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Trump administration clampdowns on research agencies worry scientists

Chaos, confusion reign over how far-reaching, long-lasting directives are

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COMMUNICATION CHAOS  Days of conflicting reports and leaked documents have hit federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency hard, leaving scientists worried about access to unbiased scientific information.  

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Just days into the Trump administration, alarm bells are ringing in the scientific community amid confusing and whiplashing reports of gag orders and funding freezes at the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies.

Various on-again, off-again directives range from putting a hold on tweeting (mostly still on) to banning the sharing of data and fact sheets to a stop on research grants and contracts (now lifted). Given the administration’s apparent skepticism about the role of science in guiding policy, it’s no surprise that this maelstrom of rumors, leaked documents and conflicting reports has left many anticipating the worst.

The EPA provides a case study. On January 23, an EPA employee leaked that agency staff were instructed to put a freeze on all grants and contracts, which delegate and fund state efforts such as water quality testing and air pollution monitoring. A broad ban was also placed on communications, including speaking engagements, press releases, and posting to EPA blogs.

While temporary bans on communicating with the media aren’t that uncommon during a transition between administrations, unnamed former and current EPA employees expressed concern that the reach of the ban and freeze on grants seem extraordinary.

On January 25, Doug Ericksen, head of communications for the Trump administration's EPA transition team, reportedly told the Associated Press that all existing documents and information on the EPA website were under scrutiny and that new work is on a “temporary hold” before it can be released.

A day later, Ericksen called the AP article “completely inaccurate,” telling Science News that the agency will simply be “freshening up” the website. Yet he reiterated that all information on the website, including data and research related to climate change, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Asked what yardstick the agency will use to determine what stays and what goes, he said, “everything is up for review.” Pressed about whether such a vague and broad response might make people uneasy, given some of the Trump administration’s statements about science, Ericksen replied: “We can’t destroy information. That’s not legal.”

He also said that the freeze on EPA grants and contracts has largely been lifted. Of the roughly $3.9 billion in pending contracts, $3.8 billion have been "unpaused," Ericksen said. About $100 million in pending contracts are still under review.

Ericksen described the various leaks as coming from people “who don’t know what they are talking about.”

This communication chaos is mirrored at USDA: On January 23, an e-mail banned agency employees from communicating with the public via “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.” This missive, leaked to Buzzfeed, came from the head of the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s research branch, which has hundreds of programs investigating everything from the genetic diversity of wheat to fire ant invasions. That ban was rescinded the following day; officials said the communications clampdown hadn’t been cleared or coordinated with other USDA offices.

Some restrictions are normal in a transition, says Andrew Rosenberg, a former administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the George H.W. Bush-to-Bill Clinton transition. Putting a hold on making policy statements is one of those.

Withholding scientific results is not, and that fear looms, says Rosenberg, who now directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. Banning the release and discussion of research and data would directly violate the various scientific integrity policies that guide federal agencies. Among other things, these policies state that federal scientists may speak to the media and public about their work. The EPA’s policy also says: “To operate an effective science and regulatory agency like the EPA, it is also essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings.”

“Science isn’t intended to reflect a new administration. Science is intended to reflect data and evidence,” Rosenberg says.

Amid the fear and confusion, there are ongoing efforts by outside groups such as DataRefuge to store data, especially that related to climate change, on nongovernmental servers and sites.

Some federal employees (and their supporters) have also taken matters into their own hands, underscoring changes to a political landscape wrought by Twitter. The country’s top executive’s fondness for the social media platform is now being echoed by rogue science advocates, who despite bans, are still tweeting about science via multiple alternative accounts.

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