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Former EPA Scientist Weighs In On Fate Of Climate Science Under Trump


We're now going to hear from another scientist who used to work for the federal government. Tracey Woodruff spent 13 years at the Environmental Protection Agency. She was a senior scientist and policy adviser starting in the Clinton administration, and she stayed through the George W. Bush administration. The focus of most of her research was air pollution. Dr. Woodruff, welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Earlier this week, the Trump transition team barred the EPA from communicating with the public - no blog posts, no social media postings, no press releases. That's been described as a temporary freeze, and it applies to scientific research papers, too.

You went through a transition from a Democratic administration to a Republican one. Is what you're hearing familiar, as par for the course or something unusual and different?

WOODRUFF: Well, I would say that actually during the transition between Clinton and Bush, there wasn't a general announcement that people should not put out scientific information, but we did actually experience some questioning about some work that we were doing related to children's health and the environment. And we actually got a lot of pushback from the White House about some information that we had been trying to publish.

So I don't think it's unusual that the administration might take a look and see what the scientists are doing at EPA, but I think the experience makes some of the scientists worried at EPA that they might see a return to that.

SIEGEL: I mean I think there's a difference between science and policy that's in some way related the science. I mean if you were asked to do a particular project, were you to say, no, that's a minefield; I don't want to do that; I know it's going to happen to it?

WOODRUFF: Yeah, that's a really good point because we have science, which is the pursuit of information, whereas public policy is really about taking the science we have at hand and then using it with the other factors that are important for making a decision. How do people feel about the decision? What are the costs and benefit? Who's going to be impacted? The policymaker should factor in those other factors in addition to the science when they make a decision.

But I think sometimes what ends up happening is science becomes a crutch in making decisions in terms of, well, we're going to wait until we have the absolute definitive proof from the science before we make a decision. The challenge with that for an agency like EPA is that, for example, in air pollution, people will be continued to be exposed to air pollution while we're waiting for more and more science to come in.

SIEGEL: As a former EPA scientist, are you pretty confident in the future of research at EPA, or are you concerned about its future?

WOODRUFF: I'm concerned. I think the statements about climate change being a hoax are concerning. Scientists around the world agree that climate change is important and that human activity is contributing to climate change. I know scientists who have been retiring or are thinking about retiring because they're worried about what's going to happen with their science or what's going to happen to them if they speak up about their science in the new administration.

SIEGEL: Given that you did research on air pollution - and I know your special interest. You're now at the University California, San Francisco OB-GYN department. You're interested in effects - environmental effects on prenatal and early life health. How significant was EPA's contribution to information in that field as opposed to, say, big university departments or other laboratories?

WOODRUFF: Oh, I think EPA's contribution to understanding the role the environment and health is critical. Actually some of the early studies that were done on the links between air pollution and mortality, which went to lead to a lot of the rule making that EPA has subsequently done, were done by EPA scientists.

And yet I think very few people think of EPA as an agency that's directly related to health. Not having EPA at the table in terms of talking about the science related to environment and health would be a big loss. And I think their contributions cannot be overestimated enough.

SIEGEL: That's Tracey Woodruff. She's a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She was a senior EPA scientist and policy adviser under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Tracey Woodruff, thank you for talking with us.

WOODRUFF: All right, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.