EPA logo, via Wiki­media Commons

When politi­cians interfere with science, the sci­en­tific com­munity tweets back.

Many sci­en­tists have raised con­cerns about com­mu­ni­cation bans imposed on gov­ernment agencies which affect researchers’ ability to discuss their work with the public. Pres­ident Trump has already removed infor­mation about climate change from the White House’s website, and a spokesman for his tran­sition team said it is also reviewing the website of the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tection Agency.

Not all of the com­mu­ni­cation bans came directly from the Trump admin­is­tration, and most have since been rescinded. But all came in rapid suc­cession within the first week of Trump’s pres­i­dency. The Department of Agri­culture, Department of Health and Human Ser­vices, Envi­ron­mental Pro­tection Agency, Department of the Interior, and National Park Service all imposed some form of com­mu­ni­cation ban.

Most of the memos, cir­cu­lated inter­nally, allowed for pub­li­cation in aca­demic journals and allowed department-approved media inter­views, but pro­hibited more public forms of com­mu­ni­cating research such as press releases, fact sheets, and social media content.

According to NPR, a number of unof­ficial, “rogue” Twitter accounts have been created to resemble official gov­ernment department Twitter accounts, though most account man­agers claim not to be federal employees. Accounts such as @RogueNASA, @ActualEPAFacts, and @Alt_NASA have each gained more than 150,000 fol­lowers since their inception earlier this month.

Some, such as Jeff Ruch, exec­utive director of Public Employees for Envi­ron­mental Respon­si­bility, said these types of com­mu­ni­cation bans are typical of tran­si­tioning admin­is­tra­tions. Fre­quently, he said, the out­going admin­is­trators makes last-minute changes to policies and rules that the new admin­is­trators want to review and reverse if nec­essary.

“What they are doing now is getting a hold of the reg­u­latory mech­anism, not only at Interior but all agencies,” Ruch said to the Wall Street Journal. “As far as we are con­cerned, that’s legit­imate.”

Others, such as Andrew Rosenberg, former deputy director of the National Marine Fish­eries Service under the Clinton admin­is­tration and a director of the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists non­profit group, claim these com­mu­ni­cation bans give too much power over research to politi­cians.

“This isn’t normal,” Rosenberg said. “The idea sci­en­tific infor­mation should be vetted by the political people before it goes out doesn’t make sense.”

Regardless of the origins and intent of the com­mu­ni­cation bans, cit­izens should be wary of political influence on sci­en­tific research, whether it takes the form of a com­mu­ni­cation ban or not. In addition to over­ar­ching, hot-button issues such as climate change, researchers at agencies such as the EPA also provide valuable insight on issues such as air quality, chemical safety, and water pol­lution.

Public com­mu­ni­cation about these issues helps inform cit­izens about the ways they can min­imize their own impact on the envi­ronment in ways that aca­demic research journals and sci­en­tific con­fer­ences cannot. Con­straining public dis­sem­i­nation of research pre­vents people from exam­ining the evi­dence and con­clu­sions for them­selves, which can lead to mis­in­for­mation and groundless con­vic­tions.

The recent com­mu­ni­cation bans, though tem­porary, serve as a reminder that there is no sub­stitute for factual infor­mation, and changes in admin­is­tration shouldn’t pro­hibit public research com­mu­ni­cation.
Ms. Jepsen is a junior studying bio­chem­istry and jour­nalism.

  • disqus_odKVC5cL1k

    You fail to dif­fer­en­tiate between science and policy. Peer reviewed journals ensure that the data backs the state­ments, and the back­ground sup­ports the paper. Public com­mu­ni­ca­tions that the general public can consume are at best sound bites, and more often than not are state­ments of policy, not science. So, telling folks to recycle may make them feel good, it’s hardly cost effective. Telling someone to buy “green” power when it costs 2x or more than other options simply isn’t an option when folks already work mul­tiple jobs just to make ends meet.

    The new admin­is­tration indi­cated it wouldn’t pursue many of the same policies of the exiting admin­is­tration, so why would con­trolling the mes­saging from the gov­ernment be sur­prising. The new boss says the party line is whatever it is, if you work for the gov­ernment, it’s your job to publish policy state­ments in line with what was handed down, or you can get another job, simple as that. Nothing pre­vents science, but policy state­ments come from the top down, dis­agree, go work for someone you agree with then.