Science is in the news again! Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life. No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer. In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.
It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration. Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights. Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything? It’s all good! In place of the climate change and LGBT information? Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.
Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well. This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”. It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity. “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating. Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.
Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”. The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”. EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”. In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.
Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration. I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message. Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change. Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:
Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies. The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from Salon.com notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:
A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.
Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.
The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent. Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.
The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.