Scientific Integrity Under Scrutiny During Trump’s First Week

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Last week, a flurry of reports out of science-related federal agencies indicated that they had restricted external communications, among other changes.  Although these changes now appear not to have represented any immediate long-term shift in policy on scientific communications, scientific organizations have reaffirmed their commitment to scientific freedom and integrity.

During President Trump’s first week in office, reports of federal agency clampdowns on external communications sparked fears that scientific integrity within the government could be under threat. As reported in FYI 2016 #157, scientists and Democratic lawmakers first began to express worries about scientific integrity under Trump soon after the November election, particularly with respect to climate science. While the events of the past week now appear not to have augured any immediate change in agency policies, they have left many scientists in a state of heightened vigilance.

Scientific integrity a concern leading up to inauguration

Scientific integrity first became a flashpoint during the presidential transition period when members of Trump’s transition team submitted a questionnaire to DOE officials requesting the names of employees and contractors who had participated in certain climate-related working groups and conferences. The implication that individuals could be targeted for discriminatory action based on their past work led to widespread protest, and Trump’s transition office quickly disavowed the document. Responding to a letter from nine Democratic senators on the matter, the U.S. special counsel, an independent federal prosecutor, explained the incident did not warrant action. She did, though, affirm that “any effort to chill scientific discourse or research” would constitute a violation of in-place whistleblower protection laws.

Questions about scientific integrity arose during confirmation hearings for some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Rick Perry, Trump’s selection to lead DOE, expressed his own objection to the questionnaire, and said that he would “protect all of the science,” including climate research, that is conducted in the department. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, who would have responsibility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said that “science should be left to scientists,” and that he would not withhold research results or apply a “political filter” to them.

Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, the House Science Committee Democrats’ website set up a page where whistleblowers can report violations of scientific integrity at federal agencies. The website includes a reminder that all U.S. citizens have a “constitutional right” to contact Congress.

Intra-agency messages and actions spark confusion

In the days following the inauguration, scientific integrity suddenly became a subject of intense discussion within the government and scientific community as reports emerged that:

  • Communications restrictions had been put in place at EPA, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institutes of Health, and DOE’s SunShot Initiative;
  • EPA had frozen all new grants and contracts; and
  • Climate-related information had been, or was set to be, removed from websites at EPA and the State Department

In many cases, it was initially unclear whether these developments would prove temporary or augured a long-term change in policy, as well as whether they originated within agencies or stemmed from a White House directive. In most cases, if the changes did represent new policies, they could have violated agency and department-level scientific integrity policies. On Jan. 25, the Office of Special Counsel issued a notice reminding federal employees that “gag orders” violate whistleblower protection statutes. Meanwhile, on Jan. 24, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that officials at the White House were unaware of any such gag orders.

As events unfolded, agencies began to walk back certain restrictions and to issue clarifications that scientific communications were not being suppressed. ARS, for instance, claimed its restrictions were simply a restatement of existing policy that employees clear policy-relevant communications with senior officials. NIH officials reported that its restriction pertained to a Jan. 20 White House memorandum instructing agencies to freeze regulatory actions and to refrain from making statements with a regulatory or statutory effect until pending actions were reviewed.

Regulatory reviews are common at the beginning of a presidency. The Obama administration, for instance, issued its own freeze notice on Inauguration Day 2009. The Trump administration’s review does seem to go further, particularly in its grant freeze at EPA. Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, told Nature that “what has happened so far is beyond what is normal for transitions.” Myron Ebell, the outgoing head of the Trump transition team at EPA, told Pro Publica that the actions there were “a little wider than some previous administrations,” but that they were still “very similar to what others have done.” The EPA grant freeze was lifted on Jan. 27. The agency’s website review appears to be ongoing.

Scientific organizations in state of vigilance

As reports of agency actions emerged, scientists and scientific organizations responded quickly, reaffirming their opposition to any infringement on scientific freedom at federal agencies.

The American Meteorological Society, an AIP Member Society, readopted its statement on “Freedom of Scientific Expression” on Jan. 24 during its annual meeting, which was being held in Seattle. The same day, the American Association for the Advancement of Science responded to events by referring to its own 2006 statement opposing restrictions on scientific freedom in the government. The organization’s CEO Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman, said that if the agency actions were “trial balloons of a policy about to be put in place, we want it known, far and wide, that that’s unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, agency employees have been expressing their own anxieties to reporters at several news outlets, mainly anonymously out of an expressed fear of retaliation. “Rogue” Twitter accounts, many purporting to be run by federal employees on their own time, have often promoted science that could potentially be targeted for suppression. Support has also been growing around a “March for Science” being planned for April 22 in Washington, D.C. and other cities, with hundreds of thousands of individuals following the preparations on Facebook and Twitter.

While attention has been growing around the march in particular, some scientists have been wary of the community embracing such an activist approach. E&E News, for instance, reports that physicist Cherry Murray, who just stepped down as head of the DOE Office of Science, is concerned that the march could cast scientists as akin to “any other special-interest group,” making their work more vulnerable to budget cuts. An op-ed in the New York Times by coastal geologist Robert Young expressed a similar worry.

Although last week’s wave of events has now mostly receded, scientific integrity is set to remain a prominent issue in the near future. Some congressional Republicans have long maintained that it was actually under the Obama administration that scientific integrity had been injured by political bias at EPA and at other departments and agencies. The House Science Committee now plans to push a new version of the “EPA Secret Science Reform Act,” which would open the scientific basis of regulations to broader scrutiny and criticism. The committee has also scheduled a hearing entitled “Making EPA Great Again” for Feb. 7, at which its agenda will no doubt be fleshed out further.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is preparing to unveil a new bill that would reaffirm protections to scientific integrity originally put in place in the America COMPETES Act of 2007.

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