientists are scrambling to safeguard vital environmental data

February 15, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Since the election, members of many scientific and research groups have been archiving government data they believe could be jeopardized by the new administration. Their fear is that without data, you can’t have environmental regulation. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien took a look at one of those efforts underway at New York University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Almost since the day President Trump was sworn in, members of a loosely aligned grassroots movement composed of academics, programmers, researchers and scientists have been archiving government data they fear could disappear.

Miles O’Brien looks in on one of those efforts for our weekly science series, Leading Edge.

JEROME WHITINGTON, New York University: Psyched to see everybody in the room. Really exciting.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s early, cold, and Saturday, and yet this room at New York University is standing room only. A few hundred volunteers are here to download and save scientific data created and curated by the federal government.

JEROME WHITINGTON: Without the data, you don’t have environmental regulation.

MILES O’BRIEN: Anthropology Professor Jerome Whitington is one of the organizers of this data rescue event, the eighth in an ongoing, open-ended series which began after the election.

JEROME WHITINGTON: Now, one of the things we’re going to accomplish at this event is, we’re going to do a lot of work to get hard-to-access data sets, things that previous events have struggled to get.

MILES O’BRIEN: They are focused primarily on the essential science used to create environmental regulations. They worry the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory bent and outright denial of peer-reviewed climate science might put the data in jeopardy.

JEROME WHITINGTON: We’re less worried about it being outright deleted and disappearing, and more worried about it becoming unusable or inaccessible in specific ways.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, they are systematically building a data refuge in the cloud on servers hosted by Amazon.

Bethany Wiggin directs the University of Pennsylvania program in environmental humanities. She is an organizer of the data refuge project.

BETHANY WIGGIN, University of Pennsylvania: We have always thought of data refuge as providing an insurance policy. The situation is quite urgent. Events on the federal level are moving quickly. The changes being made to programs is happening quite fast. The situation is very uncertain.

MILES O’BRIEN: Federally funded science has been maligned and cut back before, but the Trump administration has upped the ante. While no huge data sets have completely disappeared, some have been made harder to access or even find.

The official White House Web site no longer contains any reference to climate change. A Trump space adviser threatened to pull the plug on earth science at NASA. Department of Energy scientists received a questionnaire asking what climate change conferences they attended and what materials they shared.

And the president’s choice to run the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, sued the agency 13 times and tried to block Obama administration climate change regulations.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders grilled Pruitt at his confirmation hearing.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt.: Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change. You disagree with that?

SCOTT PRUITT, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Nominee: I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it.

MILES O’BRIEN: For his part, Mr. Trump has tweeted that climate change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese, and repeatedly criticized federal environmental regulations.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I believe strongly in clean water and clean air, but I don’t believe that what they say — I think it’s a big scam for a lot of people to make a lot of money. In the meantime, China is eating our lunch because they don’t partake in all the rules and regulations that we do.

RUSH HOLT, American Association for the Advancement of Science: This is Benjamin Franklin’s grandson.

MILES O’BRIEN: Physicist and former New Jersey Democratic Congressman Rush Holt is CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It is the world’s largest general scientific society, with more than 120,000 members.

RUSH HOLT: When they hear public officials talk about alternative facts, they’re aghast. And when they don’t know what a new administration is going to do in support for research, they get very apprehensive about their ability to continue to do the research that they think is so valuable.

MILES O’BRIEN: Holt was among the witnesses when the House Science Committee conducted its first hearing of the Trump era. No one was surprised that the Environmental Protection Agency was the focus.

The Republican chairman of the committee, Lamar Smith of Texas, is a longtime, staunch critic of the EPA.

REP. LAMAR SMITH, R-Texas: There is now an opportunity to right the ship at the EPA and steer the agency in the right direction. The EPA should be open and accountable to the American people and use legitimate science.

RUSH HOLT: Scientists are fiercely independent. They would resent horribly if they felt their work was being manipulated. It’s not.

MILES O’BRIEN: Also testifying that day, the EPA’s deputy administrator under George W. Bush, Jeff Holmstead. He is a partner at Bracewell, a Houston-based law firm that represents corporate clients in the energy sector.

JEFF HOLMSTEAD, Bracewell LLP: EPA tends to focus on the science that supports the regulatory role that it sees for itself, and sometimes doesn’t pay enough attention to science that cuts the other way.

I think it would be valuable to EPA if they had a more balanced perspective on a lot of these scientific questions that they’re looking at.

MILES O’BRIEN: While scientists wait to see what shoes might drop, a rumor mill echoes across the Twitterverse.

Most agencies are laying low, avoiding controversy in public channels. The EPA’s last official tweet was the day before the inauguration.

Meanwhile, alternative, or rogue, accounts emerge constantly, some apparently authored by worried employees inside agencies, others by sympathetic, connected outsiders. They are flares from a science community under siege.

Are scientists in a panic? Is that what it is? What’s going on?

KEITH COWING, NASA Watch: They know where the panic button is, and they look at it once or twice a day.

MILES O’BRIEN: Keith Cowing is a former NASA biologist who founded the watchdog Web site NASA Watch 20 years ago. He’s the proto-rogue, and now he says everybody seems to be joining in.

KEITH COWING: Nobody has said, shut that database down, take that off your Web site. But what’s going to happen when you have got this giant, bubbling, simmering social media crowd, and they go from being worried about things that might happen to things that are happening? There’s a colossal hair trigger waiting out there.

MILES O’BRIEN: In the meantime, data refuge is as much therapeutic as it is prophylactic.

Programmer Brendan O’Brien — no relation — showed me how they’re doing their work.

BRENDAN O’BRIEN, Programmer: The toughest part about this is figuring out what this all means and to be able to archive it in a sensible form.

MILES O’BRIEN: Data refuge organizers sent questionnaires to 65,000 scientists to determine how to prioritize the gargantuan task.

So far, they have received 7,500 responses. As they march through the databases, they are simultaneously developing tools to organize the effort, protect the integrity of the data, and make an app for widespread use.

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: If we have the foresight to back the stuff up now, we may be — maybe later generations will thank us.

MILES O’BRIEN: Scientists are also planning a public campaign to save their enterprise.

On April 22, Earth Day, they intend to march en masse on Washington, an experiment to test the volatile interaction between pressure, politics, belief, and facts.

Miles O’Brien, the PBS NewsHour, New York.

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