“I can’t afford to make any wrong moves,” a PhD scientist and career federal worker recently confided to us, adding grimly, “they are watching us closely.” Normally cheerful and extroverted, she now often appears tired and frazzled. She is not alone—not by a long shot. As federal science and technology (S&T) budgets are being squeezed, and key programs and offices are being zeroed out altogether, federal government employees are becoming fearful of losing their jobs, which are becoming increasingly stressful.
The degree to which the White House has depended on S&T advice to form policy has varied widely from administration to administration, but not until now has a US President broadly cast aside science itself as irrelevant, even inconvenient, to public policymaking. The anti-science, pro-deregulation posture of the Trump Administration is creating an environment where federal scientists and engineers—especially those working in areas antithetical to White House ideologies—are having to endure a variety of insults to their professional integrity. Arbitrary transfers to undesired positions; overt censorship; gag orders; disappearing transparency; prohibitions on open communication with the public and the press; and politically-motivated micromanagement and hypercritical scrutiny: all of these send the clear message that the work they do as civil servants striving for the public good is no longer valued. Being a career scientist makes one persona non grata when science itself has a bad name in the White House, and science-based policymaking is being openly ignored across the entire Executive Branch.
Imagine devoting one’s career to better understanding Earth’s complex climate and weather systems, and to communicating climate change causes and risks to Congress and the public, only to be told that the use of the word ‘climate’ itself is taboo, and to reconfigure work products away from climate change, or else! The “else” could mean suffering reprisals or being canned altogether. Picture being a young, ambitious PhD scientist with a job at a research laboratory where a keen interest in understanding how climate change is affecting our bays and estuaries can be freely pursued. Then imagine accepting an invitation to present your research at a conference, only to suddenly be ordered to bow out. This actually happened last fall to three EPA research lab scientists studying the health of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island: each was to give a talk on the deleterious effects of climate change on the Bay, and each was abruptly forced to cancel. Investigative reporting quickly revealed that John Konkus, a political appointee in EPA’s public affairs office, had placed a Friday afternoon phone call to the Narragansett EPA lab director ordering him to prohibit the three scientists from speaking at Monday’s conference.
Federal S&T workers in other areas of focus are experiencing similar instances of suppression. Much of our evidence at the moment is anecdotal. That is why the Union of Concerned Scientists is currently surveying 63,000 government scientists on the status of scientific integrity—this will help to fill the gaps in data and information. The survey will remain open until March 26.
Reactions in the federal workforce have been mixed. Many are leaving their posts in droves—most often quietly, even after years of service. Others are quitting in protest and choosing a “noisy exit”—by naming names, and publicly calling out wrongdoing they’ve witnessed. EPA Region 10 veteran Michael Cox was so put off by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that he took early retirement last year from his position as climate change advisor. In a scathing departure letter, Cox let Administrator Pruitt know that EPA staff were “becoming increasingly alarmed about the direction of EPA” and cited Pruitt’s blatant denial of established climate science, his frequent demonizing of the agency, his decision to bring in political appointees hostile to the EPA, and his failure to grasp the role of EPA’s ten regional offices.
A courageous few blow the whistle: they retain legal counsel specializing in whistleblower protection, and boldly speak truth to power by criticizing actions that are unethical, immoral, or illegal. A legal complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, accompanied by a hard-hitting Washington Post op-ed by federal whistleblower Joel Clement, offers a case in point. A top climate advisor at the Department of Interior publicly alarmed at the effect of climate change on Alaskan native populations, Clement was transferred by Secretary Zinke to an office that counts oil and gas royalties.
The vast majority of federal scientists choose to remain in their current positions, out of admirable dedication and economic necessity, and become “quiet copers” who play it safe, keep a low profile, and engage in self-censorship as a survival strategy. In the current environment, where the chilling effect has reached sub-zero temperatures, blowing the whistle can feel scary and futile. The sad fact is that most employees who witness workplace wrongdoing stay silent, out of fear of reprisal, fear that speaking out will fail to solve the problem, or both.
We believe becoming fully informed of one’s legal rights to report wrongdoing can be an effective antidote against these fears and encourage all federal employees to familiarize themselves with these rights. To this end, GAP has developed a new resource, Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, for federal employees reluctant to stay silent in the face of serious abuses of public trust.
Science-based policymaking is a hallmark of American tradition and a linchpin of good governance. We hope all 63,000 federal scientists who received UCS’s 2018 Federal Scientist Survey will respond by answering the questions carefully and candidly, so that we can better identify and address threats to scientific integrity.
Dana Gold is an attorney and currently serves as the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) Director of Education, implementing public education initiatives and partnering with diverse stakeholders in collaborative efforts to foster awareness of the essential role whistleblowers play in promoting government and corporate accountability. In addition to her work with GAP, where she focused for many years representing dozens of whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons complex, Dana co-founded and directed the Center on Corporations, Law & Society at Seattle University School of Law, and served as a Network Fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics focusing on whistleblowing and institutional corruption.
Anne Polansky, Senior Climate Policy Analyst for GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch program, has over 30 years of experience in science-based public policymaking in the areas of climate change, renewable energy, and sustainability. She has held management positions with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; and the Solar Energy Industries Association; and has provided specialized consulting services for a variety of non-profit organizations. Anne holds a MS degree in environmental chemistry and engineering from Clemson University and a BS degree from Vanderbilt University.
Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.
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