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What's Happening at The US Geological Survey Looks a Lot Like Censorship

Probably because it is.

22 JUN 2018

Over the past year, the Trump administration has been "tightening rules" at the US Geological Survey (USGS). But when you add it all up, what's happening at the science agency looks a lot like censorship.


In May of 2017, the Department of Interior (DOI), deleted a sentence from a USGS press release acknowledging the link between climate change and sea level rise. In December, some scientists at the agency were blocked from going to the biggest meeting in their field. In March of 2018, the DOI tried to change the "inflammatory" language used in a USGS report on melting glaciers.

Now, things appear to be picking up speed. In the past month alone, the Trump administration has introduced two new policies that could be used to severely restrict government scientists from sharing their research with taxpayers.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that before scientists at the USGS can get approval to attend two major conferences, they must submit the titles of their presentations for review and pinpoint how their research fulfils DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke's priorities.

Today, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Trump administration will no longer allow scientists at the US Geological Survey to speak freely about their research with reporters.

According to USGS employees and internal emails, agency scientists must now seek approval from the DOI before they can speak with the media.


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The changes are reminiscent of a former Canadian policy, put in place by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which stopped government scientists from speaking to the media or traveling to scientific conferences.

At the time, an astonishing 90 percent of government scientists surveyed in Canada felt like they were being muzzled.

When the Trump administrations top priorities include the revival of fossil fuels, it's not hard to imagine what could occur when a scientist's work references the primary cause of climate change or, say, the dangers of fracking.

But no matter how dramatic the Trump administration's new policies may seem, the deputy press secretary for the DOI has denied that they even exist, stating that "the characterization that there is any new policy or that it for some reason targets scientists is completely false."

Emails obtained by The LA Times, however, reveal that the DOI's press secretary, Heather Swift, implemented a protocol that forced scientists to seek approval from the DOI when speaking to national outlets or when their research is "very controversial" or "likely to become a national story."


Another email suggested that this policy was not just for the USGS, but also for the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite what the DOI communications team may claim, this appears to be a new and unprecedented policy at the USGS. A media manual, put in place by the Obama administration in 2012, never stipulated that agency employees must get clearance or approval when speaking to reporters.

"This is really quite troubling. … In the 44 years I was with the agency, I was never required to go through anyone for authorization to speak with a reporter," said William Ellsworth, a former chief scientist of the USGS' earthquake hazards team and now a professor of geophysics at Stanford University.

"The USGS is a nonpolitical science agency. … These new roadblocks will not help them fulfill their mission."

USGS employees who spoke to The LA Times said they expect the American public will be seeing a lot less from USGS scientists in the future.

Kate Kelly, a former director of communications at the DOI during the Obama administration, believes that when the USGS is taxpayer-funded, withholding information from the public is simply unacceptable.


"This policy, if it's in fact being implemented as such, has a lot of concerning implications. It essentially gives political appointees veto power over science, scientists and information that the American people should have access to," said Kelly.

"That introduces questions about what scientists are able to say, and whether what they're sharing is some mangled version of the truth."

Even if these two new policies were not intended as censorship, their limitations have made censorship possible. As a consequence, the US March for Science has started a petition, calling on the DOI to protect the public's right to scientific information and the scientist's right to relay that information.

"Scientists should not be required to seek consent for interviews on topics that their agencies decide are 'controversial,'" the petition reads.

"In fact, these are the very subjects that we most need scientists to speak out on."

The petition also comes with a promise to any discouraged scientists currently at the USGS.

"To the federal scientists facing censorship: We support you and will continue to defend your right to communicate your research and knowledge to the general population," the letter reads.

"We will not waiver in our efforts to ensure that your work is used to educate the public and inform equitable, evidence-based policies for all."

Science AF is ScienceAlert's new editorial section where we explore society's most complex problems using science, sanity and humor.

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