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The Center for Biological Diversity has announced an effort to prevent hundreds of environmental datasets on government websites from being removed by the Trump administration. Three separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for data sets have been submitted to eight federal agencies. Many (perhaps most) of the datasets requested are currently available on government websites. A provision (5 U.S.C. 552(a)(2)(D)) of the 2016 FOIA Amendments requires agencies to post online in the agency’s FOIA Reading Room documents that are requested "3 or more times."
Scientists Use ‘Beetlejuice Provision’ to Protect Data From Trump, The Center for Biological Diversity Press Release (March 23, 2017).
List of datasets requested (101 pp. PDF).
The FOIA requests were filed by The Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Media and Democracy, and conservation biologist Stuart Pimm.
The eight agencies are: the Army Corps of Engineers, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the departments of agriculture, commerce, energy and interior.
The FOIA requests seek hundreds of data sets on energy usage, renewables, oil and gas projections, coal reserves, climate data, sea-level rise, human population, environmental justice and the status of scores of endangered and threatened species and other wildlife.
Scientific American reports that many science policy experts are "startled" by the Trump administration’s proposed budget for 2018 that envisions dramatic cuts in funds for monitoring air and water quality, climate change and more.
- Trump Wants Deep Cuts in Environmental Monitoring, by Annie Sneed Scientific American (March 24, 2017).
Pres. Donald Trump’s administration could be willfully blinding itself—and the nation—when it comes to the environment…
[T]he consequences of weakening U.S. environmental monitoring abilities would be serious for everyone, says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program, echoing other policy experts. “So many people need our environmental intelligence," she says. “It’s saving lives, saving businesses money and reducing harm.”
Noting that the budget proposes cutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31 percent, which would eliminate 3,200 EPA positions, and would reduce its Office of Research and Development budget by almost half, Kei Koizumi, visiting scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says, “Even if the agency is able to get data about the environment, it wouldn’t have the scientists and research conditions to make sense of it.” The article also says that the EPA cuts would affect grants to outside groups that track the environment.
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting says that the Trump administration has not filled key staff positions in public affairs offices, newsrooms, and media offices of many government departments and agencies. This is consistent with the administration’s well reported "glacial pace" in filling 2,000 mid-level political-appointee positions in the Executive branch.
- Trump in No Hurry to Staff ‘Enemy of the People’ Offices, by Dave Lindorff Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (Mar 21 , 2017).
[R]eporters in both Washington bureaus and in newsrooms around the country depend on [these offices] to get routine information about what these departments and agencies are doing, or, in the case of more investigative assignments, to ask basic questions and set up interviews with key personnel.
Some departments, like Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, have well-staffed press offices listed on their websites, making access easier, but others, like Agriculture and Interior, do not. (Interior got a special thumbs down.)
The article speculates that this inactivity may be part of "a Trump war against the … media. The unprecedented barring of major news organizations at White House press briefings, the barring of press from what are nevertheless called media events, the barring of the press from the secretary of State’s plane on international trips, and the president’s reference to the media as an ‘enemy of the people’ certainly suggest that it also may be a case of being in no hurry to open up government to inspection."
Examples from the article:
- No press officer at EPA and no response to questions from "a receptionist" who took questions.
- The phone at the public information at the Interior Dept. is answered by a recording, not a person. You can leave a message.
- The Interior Dept. website lists no press office; press releases provide no contact person.
- The Commerce Department’s website still lists the offices of director of public affairs and press secretary as "vacant."
The Center for American Progress reports that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has eliminated questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from two critical surveys. This policy decision will make it impossible to assess whether key programs for seniors and people with disabilities are meeting the needs of LGBT Americans.
- The Trump Administration Is Rolling Back Data Collection on LGBT Older Adults, By Sejal Singh, Laura E. Durso, and Aaron Tax, Center for American Progress (March 20, 2017, 7:00 am).
The surveys affected are the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants and the annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living.
Engadget makes the case that the Trump administration is waging a "war on data." It says that, although removal and manipulation of existing data are a concern, the biggest threat to data is budgetary.
- Trump’s quiet war on data begins, by Terrence O’Brien, Engadget (Mar 20, 2017).
The administration seems focused on two avenues of attack: One, make data harder to find, and two, slash funding until collecting data becomes difficult for government agencies.
Defunding agencies and programs that collect data doesn’t just mask potential problems within the government and harm our ability to make informed decisions — it provides useful political cover for even deeper budget cuts down the road.
The article gives several examples of how the administration is damaging access to the accurate information that citizens require to evaluate government programs and that elected officials require to govern wisely.
In mid-February the Trump administration scrubbed open.whitehouse.gov of datasets created under the Obama administration. Although a NARA-created archive of the data exists, there is no clear link to it on whitehouse.gov, there are discrepancies between the file sizes and metadata hosted by the NARA and those pulled by third parties before the data was archived, and developer tools and APIs are broken.
Some of the parts of whitehouse.gov that disappeared on inauguration day still contain nothing more than a promise that they’ll be updated. The White House failed to respond to repeated requests for a timeline on those updates.
- Important staff positions, such as the CIO and chief digital officer remain unfilled and the White House has given no indication it plans to fill them any time soon (if at all). This means that "an entire data infrastructure system" is atrophying.
To the alarm of many career staff in the US Trade Representative’s office, the administration is considering changing how it calculates the trade deficit in a way that would make the deficit appear larger.
The Budget Blueprint proposes slashing funding for agencies that collect data including those that study climate change.
- The administration has not answered questions about its commitment (or lack of commitment) to open data initiatives.