Some Environmental Protection Agency officials have been directed not to talk to the news media without prior authorization. That’s according to a memo that was allegedly issued by Robbi Farrell. I don’t know if Farrell is a man or a woman, but this individual does work at EPA’s headquarters. The memo was released yesterday on the website of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.


This Washington, D.C.-based group describes itself as a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals.


PEER claims that Farrell issued the memo to save EPA’s top brass from embarrassment. The goal was to prevent officials from being “surprised” by what they heard in the news.


Reporters aren’t the only people needing authorization to communicate with agency personnel. The same memo basically forbids EPA employees from speaking with anyone from the Inspector General’s office or the Government Accountability Office (the watchdog arm of Congress).


The goal, it seems, is to keep bloodhounds employed by Uncle Sam, Congress, or the Fourth Estate from learning anything that has not first been cleared by people that Farrell names.


I would have thought our government would want to advocate openness and transparency. But it doesn’t — and hasn’t for years, especially at EPA.


I recall attending an EPA conference (as in all attendees worked for EPA except me) about five years ago, where I was the clean-up speaker. During the Q&A, I was asked to suggest how mid-level agency scientists could spread the word about all of the cool and potentially useful research they conducted.


I offered my usual spiel about informing reporters about any papers due to debut soon in research journals or about talks due to be presented in coming weeks at scientific meetings.


Can’t do, the conference attendees said, one and all: “We’re not allowed to talk with reporters.”


One of them, a department head who had been a helpful if cautious source on stories I’d written over the previous two decades offered that the policy had evolving, and recently taken a turn for the worse. She was not even able to answer such an innocuous question as “Where’s the ladies’ room?” At least not if it had been uttered by a journalist.


What’s more, another informed me, agency scientists would never receive clearance to talk with the media about certain especially sensitive topics, even if those scientists had just published on them. High on this thematic gag list: perchlorate, that thyroid-hormone-perturbing ingredient in solid-rocket fuel.


There was a time when a reporter could just pick up the phone and call someone at EPA or most other federal agencies and talk about what the researcher had just published.


No longer.


I’ve learned the drill. I phone the public affairs office and ask for clearance. Often I have to supply the scientist’s phone number and a synopsis of what I hope to learn. Occasionally, I’m required to email this information and wait for hours before I receive word about whether the scientist has been cleared to talk with me. Plenty of times I receive no call-back — not even a courtesy message to say my request has been declined.


I guess this prevents plenty of surprises in the news. It actually prevents plenty of news. And the real losers are we taxpayers who fund agency research (and the salaries of those who hide it).


I don’t think there’s any great conspiracy to bury most research. More likely it’s an over cautiousness about the implications of something that hasn’t been thought about. But research is costly, takes a long time, and deserves to be held up to the scrutiny of those who paid for it. Even journalists, as taxpayers, have a right to find out what we’re paying for — not just the location of rest rooms but the sites of potentially hazardous contamination and whether remedies exist to rid us of it.


Let’s hope the new administration sweeps house, next January, and cleans out such gag-order politics — particularly as it affects science, health, and nonmilitary technology.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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