Chair's Column: January 2018


Dear students, colleagues, and friends of Hunter Geography:

I hope that you are all well and refreshed from your winter break from classes. For those of you who either took or taught a winter session course, I am confident that you are extra excited to continue on with your studies after a short break! I wish you all an enjoyable and productive spring semester.

As we start this new year of 2018 we find ourselves in a political situation that is, in many ways, unprecedented. I would like to take this opportunity to focus on one particular aspect of this situation of concern to geographers and scientists more generally: a disturbing trend towards a pattern of politically motivated censorship of scientific inquiry in our country. At the same time I can also point out positive trends in the world.

During the past year, a number of initiatives, primarily from our federal government, have been detrimental to geo-scientific data and research. These initiatives can have a profound impact on society. It didn’t take long after New Year’s Day, 2017, for the Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017 to be introduced into the House and Senate by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-AZ) and Sen. Michael S. Lee (R-UT), which stated that “…no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.” [1] These bills would have impeded the use of geospatial data to implement the Fair Housing Act of 1968: no data, no analysis, no evidence-based policy. AAG President Glen MacDonald expressed the alarm of many geographers when he called it “a direct attack on the ability of geographers and others to produce actionable and policy relevant research on racial disparities in this country.” Less pernicious was the Geospatial Data Act of 2017, promulgated a few months later in May, which was controversial amongst geographers because it would have restricted the types of firms that could bid and work on Federal projects related to geospatial data. The updated version of the bill had the controversial language removed [2]. At the time of this writing neither of these bills has actually moved through Congress.

Last month, in December 2017, reports emerged that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were trying to restrict the official use of the seven terms: “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” and “evidence-based” [3]. For some of you over a certain age this may evoke pleasant memories of laughter at comedian George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on TV. But the context of the more recent censorship is not so amusing. Around the same time, the Federal government removed “climate change” from our National Security Strategy list of global threats (despite the fact that our nation’s military strategists had made it a prominent feature) and from National Parks web sites. This came after a year of erasing the term “climate change” and removing data links from a number of other government web sites.

In some cases prominent individuals and institutions are pushing back against these efforts. For example, the Columbia University Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, in a joint initiative with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, launched a new online resource, Silencing Science Tracker, to track “government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information” since November, 2016. The site has 97 entries as of January 22, 2018 [4].  These institutions are standing up to support open debate and evidence-based decision making.

On the Silencing Science Tracker site one of the instances that you can learn about is the request just a few days ago by two House members that the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate possible violations of anti-lobbying rules by Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) [4]. An article that she coauthored in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal stated that “…existing US regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances showing that widely used chemicals cause serious health problems at levels previously assumed to be safe” and that “closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence.” The accusers assert that these statements encourage citizens to petition government officials for policy changes, thereby violating anti-lobbying rules. It seems more like an attack on a prominent researcher for her evidence-based policy research related to environmental health.

Another example of prominent individuals resisting the movement towards increased censorship came in response to recent efforts by the federal government to insert political criteria into the process by which scientific proposals are reviewed. The Presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine penned a joint statement stating that they “…view any political review of scientific proposals as inappropriate, as it gives the appearance of political interference in science,” while also stating that they “recognize the prerogative of Federal agencies to align funding programs with their mission priorities[5]. They are making the distinction between political priorities shaping the mission of government agencies (which is normal) and political agendas being implemented in judgment of scientific questions (which is inappropriate). I urge you to support such efforts to speak out against the politicization of science.

In yet more positive news of particular geographic importance, two recent court decisions indicate that gerrymandering voting districts to favor one political party may soon become more difficult [6]. A State Supreme Court decision about Pennsylvania and a Federal decision about North Carolina ruled that gerrymandered districts in those states were unconstitutional. While this issue has been on the courts’ radar for a long time it now seems to have taken on a new urgency due to increased partisanship in Congress and improved geospatial analysis tools that make gerrymandering more effective at skewing voting results. We can expect to hear more judicial decisions on gerrymandering in other states such as Wisconsin and Maryland in the near future. These court decisions have the potential to both literally and figuratively redraw the political landscape of the US.

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, recently wrote that “2017 Was the Best Year in Human History[7] because with regards to long term trends: hunger and poverty are down; literacy is up; deaths from a number of deadly diseases are declining; access to electricity and safe drinking water are increasing; and the world has made gains in health, education, equal rights, environmental quality, and quality of life. While I find many, including myself, too often focusing on the negative, it is important to notice longer-term positive trends as well, and to stay focused on whatever it is you choose to prioritize, however you choose to do it. For students, that means getting the best education possible.

Allan Frei
Chair, Hunter College Department of Geography
January 23, 2018


1 Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act

2. Geospatial Data Act of 2017

3. CDC banned words

4. Silencing Science Tracker

5 The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine’s statement on political review of scientific proposals

Jan. 16, 2018

Statement by NAS, NAE, and NAM Presidents on the Political Review of Scientific Proposals

The highest standards of scientific integrity, transparency, and accountability are critical to maintaining public confidence in our nation’s research enterprise and in the wise use of the public investment in research.  The public expects policymakers and agencies to base those investments on independent advice and assessment from unbiased experts without political interference.  For these reasons, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine view any political review of scientific proposals as inappropriate, as it gives the appearance of political interference in science.  At the same time, we recognize the prerogative of federal agencies to align funding programs with their mission priorities in their calls for proposals and in their requests that reviewers assess the relevance of proposals to agency priorities as one of the criteria in proposal evaluation.

Marcia McNutt
President, National Academy of Sciences

C. D. (Dan) Mote, Jr.
President, National Academy of Engineering

Victor J. Dzau
President, National Academy of Medicine

6. Gerrymandering


7 Kristoff, NY Times Opinion Piece