Hours after the news broke that the U.S. Department of Agriculture e-mailed its scientists ordering them not to speak to the press, and informing them that there would be an immediate halt on press releases, the USDA insisted it isn’t really suppressing its researchers’ communications with the public—because they can still publish peer-reviewed journal articles or give media interviews if the agency approves them.
“What happened yesterday was a misunderstanding,” Christopher Bentley, director of communications for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), told Scientific American Wednesday. He said a second e-mail had been issued late Tuesday to clear things up about the initial message sent earlier that day. “The announcement that our administrator sent to staff last night was less a rescinding of anything than it was a clarification,” Bentley said. He also played down the curbs on press releases and public statements, explaining, “This is what has happened at the transition of every administration…it’s just a pause.”
Yet groups and individuals closely tracking federal science are calling foul on that claim. “There has never been a ban on scientific information. Other administrations have focused on reining in communications on policy, but not on science,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “The USDA scientific integrity policy states that political appointees or any other employees cannot interfere with dissemination of scientific research results. This includes not just scientific publications, but also other ways of communicating with the public that are more accessible and have a broader reach.”
“I’m not aware of any such policy in the past,” agrees David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist who examines the impact of rising temperatures on crop yields. “Our society deeply depends on good science, and good science depends on open communication. If I were one of [these federal scientists], I’d see this as a sign that the administration does not appreciate the critical role that science plays in our nation’s success.”
The original USDA e-mail, sent Monday—as well as Tuesday’s follow-up message—were first reported by BuzzFeed News. The first e-mail told employees there would be a cessation on any “public-facing” documents such as press releases, and that all media interviews would be carefully screened. The follow-up mail reportedly said the original order “is hereby rescinded,” and that the original message had not been properly approved before it was sent out. The second message, written by ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, reportedly went on to note that before answering questions “related to legislation, budgets, policy issues and regulation,” employees should seek approval.
During its first few days in office Pres. Donald Trump’s administration has taken other actions that some see as suppressing public access to scientific information, including instituting social media restrictions at the National Park Service. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also issued internal guidance on Monday, via e-mail, stating its employees would require approval for media interviews and that the EPA would be halting its own press releases and communications, at least temporarily. EPA told Scientific American in a statement Wednesday that they are reviewing their public affairs policies, "A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment," it said. The agency added that they are reviewing all their grants and contracts with the Trump administration (following an announcement earlier this week that they would be temporarily frozen) and expect to be done with that process by the close of business on Friday, January 27.
Editor's Note (1/25/17): This story was updated at 4:50 PM to include a statement from EPA.