According to an email obtained by
BuzzFeed News, the department told staff – including some 2,000 scientists – at
the agency’s main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service
(ARS), to stop communicating with the public about their work.
“Starting immediately and until
further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon
Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email shared with
BuzzFeed News. “This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos,
fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” she added.
I am impressed by the bold and
defiant response to the threats and reassured that if the Trump administration
does try any widescale gagging, US researchers will not be easily cowed.
But we need to be careful to examine
what is really happening in the US and not risk the very distortion or
exaggeration of which we accuse Trump of perpetuating.
My first question when reading the
Buzzfeed piece was whether the email from the chief of staff was a response to
an instruction from the administration or self-censorship by a risk averse
senior manager. The SMC has seen in the UK how fear of damaging relations with
Government departments has led to unnecessary self-censorship in research
institutes. And indeed, within 24 hours of the news of the gagging order
on ARS scientists Buzzfeed updated their report to reveal that the gagging
order from the chief of staff was apparently lifted.
I am also keen to know whether any of
these restrictions have happened at the early stages of previous
administrations. After all, we have purdah in the UK, a rule that means no government
research institutes or research councils are allowed to publish or say anything
publicly about science during general elections, council elections or
referendums. I was once asked to leave a scientific meeting of
toxicologists immediately after my speech because there were government
scientists in the room and they could not be heard, even by me, during an
Similarly, confusion surrounds the
widely circulated and shocking reports of a move to remove the EPA web pages on
climate research. According to Scientific American that order has also been countermanded and the pages
will remain, though talk of reviewing the content remains ominous.
In recent weeks, federal employees at
the National Parks Service, EPA and other agencies have reported they are
under “gag orders” – restricted from using social media
or taking any action not approved by the new administration. As of Monday
evening, the EPA hadn’t tweeted a single item since 19 January, the day before
Trump was sworn in as president.
At NOAA (the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration), however, social media managers continue to post information about climate
change. This includes a tweet on the 25 January directing people to the
agency’s fact sheet on climate change, which states that human activities are
the major cause of the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere. So it is unclear
exactly who is under restriction and who is abiding by the order.
The other thing I am keen to know is
whether US government researchers have enjoyed more academic freedom than their
counterparts in other countries up to now. The reports of the gagging of government researchers in Canada became
a global scandal in the scientific community. But the transparency around the
introduction of the Canadian gagging policy and its later glorious and explicit
lifting – within hours of the election of a new government – left government
scientists in New Zealand, Australia and the UK scratching their heads as
to why similar rules in our countries were passing unchallenged. Colleagues who
have worked in media relations and journalism in the UK and the US confirm that
US government scientists enjoy much more free speech than their UK
counterparts. If so, then any threat now is a travesty and must be resisted
with vigour; these freedoms once lost are hard to re-gain. But this article widely circulated last year suggested
that US government research institutes might not have been the bastion of
unfettered open communication we like to think. Government research agencies in
the US it seems were already suffering from the affliction of controlling and
politicised communications managers,
a phenomenon which can have as chilling an effect on free speech
and open inquiry as any gagging orders.
We in the UK also need to avoid hypocrisy
in denouncing the US government’s gagging of scientists when what we may be
seeing in the US is the introduction of restrictions that have been in place on
our own government- employed researchers for many years. The SMC has
enjoyed great success in the UK and we are highly acclaimed for our work in
persuading more scientists to engage with the topical controversies hitting the
headlines. But we have abjectly failed in our attempts to free government
researchers from the controls and restrictions placed upon them. There
are hundreds of researchers in one government research institute who we are
barred from speaking to directly and cannot add to our database, even though
they are researching areas that desperately need more explanation to the media
In the past week I have sat and
watched an agency, set up to be arm’s-length from Government, castigated for
communications that have caused embarrassment to a government department. I
also discovered that another agency that I see as independent has to have its
website pages approved by the Cabinet Office. Believe me, that was a standard
In the last two years the SMC has
joined forces with our friends in science to fight a new Code requiring all civil servants to
seek prior approval from a minister before speaking to the press and another new rule restricting those who receive
government money from lobbying for change. So there are battles to fight
closer to home too.
None of this is to say that we should not all be joining in solidarity with our US science colleagues, and the march on London planned around the impact of Brexit will rightly have an element of camaraderie with researchers who face new threats to their freedom. But, in our anger and dismay, we should be careful not to fall into lazy thinking about the new administration. We need to check our facts, work out what is real censorship and what is self-censorship and which rules are a genuine break from the past. More than anything, those of us in the UK who are alarmed by this news need to galvanise our anger against a US threat by looking to our own backyard. After all, if the new president wants handy tips on how to stop the mass media freely accessing government researchers, he need look no further than the UK.