Natural Sciences

Science-job vacancies pose challenge to Biden’s climate goals

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

The ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell in several agencies — sharply in some — under former President Donald Trump, federal data shows. Veteran staff members say many retired, quit or moved to other agencies under pressure from the Trump administration.

That poses a challenge for President Joe Biden, who must rebuild a depleted workforce to make good on promises to tackle climate change, protect the environment and reduce pollution that disproportionately affects poor and minority communities.

“It’s going to take a long time to undo the damage that the Trump administration has done,” said Kyla Bennett, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement official who now directs science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group. Bennett said many scientists left as Trump’s administration rolled back regulations and undercut climate work, leaving agencies with less experience, a work backlog and unfinished research.

Employment data shows more than 670 science jobs lost at the EPA, 150 at the U.S. Geological Survey, which researches human-caused climate change and natural hazards, and 231 at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than one-third of staff members — almost 200 people — left the agency’s Economic Research Service and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture in fiscal 2019, after the Trump administration moved their jobs from Washington to Kansas City, Mo.

“The loss of experienced staff was deep,” said spokesman Matt Herrick, who provided figures showing even deeper losses at one point. “We lost too many of the nation’s best economists and agricultural scientists.”

Gone are specialists working on such things as crops, wetland loss, climate policy and soil conservation, said Laura Dodson, acting vice president of the union representing research service workers.

The findings on science job losses are based on payroll records released to the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists through a public-records request and on USDA attrition data.

Not all agencies had drops under Trump, and the drain of science jobs from the Geological Survey and the EPA predated him. The EPA lost more than 3,500 employees — 22% of its workforce — over the past two decades, according to budget documents. At the Geological Survey, 1,230 science jobs were lost since 2000, a 17% drop.

Priorities change from one presidency to the next, said Daren Bakst, senior fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Under Trump, the EPA emphasized cleanups of Superfund sites and shifted away from climate change.

“It doesn’t mean anything improper’s been done,” said Bakst. “There’s going to be ideological people within the federal government civil service, and some didn’t want to work in the Trump administration.”

But those who experienced cuts under Trump say his administration brought something new: intense political pressure on agencies in the way of its pro-industry agenda, and willingness to thwart legitimate science.

Laura Dodson, an economist and union official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.  Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Laura Dodson, an economist and union official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA,  is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA,  is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Laura Dodson, an economist and union official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Laura Dodson, an economist and union official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Laura Dodson, an economist and union official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.  Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Laura Dodson, an economist and union official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, is photographed in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA,  is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA,  is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dan Costa, retired National Program Director for the Air Climate & Energy Research Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is seen at his Chapel Hill, N.C. home, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Federal data shows the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement and other jobs fell sharply in some agencies under former President Donald Trump. Government scientists say many veteran staffers retired, quit or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

About the author

Mamie M. Arndt