Department of Interior Censors USGS Press Release on Climate Change, Flooding, and Sea Level Rise

May 23, 2017 | 11:13 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Late yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the United States Geological Survey deleted a sentence acknowledging the link between climate change and sea level rise from an official agency press release. The USGS describes itself as the sole science agency for the Department of Interior. UCS will today formally ask the department to investigate the deletion as a violation of departmental policy.

It’s not the first time that an administration has removed scientific information it doesn’t like from agency communications. What’s different now is that scientists are not taking it quietly. “It’s a crime against the American people,” study co-author Neil Frazer told the Post.

The press release announced a new scientific paper in Nature Scientific Reports co-authored by two USGS scientists which finds that coastal flooding frequency could double in the tropics by mid-century because of global warming. The paper’s abstract leads with the link between climate change and sea level rise. “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding” reads its first sentence.  The science was already clear: global warming is the primary cause of current sea level rise.

The press release, however, intentionally omitted this fact–a demand for deletion that reportedly came from the Department of Interior, in which USGS is housed. “I disagree with the decision from the upper administration to delete it, not with the scientists who deleted it at the administration’s request,” said study co-author Chip Fletcher.

Censorship violates multiple policies

The changes may violate multiple government policies (emphasis added):

  1. The USGS Scientific Integrity Policy states that the agency “will not tolerate loss of integrity in the performance, use, or communication of scientific activities and their results” (my emphasis added).
  2. The DOI Communications Policy requires the office of communications to ensure the accuracy of press releases and other public communications by providing the materials “for review prior to release by scientists, scholars, engineers and other subject matter experts.” Public affairs officials may not “alter the substance of scientific, scholarly and technical information.”
  3. The DOI Scientific Integrity Policy prohibits agency decision makers from “engag[ing] in dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship, or other misconduct that alters the content, veracity, or meaning or that may affect the planning, conduct, reporting, or use of scientific activities.”

 These policies were developed and strengthened by the Department of Interior after repeated scandals where science was censored or rewritten by political appointees. USGS is not a regulatory agency, however, and has traditionally enjoyed much more independence than other agencies within Interior.

Holding the Trump administration accountable

It has become clear that when they can, scientists will speak up when they see political interference in science. But it’s a lot easier for a university researcher like Dr. Fletcher or Dr. Frazer to do so.

Government scientists can file complaints under their agency scientific integrity policies when they witness political interference in the conduct or communication of science. Those who don’t feel comfortable doing so can securely share information with UCS, and we will work with reporters, Congress, inspectors general, and others to investigate and expose any wrongdoing. Together, we can raise the political price for the manipulation or suppression of science.