Nearly every day brings a new report of a federal agency told to shut down communications with the public or even members of Congress; tweets about important topics such as climate change removed from the public record; bans on talking to the press.
This is week one of the Trump administration, and the signs are piling up that the new president’s distaste for distasteful facts will lead to, well, fewer facts.
Among the first agencies reported to face an information lockdown were the departments of Agriculture and the Interior. Scientists and other staffers at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, its main scientific arm, were told Monday to stop releasing “any public-facing documents,” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content ... until further notice, according to an internal email published by BuzzFeed. Following a public uproar, the ban was rescinded a day later.
Interior’s National Park Service apparently got into trouble for retweeting photos intimating that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was smaller than that of President Obama, an assertion that drew tantrums from Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer. Interior headquarters ordered all agency bureaus to “immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice,” according to a memo posted by Gizmodo. “The expectation is that there will be absolutely no posts to Twitter.”
And a series of Inauguration Day tweets from the account of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, referring to increased greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the climate, were promptly taken offline.
The park service’s Twitter access was restored after a day of silence, with a message expressing “regret” for the “mistaken” retweets of inauguration crowd photos.
Many scientists view the apparent crackdown as a reflection of President Trump’s anti-science mentality, reflected partially in his depiction of climate change as a Chinese “hoax” during his election campaign. He also has given credence to a decisively debunked link between childhood vaccines and autism, and sought through his transition team to collect the names of Department of Energy scientists working on climate change. The latter move prompted outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to take steps to protect the integrity of DOE research and staff from political interference before the new administration took over.
“There’s a sense of the new administration that it feels that scientists who work for the government are not its allies in presenting its political agenda,” says UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen.
Referring to reports that scientists at the National Institutes of Health and other agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services have been instructed to not send “any correspondence to public officials,” presumably even to members of Congress, Eisen added: “I don’t see a charitable way of looking at this, even if it’s a stopgap measure.”
One of the more stringent directives involves the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is firmly in the Trump White House’s crosshairs, in part because its focus includes battling climate change, and because its regulations tend to irk oil and gas companies, which Trump plainly favors. His nominee to head the agency, Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, is a climate change skeptic and a friend of the fossil-fuels industry.
Directives issued to EPA staff, according to the Huffington Post, include bans on press releases, blog posts, social media posts, new posting to agency websites and messages to online listservs — only crucial messages are to be sent to the latter, as “messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press,” according to an internal communication published by the Huffington Post.
The last tweets from the EPA’s Twitter account, @EPA, appeared Jan. 19, the day before Trump’s inauguration, when there were five of them, including a report on actions taken under the Clean Air Act during the Obama administration. That was more or less the standard for the account, which seldom issued fewer than two tweets a day covering EPA regulations, tips for household energy saving and press releases. Since then, nothing.
The extent to which the clampdown on public information emanates directly from the White House is unclear. Some may reflect self-censorship by agency officials wary of provoking their new bosses before the new administration is even in place. Some of the offending communications may have been unauthorized; USDA says its directive was sent out prematurely by a research service official and hadn’t been cleared by headquarters, and the National Park Service claims the Badlands tweets were issued by a former employee with access to the park’s account.
Some may also reflect a new administration’s natural desire to call a halt to policymaking and public statements until it can get its arms around its new responsibilities. But there are reports that the Trump White House is putting holds on public statements, policies and grant issuance to a greater degree than its predecessors.
Indeed, the federal Office of Special Counsel, which administers the federal whistle-blower law, felt it necessary to remind government employees Wednesday that blanket gag orders applied to them are illegal. Under the anti-gag provision of the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, it said, nondisclosure agreements and gag orders must “include required language that informs employees that their statutory right to blow the whistle supersedes the terms and conditions of the nondisclosure agreement or policy.”
Many public employees, especially scientists working on climate change and other politically sensitive topics, are fearful that their work will conflict with their new bosses’ ideologies. Agriculture Secretary-designate Sonny Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, ridiculed climate science in a 2014 essay and treated it as a political ploy.
“Climate change, we’re told, is responsible for heavy rains and drought alike,” Perdue wrote. “Whether temperatures are unseasonably low or high, global warming is the culprit. Snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes have been around since the beginning of time, but now they want us to accept that all of it is the result of climate change.… Liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”
Researchers in government and elsewhere are concerned that shutting down outside communications is merely the first step in a campaign to undermine the credibility of established science. As Alex Parker, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., observed in a tweet this week: “Barring public communication from science agencies reduces their visibility, which masks their value, which makes them easier to dismantle.”
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