Climate Scientists Confront a Culture of Fear and Self-Censorship in Government Agencies

June 18, 2020 | 2:36 pm
Photo: Kaur Kistjan/Unsplash
Maria Caffrey
Former Contributor

This week I was quoted in an article from the New York Times (NYT) about the war on climate science and what those within our federal agencies are doing (or not doing) to protect the science from censorship. It is an excellent article and well worth a read, but I want to follow up with some further thoughts on what we can do to help civil servants who might be facing the dilemma of whether they should prioritize protecting science and risk losing their jobs and livelihoods.

This is based on my experience as a whistleblower calling out the suppression of climate science when I worked with the National Park Service and is not meant to suggest that all federal agencies are facing the same conflict.

A culture of fear and self-censorship

The NYT piece shares four new examples of attempts by government officials to censor science. According to the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Attacks on Science Tracker, there have been more than two dozen attempts just by the Department of the Interior to restrict or prohibit scientific research since January 2017. But this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what we know.

To what degree do each agency’s scientists fear retaliation? A survey of federal scientists conducted by my colleagues Gretchen Goldman and Jacob Carter—published recently in the journal PLOS ONE—showed significant differences between the Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Food and Drug Administration. They also found that in other agencies, key components that contribute to scientific integrity, particularly ethical leadership and feeling valued, have decreased during the Trump administration.

When I worked with the National Park Service I heard on multiple occasions managers express concern that the funding for their departments could be cut if they released a report or publicly shared any scientific information that ran counter to the Trump administration’s opinions and messaging.

The implication was that they had to censor our work to protect the livelihoods of everyone they managed. This kind of fear is a powerful motivator; there are significant consequences for scientists and their managers that include possibly losing their jobs or being forced to move to a new location across the country if they are reassigned a new department.

In my particular case, I chose to accept this risk when my supervisors from the NPS Climate Change Response Program threatened me by saying that their department could be shut down if I refused to allow them to censor my climate change report. I stood firm on the need to be transparent about the science.

The NYT article also gives examples from two of my former colleagues, Marcy Rockman and Patrick Gonzalez, who similarly rejected attempts to censor their work. And what happened after we stood up against censorship? Over the last two years Marcy and I both lost our positions and NPS supervisors sent Patrick  a cease and desist letter warning him to stop speaking out about climate change.

Today the NPS Climate Change Response Program continues with the same managers, who can now point to our cases as intimidating examples of the consequences of standing up for scientific integrity. These are the same managers who passed the buck rather than protect the government scientists they were responsible for. Indeed, the only people to face any repercussions in our three separate cases were the scientists trying to do the right thing.

Choosing to stay silent when witness to scientific violations is not the hallmark of a good leader. It is the action of someone who, in my opinion, is complicit in eroding the public trust in government science.

Marching helps. Action matters more.

Marches and peaceful protests have been an effective way for the public to make their voices heard. The March for Science on Earth Day 2017 was an incredible moment of solidarity, when more than 1 million people marched globally to show their support for science. A 2018 study revealed that 89% of attendees at three of the marches across the country said that science benefits our society and 97% agreed that scientific data are critical for good governance.

I am quoted in the recent NYT article as saying “These are all people who went to the March for Science rallies, but then they got into the office on Monday and completely rolled over.” I saw images on social media of several colleagues from the National Park Service marching and yet some of those same colleagues would later be implicated in efforts to censor scientific research.

Again, this contrast between words and actions could be chalked up to fear. Or perhaps those involved simply try to see themselves as professionals trying to separate their personal opinions from their professional duties. But surely, it should be part of their duty to uphold the scientific integrity policies as well as the missions of their agencies?

There’s no denying that there are personal and professional risks associated with choosing to stand up for science, but there are ways for federal scientists and managers to fight back without going public or risking their jobs. Here are some suggested resources to learn more and understand the range of options for federal workers facing tough choices.

At the end of the day it should never be forgotten that civil servants are there to serve the public first and foremost. And they should be put in an environment where they can do their jobs—not put in positions of having to choose between protecting scientific integrity and maintaining their job. I strongly believe that unbiased government science is an essential part of the public good, and needs our civil servants to be fierce guardians of it.

I understand that fear is pervasive. That is why we need strong leaders at this moment who are prepared to say no to anyone who would ask them to do something contrary to their agency’s mission. And we need political leaders preventing such situations from ever occurring. Actions matter.