U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) plant molecular biologist Alisa Huffaker and postdoctoral research associate Martha Vaughan treat plants with the maize peptide ZmPep1, which is a signal to activate a broad array of defense in the greenhouse at the Chemistry Research Unit in Gainesville, FL on Oct. 4, 2011. Photo: Hans Alborn/CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia

Science Must Trump Politics at the USDA, Especially During Turbulent Times

, science and policy analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | January 26, 2017, 3:54 pm EDT
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It has been a rough week for scientists at federal agencies. As the administration has changed over and new leadership is beginning to find its footing, there has been a flurry of emails and directives coming down to agency staff. There are critical democracy concerns with some of the calls seen at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services to halt communication with the media, suspension of social media accounts at the Department of Interior, and hiring and grant and contract freezes at EPA. But what is especially concerning for us here at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is the impact that these actions would have on scientists’ freedom to conduct their research and discuss their findings with the public.

On Tuesday morning, BuzzFeed reported that the chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), had sent out an email to department staff ordering ARS scientists not to communicate to the public: “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

Here at UCS, we were immediately taken aback because of the directive’s contrast with the spirit of the department’s own strong scientific integrity policy, mandated under the Obama administration and revised this past December. The policy includes provisions to protect staff scientists from political interference, empower them to share their research with the public, and ensure their freedom to review documents based on their research before public release, as well as their ability to participate fully in the scientific community, even outside of agency capacity. There are now 24 executive-branch departments and agencies that have developed scientific integrity policies, including the USDA, which is one of the few departments that have a dedicated full-time staffer to ensure the policy’s implementation.

While UCS has in the past had certain concerns about the strength of the USDA’s policy, as well as its enforcement, the latest policy is significantly improved in the protections it provides for USDA scientists. A directive effectively suppressing the research of agency scientists would be completely opposed to the intent of the policy to “encourage, but not require, USDA scientists to participate in communications with the media regarding their scientific findings (data and results)” and to “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information.”

The Center for Science and Democracy’s director, Andrew Rosenberg, said, “Both the EPA and the USDA have developed scientific integrity policies that, among other things, protect scientists’ right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.” And as UCS President Ken Kimmell stated, “It’s simple: public servants should be free to state scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions are acceptable for public consumption.”

After similar backlash from multiple news sources and the scientific community, ARS administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young sent an email hours after the aforementioned email that “hereby rescinded” the previous order and told researchers that it should never have been issued. Our own communications with USDA officials on Tuesday indicated that scientist communications will not be prohibited as the email suggested, but will instead go through an extra layer of review from top officials according to a USDA interim procedure.

To be clear, it is perhaps unsurprising that a new administration would be interested in managing communications on policy-related matters at federal agencies, but strictly scientific communications shouldn’t be subject to political vetting. The extent of this review and the fact that it will likely slow down communication of science is of concern, especially since political appointees should not have a say in whether the findings of taxpayer funded research are seen by the public. The USDA’s own scientific policy reads that “scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subject to inappropriate influence.”

Why the USDA’s research matters for us all

With all of the reporting on the process issues, it’s easy to forget about the real-life consequences of suppressing government science. The USDA and its thousands of scientists and other experts are central to the advancement of knowledge about the nation’s farming and food system. In particular, the long-term research conducted by USDA-ARS scientists and staff feeds into a network of public universities and agricultural extension agents working in every state to translate science for practical application and provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. On behalf of farmers, ARS scientists conduct research on issues such as animal diseases, soil erosion, and crop productivity.

ARS also plays a role in protecting the public’s health, with research projects to assess Americans’ food consumption, provide the scientific basis for federal dietary guidance, and keep the food supply safe. It is critical to the health of the nation that this work remains unrestricted and accessible.

While it appears that one individual at ARS made a sweeping statement that wasn’t consistent with the agency’s operating guidelines, Tuesday’s events revealed the USDA’s general lack of organization amidst a changing administration. But perhaps this is not a huge surprise, considering that President Trump’s nomination of his agriculture secretary, Governor Sonny Perdue, was the final cabinet position left unfilled, and that he will not likely have a confirmation hearing before until mid-to-late February. All signs point to the fact that the USDA is not the highest priority agency for the Trump administration, which is disheartening considering the importance and wide scope of the USDA’s authority, ranging from the lunch menu at a school in New York City to the crop insurance coverage received by farmers in Montana. And surprising, given that farmers and rural voters overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in November.

USDA must fully implement and uphold its shiny new SI policy

While the USDA adjusts under new leadership, it is incredibly important that it continue to abide by its own scientific integrity policy, which was just updated at the end of 2016. It has been substantially strengthened since my colleague Gretchen Goldman last wrote about the concerns we had with USDA’s 2013 scientific integrity policy. One of the major issues was that the USDA had not explicitly given its scientists the ability to express their personal views, whether or not they clarified they were not speaking on behalf of the USDA. We were pleased to see in their most recent policy, released late last year, the inclusion of a personal views exception, which states:

When communicating with the media or the public in their personal capacities, USDA scientists may express their personal views and opinions; however, they should not claim to officially represent the Department or its policies, or use the Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos.  Personal or private activities may not violate Federal ethics rules.

Overall, the new policy clarifies procedures in greater detail and offers more flexibility for scientists for whom the policy applies, and you can see the policy got a top grade in our new report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking. We hope the USDA continues to fully enforce its new policy and to look for ways to improve upon it, especially considering any findings from an ongoing audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General on scientific integrity within the agency. In the meantime, we will continue to be vigilant and to hold the USDA accountable for its intent to foster a culture of scientific integrity within the agency, under all circumstances, no matter how chaotic. Because silencing science is never okay.

 

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