Science focused federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have lost significant sections of their workforces over the past few years, due both to an aging workforce and past treatment of federal employees in science, technology, engineering and math fields in the government.
“According to data reviewed by the committee staff, EPA’s workforce declined by 3.9 percent during the last administration and over 16 percent since 2009,” said Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing March 17.
“DOE’s civil service STEM workforce has not increased in 4 years. EPA, DOE and NOAA have all lost large numbers of STEM workers in key occupations, such as environmental protection specialists, nuclear engineers and oceanographers. Even offices with broad bipartisan support have not been spared: DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy lost over 20 percent of its workforce in just the first three years of the previous administration. And in many science agencies, outsized gender, racial and ethnic employment disparities persist in STEM workforces.”
According to witnesses that testified at the hearing, the challenges facing federal science jobs are both those that have impacted the federal workforce at large — slow hiring processes, too few talent pipelines, insufficient compensation, an aging workforce and incomplete workforce planning — as well as problems that are unique to science jobs and agencies.
“The federal government’s brand is damaged. Government shutdowns, hiring freezes and negative rhetoric have hurt the image of government and the people who serve. An Axios Harris poll in March 2019 examined the reputation of America’s 99 most high-profile companies and the federal government, and the government ranked dead last,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, testified.
“That was before a pandemic further eroded public confidence in government. And in the scientific community, several high-profile instances of political interference with scientific results have left doubts about whether the integrity of the work of federal scientists will be protected.”
The Trump administration in particular was accused several times of suppressing or altering scientific research for political means, as well as removing certain buzzwords like “climate change” from government websites.
“Several hundred career scientists have reported over the past two years that their research findings were altered or suppressed for other than technical reasons,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of science and technology in the EPA’s Office of Water.
Trump officials were also criticized for relocating science agencies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, causing many employees of those agencies to leave their jobs rather than uproot to the new location.
President Joe Biden took executive action a week after assuming the presidency to ensure that scientific integrity was protected under his administration, but that order lacks the permanence to assure federal scientists that they will continue to be protected after his time in office is over.
“While that’s been articulated by the presidential memorandum, it’s not codified in statute right now, and so it could be backed away from in many cases and carries less weight than if the Scientific Integrity Act goes through,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Federal scientists have also bee challenged by the staffing and funding deficiencies at their agencies in recent years.
Southerland noted that staffing at the EPA, for example, is at the lowest it has been in 30 years, and the administrator of the agency has access to approximately half of the resources available in 1980, when adjusted for inflation.
“When we surveyed more than 4,000 federal scientists in 2018, 80 percent said that they noticed workforce reductions and nearly 90 percent said that these losses made it difficult to fulfil their missions,” said Rosenberg, who added that agencies have curtailed the fellowships and career drives that bring new talent into the government.
But Stier said that while such initiatives can certainly help get more young scientists into the government, the brand problem facing scientific agencies and slow hiring process for federal jobs overall could drive away potential employees that would otherwise jump at such opportunities.
“The system is breaking down along multiple points, and unless you deal with the full set of system failings, you’ll wind up maybe improving the system but then running into another barrier further down the pike,” said Stier.