Skip to main content
Menu
Trump Finds The Weak Spot In Obama’s Protections For Scientists

UPDATE (Jan. 26, 3:44 p.m.): Bill Hall, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, emailed us a statement on Thursday disputing reports that HHS was directed to stop communicating with the public. “Contrary to erroneous media reports,” Hall said, “HHS and its agencies continue to communicate fully about its work through all of its regular communication channels with the public, the media and other relevant audiences. There is no directive to do otherwise.”

 

The Trump administration has reportedly told employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture to curtail their communication with the press and the public, according to leaks made to The Huffington Post, ProPublica and BuzzFeed News. At both agencies, press releases and reports will stop rolling out, social media accounts will fall silent and all interview requests from members of the media are to be “carefully screened.”

As of this afternoon, that appears to apply to the Department of Health and Human Services, as well, and might also apply to several other agencies. The USDA, however, issued a statement disavowing the leaked policy and promising new guidelines. In a statement emailed to us, the EPA Office of Public Affairs said the agency fully intends to continue providing information to the public and that leaked directives represent a “short pause” necessary to assess public affairs and communications processes.

But those directives — which limit the ability of scientists to talk to the public about publicly funded research — could violate scientific integrity policies that the agencies adopted under the Obama administration. If that’s happening, experts say, it also exposes some important flaws in those mandates, because there is no legal consequence to violating the policies.

In March of 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum directing federal agencies to create scientific integrity policies to protect employees’ free speech and improve public trust in evidence-based policymaking. The move was largely in response to scandals during the George W. Bush administration, which edited scientific reports to remove or alter references to climate change and prevented certain scientists from speaking with the media. During the same period, the government of Stephen Harper in Canada engaged in similar behavior.

At least 26 agencies now have scientific integrity policies in place and, while the details vary from agency to agency, they generally mandate the open dissemination of scientific information, encourage employees to speak with the media, give employees the freedom to speak about their personal beliefs as long as it is clear they aren’t speaking on behalf of the agency, and authorize and encourage employees to use social media and blogs. The policies also set rules that prevent scientific conclusions and reports from being manipulated for political purposes.

It’s hard to say for certain whether the leaked Trump administration directives violate these policies, said Cary Coglianese, professor of law and political science and director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s program on regulation. He told me that he would have to see the exact wording of the messages to federal employees, which has not been made public, and even then it might depend a lot on the agency and even on the contracts of specific employees. “It’s going to be a fine-grained determination,” he said. But, he added, “what we’re hearing about seems to go against the grain of the broader spirit of scientific integrity.”

The Obama administration’s scientific integrity policies were originally hailed by scientists and advocacy groups as deeply important for the functioning of science and the creation of scientifically sound policy. Even earlier this month, when the Department of Energy issued a revised and updated version of its scientific integrity policy, the move was seen as reassuring employees of an agency that was feeling threatened by the incoming administration. However, over the course of Obama’s term, it became clear that the policies were imperfect and imperfectly implemented.

When it comes to things such as the ability of scientists to communicate with the public and the editing of scientific publications for political purposes, the policies effectively have no teeth, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists. “They are policies implemented at the agency level,” he said. “They can be ignored; they can be removed by the administration or by an agency.” This analysis was echoed by Heidi Kitrosser, professor of law at the University of Minnesota and an expert on federal government secrecy.

The primary power of the scientific integrity policies is the fact that dumping them or ignoring them is tantamount to saying “we think political manipulation of the sciences is a good thing,” Rosenberg said. This is in contrast to the situation for scientists employed by the Canadian government, who are now protected in their contracts from having their speech curtailed.

Meanwhile, though, American scientists are left with little recourse but to wait and see whether the restrictions are temporary, or a prelude to something more permanent. (A spokesperson for the Trump administration did not respond to inquiries.) “This is an issue we’ve cared a lot about for a long time,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the executive publisher of the journal Science, “We’re not issuing this warning just because it’s the Trump administration.” He added: “We know this transition team isn’t very transparent. It seems to be somewhat inexperienced. We don’t really know why this was done. Good science requires communication. It’s that simple. If this is anything more than just a temporary effort to get administrative mechanisms in place, then we’ll have a lot more to say.”

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments