8 Simple Words Energy Secretary Rick Perry Can Say Right Now to Reaffirm that Scientists Won’t Be Muzzled

March 30, 2017 | 9:10 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Late Tuesday afternoon, Politico reported that some managers at the Department of Energy (DOE) orally instructed employees in the department’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy not to use phrases such as “climate change” or “emissions reduction” in official communications. The department denied that any words or phrases had been banned. In the current political context, there are steps the administration should take to clear up the confusion that these allegations create.

The report suggests that the directive came from career-level DOE managers concerned about inflaming tensions with Secretary Rick Perry’s office or the White House. It is fairly common for civil servants to talk about the work they do in terms that political bosses want to hear.

Amidst confusion about whether Department of Energy employees can speak openly about climate change, Secretary Rick Perry should affirm that the government is in the business of uncovering the truth, not covering it up.

Further, social science tells us that it is important to frame conversations differently for different audiences depending on their values. When it comes to climate change, this might mean emphasizing energy independence or infrastructure resiliency. Indeed, a former DOE staffer told E&E News (paywalled) that “the drill is you change ‘climate change’ to competitiveness.’ ”

But the science—and public understanding of it—can suffer greatly when scientists don’t feel free to share information related to their jobs, even (and especially) if that information is politically inconvenient to some. Science-informed decision making is possible only when scientists feel empowered to take risks, ask difficult questions, and talk about what their results might mean for policy solutions.

Federal employees who continue to communicate climate change are simply doing their jobs. This is a critical point: it is not defiant or rebellious for scientists to communicate scientific facts. This is recognized by the existing DOE scientific integrity policy, which states in part that federal supervisors:

[w]ill neither suppress nor alter scientific or technological findings and will not intimidate or coerce federal staff, contractors, recipients of financial assistance awards, or any others, to suppress or alter scientific or technological findings or conclusions.”

During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Perry was asked by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell if he would “protect the science research at DOE related to climate,” he responded as follows:

I’m going to protect all of the science, whether it’s related to the climate, or to the other aspects of what we’re going to be doing…I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them, no matter what their reason may be, at the Department of Energy.”

Now would be a great time for the secretary to double down on those words and clear up any confusion by publicly affirming that DOE experts are encouraged to collaborate with each other and communicate with the public.

He can do so by saying these eight words: Department experts should communicate openly about their work.

This is especially important now given that DOE employees who work on climate change were targeted during the transition and the department appeared to have difficulty allowing its experts to openly express their views in the not-so-distant past.

This positive and public affirmation is important. Right now, scientists across the government are deeply concerned about whether they will be able to continue to use their expertise to protect public health and the environment. This feeling is especially acute for climate experts. Indeed, the CDC already cancelled a climate change conference in anticipation of the new administration’s priorities. Such moves send a message to scientists to be careful communicating their work.

Far worse than banning words, however, is the idea that the government will just zero out climate change work altogether, or abandon any efforts to prepare our country for the future. Climate change research and data collection programs are heavily targeted in President Trump’s proposed budget.

While it’s not surprising that the climate change conspiracy theorists who swarmed the Trump transition team had significant impact on the proposed budget, the fact remains that cutting these programs would be a grave mistake. Let’s not let a debate over what words we can use get in the way of focusing attention on the tragic effects that the president’s plans to cut climate science and roll back science-based public protections will have on our future.

Because if a scientist yells climate change but there’s nobody there to hear it, well, it really doesn’t matter if it makes a sound now, does it.