While the US awaits the final vote count from the presidential election, executive orders by the current occupant of the White House have instilled fear and confusion among government scientists. Of particular concern is a late October order on creating what’s termed a Schedule F of Excepted Service. It creates a job category for government workers — such as scientists — that makes it easier to fire people shifted into these positions. Is this another in a series of Trumpian attacks on science intended to have lasting effects, whether or not he is re-elected?
What the F?
The journal Nature has reported that an anonymous job-fearing senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has read over the new executive order and responded that “it’s pretty frightening.” Written broadly, the language seems to make it easier to “get rid of people who don’t toe the right political line.”
The Scary Political Discourse that Government Scientists Fear
When we look at the way that language is used for particular purposes, we can uncover its relation to its social context and how it is used in real life situations. The language of politics and law-making can be quite opaque, granted, but it’s imperative that we sift through the jargon as a beginning place to uncover the reproduction of political power, power abuse, domination through political discourse, and various forms of resistance against such discursive political dominance.
In the following, excerpts from the “Executive Order on Creating Schedule F In The Excepted Service” are italicized. After each excerpt is analysis of the embedded message.
“The President and his appointees must rely on men and women in the Federal service employed in positions of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.”
Distinguishing federal workers from partisan sycophants allows government employees to focus on serving the country rather than kowtowing to a particular President. These workers also facilitate continuity between Presidencies. The language of “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character” takes on a sinister cast here, implying that only partisan employees can be fully trusted to deliver results in keeping with the President’s agendas.
“Faithful execution of the law requires that the President have appropriate management oversight regarding this select cadre of professionals.”
The Trump administration has used numerous executive orders to dilute or destroy environmental, health, and science policies that protect people in the US. Up until this time, the “cadre of professionals” who continue to carry out their responsibilities in keeping with peer-reviewed research and commonly-accepted data in the field have been allowed to do so without fear of being fired (think Dr. Fauci). Otherwise, experts in their fields would find themselves having to concur when the President, using the Trump administration as example, insisted on policy and procedures not really supported by scientific evidence.
“Given the importance of the functions they discharge, employees in such positions must display appropriate temperament, acumen, impartiality, and sound judgment.”
The order permits Trump "to root out public employees viewed as disloyal & part of the deep state..Trump has tweeted that he has the authority “to fire any Executive Branch Employee.” The order puts in place the machinery to make that happen." Scary stuff. https://t.co/UWsboGHxGr
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) October 22, 2020
Alene zooms in on a pattern of trends indicative of Trump’s tenure — he’s sought out loyal over qualified employees. He’s been convinced that conspiracists target him and plan for his professional demise. And this new executive order takes the science out of scientific hirings and, instead, uses a kind of double-speak to look at career employees and the “functions they discharge” as a way to push out ideologically-distinct employees. It emphasizes adherence to administrative policies that may be in conflict with science, technology, data analysis, or accepted scientific inquiry.
The excerpt above includes the phrase “appropriate temperament, acumen, impartiality, and sound judgment.” What constitutes being “appropriate” in science, specifically? The US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a statement in September that answers this question — clearly in the face of Trumpian acts against government scientists.
“Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated. We find reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”
“Senior agency officials report that poor performance by career employees in policy-relevant positions has resulted in long delays and substandard-quality work for important agency projects, such as drafting and issuing regulations.”
Forbes gets right to the heart of the problem: “The Order will create a new category of federal employee called ‘Schedule F’ who can be essentially fired at will by the administration.
The phrases “long delays” and “substandard-quality work” are nearly direct encapsulations of Trump policy initiatives over the past 4 years which have sought to deregulate environmental protections. In July, Trump weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, intending to limit public review of federal infrastructure projects to speed up the permitting of freeways, power plants, and pipelines. The New York Times exclaimed that revising the 50-year-old law through regulatory reinterpretation was “one of the biggest — and most audacious — deregulatory actions of the Trump administration.” It was only one of the over 100 rules protecting clean air and water, and others that aim to reduce the threat of human-caused climate change that Trump overrode.
“These conditions include the need to provide agency heads with additional flexibility to assess prospective appointees without the limitations imposed by competitive service selection procedures.”
The “additional flexibility” referred to here is a set of conditions that allow Trump, according to Esquire, to this means that, if he is re-elected, to “clear-cut the federal bureaucracy and install even more sycophants, cronies, and incompetence virtually at his whim.” Generally, workplaces adopt an open-door policy, which allows employees and their supervisors to develop reciprocity of open communication, feedback, and discussion about matters of workplace importance to an employee. Employees can take their workplace concerns, questions, or suggestions outside their own chain of command without worrying. Not anymore — if Trump has his way. Instead, it will be a government scientists fear.
“Placing these positions in the excepted service will mitigate undue limitations on their selection.”
Key words here are “mitigate,” “limitations,” and “selection.” As with many government career positions, scientists, economists, managers, and other key decision makers aren’t brought in as a result of partisan elections. They’re hired due to keen qualifications for the positions, regardless of their political affiliations or ideologies. As long as they do the work, they’re acceptable — or at least until now. With new Schedule F positions, previously non-partisan federal positions have the potential to take on a partisan litmus test. Being able to “mitigate” the selection of partisan workers sets “limitations” on whose partisan “selection” among otherwise qualified candidates will occur.
Certainly, every workplace has potential for reform, as there will always be employees who fail to meet the expectations of proscribed job responsibilities. With the new Schedule F, however, presidents like Trump who see “bad people” around every corner are supported in assessing performance based on personal loyalty. Scientific inquiry demands that a process where experts in their fields investigate a problem, search for possible solutions, make observations, ask questions, test out ideas, and compare data to peer-reviewed research. Do we want to have a government scientists fear?
A president who has shown little respect for science, Trump has made unilateral decisions to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization. As Science magazine argues, they are “damaging not just to global scientific cooperation, but also to the continued health, safety, and prosperity of the planet.”