Facts matter. In a political climate in which politicians’ use of ‘alternative facts’ is rampant, it is necessary for the electorate to be well-informed on important issues. That is why the estimated $473 billion the U.S. government spends on research is so important. Spread across a variety of agencies, research on everything from the economy and healthcare to the environment provides data that guides the formation of policy and allows the government to make educated decisions based on credible information. Factual information should never become politicized. While politicians of all types twist data to fit a desired narrative, no president has gone as far as Donald Trump in censoring government research and blocking the flow of data to the public.
On Sept. 20, Category 5 Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, a former colonial possession turned U.S. territory. However, Trump’s response to the hurricane was attacked as delayed and not strong enough to deal with the destruction of Puerto Rico’s entire power grid. For days afterward, over 95 percent of the population did not have access to electricity, and over half did not have access to clean water. At the time the Falconer went to press, only 9.2 percent of the people on the island had electricity, and 54.2 percent had drinking water. After being deeply criticized by local officials and subjected to increasingly negative coverage in the media, the Trump administration directed FEMA, the agency tasked with dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, to pull data and key statistics regarding Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. On Oct. 5, those key metrics vanished from the EPA website. The change was noticed immediately and reversed the following day. While short-lived, the censorship of data was a dangerous and unprecedented action in the face of a natural disaster. By removing numbers that portrayed his administration’s response to a hurricane in an unflattering manner, Trump prioritized his approval rating and desire for positive news coverage over aiding over 3 million American citizens. Blocking the flow of information prevented accurate news coverage of the situation, and kept the public in the dark. While the repercussions of this were small, Trump’s other attempts to block research and data have more far-reaching consequences.
On Aug. 21, the Trump administration’s Interior Department issued an ultimatum to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to immediately stop research on the health effects of living close to Appalachian coal mines. Last year, under the Obama administration, the Interior department gave $1 million to researchers after previous studies found living near coal mines caused birth defects, cancer and premature death. While the decision to end the research was attributed to the Trump administration’s larger goal to cut $1.6 billion from the Department of the Interior’s budget by 2018, the decision falls in line with Trump’s previous support of the coal mining industry. After years of struggling to compete with the lower prices and cleanliness of natural gas, the coal industry found a lifeline in then-candidate Trump, who promised to revitalize the coal industry if elected. Ending research on the potentially detrimental effects of coal mining seems to be a political gambit taken to please the coal industry and garner votes. Such action puts corporate interests above the health risks of citizens. Appalachia is one of the poorest regions in the U.S., and decades of toxic coal mining that has driven the local economy has surely negatively impacted the health of people in the region. Cancer, birth defects and reduced longevity should not be politicized, yet when Trump cozies up to the industries that backed his presidency and puts their needs above the citizens he was elected to help, he is rejecting scientific fact and evidence and signaling that any data that does resonate with his political message is irrelevant.
On Sept. 18, the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services revoked a study that found that refugees netted $63 billion in revenue over the last decade. After pedaling xenophobic rhetoric on the campaign trail, Trump has been looking for reasons for why the U.S. should curb the number of refugees it allows to enter the country. While refugees are often painted as a burden on government spending, this data would have proved that allowing refugees is financially beneficial in the long run. However, Trump’s disdain for data that contradicts his own beliefs prevented the results from being published. Instead, one of the authors anonymously leaked the draft to the “New York Times” in order to preserve the studies’ results. White House spokesperson Raj Shah said that the “leak was delivered by someone with an ideological agenda.” However, the leak was only necessary because Trump’s ideological agenda prevented the data from being published.
The 112th Congress, which was in session from 2013 to 2015, passed 284 bills, making it the least effective in history. While the subsequent 114th passed 329, that pales in comparison to the 600 to 700 bills passed by congressional sessions in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Washington, D.C. has been hijacked by partisan bickering and inaction. Facts are important in the formation of a well-informed citizenry.
By systematically preventing the publication of studies that do not support his political interests, Trump is poisoning facts and objective, academic research with the same partisanship that is crippling politics today.