Department of Interior Buries Communications Policy After Attempting to Justify Muzzling Scientists

June 22, 2018 | 2:26 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times broke the story about the new policy at the U.S. Geological Survey requiring scientists to get permission before speaking to reporters about science. In an attempt to justify the muzzling, a department spokesperson said they were just following an Obama-era communications policy (sound familiar?). After reporters linked to the policy, it was removed from its previous location and buried deep in the DOI website. You can find it there as a Word document; I’ve made a PDF available here

A USGS scientist collects a water-quality sample in Oregon. The Department of Interior has put more controls on what USGS scientists can say publicly.

The idea that the new policy is consistent with the Obama rules is objectively false. This claim in particular sticks in my craw because UCS advocated successfully for changes to agency policies during the Obama administration that expressly and intentionally gave scientists more freedoms to share their expertise publicly. We have extensively analyzed agency scientific integrity and media policies.

So what does the DOI policy say? The DOI policy specifies that the communications office “must be notified in advance of any media interviews, media requests or contacts that may involve significant policy announcements or that may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry” (my emphasis added). Notification and asking for permission are two very different approaches.

Further, regardless of whether the new policy is consistent with previous practices, political appointees should not have the authority to muzzle scientists anywhere in government. These new constraints represent a flagrant violation of both the letter and the spirit of a departmental policy that is intended to encourage scientists to publicly share their expertise. This is especially troubling at USGS, an agency with a longstanding reputation for independence that has no regulatory authority. It’s a science agency. It doesn’t make policy.

No DOI or USGS policy should give political appointees the right to control what USGS scientists share about their scientific research and knowledge. Nowhere in the communications policy or any other policy does it suggest that political appointees get to decide whether a scientist answers a question from a journalist.  Scientists even have the explicit right to share their personal opinions about important issues, so long as they make clear that they are speaking in an individual and not an official capacity.

The clamp down on scientists at USGS comes in an environment of increasing control of scientific information by the federal government. Last year the CDC told its scientists that they needed to ask permission to respond to even basic requests for data. Agency public affairs officials at EPA are increasingly acting as gatekeepers and campaigners, not as facilitators of information flow. This pattern reduces government accountability and robs states, journalists, and the public of access to scientific expertise. This is not the way a democracy should function.