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Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Las Vegas.

Donald Trump has promised to make it easier to fire government employees who are in traditionally protected, permanent positions if he becomes president a second time.Credit: David Becker/Getty

Donald Trump’s promise to “dismantle the deep state” moved one step closer to reality last week as he cruised to victory in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary. Faced with the possibility of Trump winning the US presidency for a second time, science advocates are gearing up to fight what they see as an existential threat to the future of science in the US government.

If he wins, Trump, who now dominates the Republican party with his far-right following, has promised to revive a plan to reclassify tens of thousands of federal employees. These include scientists and others who are currently shielded from politics in permanent professional positions. This plan, known as Schedule F, would allow his administration to more easily fire “rogue bureaucrats” — those who he says oppose his political agenda and are part of the ‘deep state’. The administration could then appoint replacements, regardless of their scientific or technical expertise, who are aligned with Trump politically.

“It’s sort of the ultimate attack on government,” says Betsy Southerland, a former environmental scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency. She says many of the former Trump administration’s proposals that put politics ahead of science were blocked by the objections of professional civil servants. If Schedule F gets the greenlight, Southerland adds, “you would have nobody to report scientific-integrity violations, because anybody who objected would be fired”.

One of Joe Biden’s first acts as US president was to call for stronger scientific-integrity rules in the government that could help to thwart future efforts to politicize science. As the 2024 presidential election draws near, US agencies are rushing to complete their own rules, including policies for how to report and investigate violations. If Trump wins, however, many experts say that there’s nothing to stop him from reversing those policies and following through on his agenda.

“My message to the self-appointed global elites: Your time is up,” wrote Kevin Roberts in a 18 January post on the social-media platform X. Roberts is president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington DC that is working to help prepare for a potential Trump transition into the White House next year.

Transferring power

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Conservatives have long been critical of what they see as regulatory overreach by permanent, unelected government employees, and they have already sought to limit the power of regulatory agencies in the courts. During his tenure as president from 2017–2020, Trump appointed a trio of conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Now ruled by a 6–3 conservative majority, the court has stunned scientists with rulings overturning abortion rights and restricting environmental regulations. Legal specialists say this trend could intensify under a new Trump administration.

On 17 January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a pair of cases that could end the use of what is known as the Chevron doctrine. It allows judges nationwide to defer to the expertise of US agencies when implementing ambiguous federal laws, as long as their interpretations are reasonable. Both cases involve seemingly minor disputes about the fees fishing-boat operators pay to the National Marine Fisheries Service to monitor for overfishing. But the companies have asked the court to overturn the underlying Chevron doctrine, which was established in 1984, arguing that it undermines the power of the courts.

Supporters of the Chevron doctrine say that it gives agencies the flexibility to address new research and challenges — such as innovative technologies, worldwide pandemics and climate change — that lawmakers in Congress could not have foreseen when they wrote regulatory statutes, often decades ago. Giving agencies this authority is necessary, because it is not realistic to expect that Congress will step forward with laws that answer every regulatory question that arises in the courts, says Allison Larsen, a legal scholar at the William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Trump’s plan to reclassify federal employees would limit agencies further by transferring power away from experts, such as scientists, who help to craft policies on issues such as pandemic preparedness and biosecurity, and pass it to political appointees, who serve the president. In effect, this would expand a patronage system that encourages a winner-takes-all approach to government, says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, an advocacy group based in Washington DC.

Temporary obstacles

Political meddling with science can come from both sides of the political aisle, but the Trump administration came under fire for repeatedly ignoring scientific evidence and sidelining government scientists, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the Biden administration has sought to update and expand scientific-integrity rules for all federal agencies.

Science advocates say that early drafts of these rules, although imperfect, are a significant improvement. The Biden administration also plans to create an expert panel under the National Science and Technology Council that would have the authority to review agency policies and investigate alleged violations by political appointees throughout the government.

“They are taking steps forward and have already done a lot of really good things,” says Anita Desikan, an analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But if you do have bad-faith actors who are looking to harass scientists, it’s probably still not enough.”

The Biden administration has also sought to head off the threat to federal workers. In September, the US Office of Personnel Management proposed a rule that seeks to reinforce longstanding protections for some 2.2 million federal employees. It would clarify when and under what conditions these civil servants can be moved out of a merit-based system and into one that makes it easier for administrators to terminate their employment.

The rule might slow down Trump’s plan if he wins a second term, but it’s probably a temporary obstacle, experts say. This is in part because agency policies are not laws, and they can be reversed easily by a new administration. One thing that would help, Stier says, is a statute that would make it illegal for future presidents to strip federal workers of their protections. Some Democratic lawmakers have also proposed legislation that would seek to enshrine scientific-integrity requirements in federal law. But given the current polarization in the US Congress, which would have to pass those laws, both efforts remain a long shot.

For Blake Emerson, an administrative-law researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, the cumulative threat from the courts and a future Trump administration is almost overwhelming. “If all of these efforts are successful,” he says, “you won’t have a real place for independent professional and scientific judgement in the government.”

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