Between her family and her day job, Rebecca Lave had a busy enough life before Donald Trump came along. But any remaining free time vanished after his election last year. Lave, an associate geography professor at the University of Indiana, still begins the day by making breakfast for her 11-year-old daughter and sending her off to school. But then she has to pore through a mass of emails from three insomniac Harvard graduate students who likely have been up all night documenting how President Donald Trump’s administration is altering government websites related to science and the environment.
Later in the day, maybe during a break between classes or before she goes to bed, Lave will analyze what the students have documented. Or she’ll take a call from a senator’s office. Or she’ll speak with prospective volunteers. If she gets a free moment, maybe she’ll do a quick media interview.
“I’m tired,” she told me, laughing. “I haven’t read a book for pleasure since before Christmas.”
Lave is one of the scientists and academics who are, as The Washington Post alarmingly characterized in December, “frantically copying U.S. climate data, fearing it might vanish under Trump.” In January, after the president took office, information indeed started to disappear—namely, from pages on the White House website related to climate change. In response, journalists produced a stream of stories about the “heroic guerrilla scientists and librarians” working to preserve publicly funded data and information about science.
It’s all the more heroic when you consider that most of these people are working on a volunteer basis. Lave is among some 70 people devoting their free time to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a group that’s monitoring about 25,000 federal government website pages, mostly at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.
EDGI’s volunteers don’t just archive datasets or monitor for data purges. They look for language changes, both sweeping and subtle, that might indicate how Trump’s team is changing the mission of these historically science-based agencies. They also interview former and current agency employees with the intention of producing an oral history of sorts—a frame of reference for what evidence-based governance looked like before and after Trump. It’s incredibly tedious work.
The story of the Trump resistance thus far has been told largely through overt acts of protest. Citizens have confronted Republican politicians at town halls and flooded their congressional offices with phone calls. Demonstrators have marched en masse on capitol buildings and airports across the country. Activists have disrupted high-profile speeches, and immigrants have walked out on work. EDGI is a different sort of protest—quiet, clinical, unsensational—but it’s no less important, and indeed might be more so given the bureaucratic chaos of the young administration.
“Working on this is what’s been keeping me from crawling under a rock,” said Gretchen Gehrke, who works at the nonprofit Public Lab by day and for EDGI by night. “This is our act of resistance.”
The question, as with the broader Trump resistance, is whether it’s making any difference—and whether they can keep it up for the next four or eight years.
Since Trump’s inauguration, EDGI has made a number of worthwhile discoveries. Information about international climate partnerships disappeared from EPA websites. Text describing two fracking regulations was removed from an Interior Department page. On a website for kids to learn about energy, information about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels vanished.
But after two months of work, the volunteers haven’t found the smoking gun. Government climate change data remains on government websites. No datasets have been purged—unless you count animal abuse reports that were pulled from the USDA’s website, purportedly for privacy reasons. There have been subtle language changes to many federal websites, but which merely signal that Trump has different priorities than President Barack Obama did; this is not unprecedented for a new administration, especially one that follows an administration from the opposing party.
Conservative media outlets have called these scientists “paranoid” “alarmists,” but the EDGI insists the danger is real. Trump has appointed cabinet officials, like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and energy secretary nominee Rick Perry, who not only have been hostile to the agencies they seek to run but refuse to accept basic tenets of mainstream science. Moreover, some EDGI scientists fear a government-led war on science because they’ve already experienced one—north of the border.
“We were immediately concerned after Trump’s election, because many of us had been involved in or had been watching what happened under Stephen Harper’s administration in Canada,” Lave said, referring to the conservative former Canadian prime minister. During his nine-year reign, more than 2,000 government scientists were fired, and those who weren’t fired were effectively barred from talking to the news media. Budgets for environmental protection and scientific research were butchered. And it was done stealthily. “So much had been done by the time people even noticed it in Canada,” Canadian environmental journalist Chris Turner told The Atlantic last month. “That was part of the reason why it got so worrisome.”
In the event Trump followed Harper’s playbook, the scientists who started EDGI didn’t want to be playing catch up. “There was just a tremendous sense of urgency about not only preserving publicly funded federal environmental data for public use,” Lave said, “but also this sense that if we didn’t know what was changing in a detailed way, it would be very difficult to respond constructively.”
EDGI volunteers insist they’re not frustrated by a lack of bombshell discoveries. For one, no one at EDGI wants data to purged. “In some ways, I personally am thankful that we haven’t seen a ‘smoking gun’—though I would say we have seen some substantive changes—because our overall mission is to promote evidence-based environmental governance in the public interest,” Gehrke said. “The fewer threats to that, the better.”
It’s also possible that serious changes are still to come, considering that many major positions at science-based agencies remain unfilled (Perry, for instance, has yet to be confirmed). By getting organized early, EDGI is ready to catch whatever changes come, and the group’s very existence may be having a watchdog effect: Government agencies may think twice about making such changes, knowing that EDGI is tracking their every move.
The work has its personal rewards, too.
“There is a psychological value for a lot of people who come out and participate, who are looking for ways in which their skills can be put to use in a time of crisis,” said Nick Shapiro, EDGI’s co-founder.
But the work also takes a toll. Gehrke said she’d “be lying” if EDGI didn’t affect her other commitments. “I’m trying to figure out how to better navigate that,” she said. Lave praises her husband for shouldering the majority of childcare duties lately. Shapiro said he’s lucky to be single and without children, allowing him for more flexibility.
That may change, if Shapiro is able to secure enough grant funding to make EDGI his full-time job. The group is currently talking with several private foundations—Shapiro wouldn’t say which ones—and have a few large grants under review, including one for $600,000. If they secure those grants, Shapiro says, the money will provide salaries for the sleepless Harvard graduate students, two of whom are taking leaves of absence from their studies to monitor websites for EDGI. They don’t have day jobs, but because of Trump’s disdain for science, they soon might.