Scientific Integrity at Risk: Government Censorship of Climate Change Information

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By Anne Polansky
CSPW Sr. Climate Policy Analyst

The Trump Administration’s overall approach to climate change is basically akin to shouting LA-LA-LA-LA-LA with your hands over your ears. Cabinet members and top officials across departments and agencies are refusing to admit that this existential threat even exists, and are behaving as though the problem is not real or will magically disappear if it is not talked about or acknowledged in any way. This bizarre case of group denial does have one plausible explanation: scientific findings (i.e., anthropogenic climate change is real, and has dangerous impacts that are happening now and will worsen over time) are antithetical to a shared ideology (i.e. “climate change is a hoax”). Moreover, facing the problem squarely and honestly runs contrary to a shared value system – one that discounts the need for government regulation, favors industry growth and profit over public health and safety, and places a high priority on maximizing domestic fossil fuel extraction. Al Gore had it right: the truth of climate change is simply too inconvenient for this bunch.

Scientific integrity across US government agencies is at risk, and must be aggressively defended…

Scientific integrity is at risk, and must be aggressively defended
The big erasure of all things climate is well underway; government censorship is running rampant. Wide swaths of informational content about climate change science and impacts are being systematically scrubbed from federal agency websites, particularly at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – see the November 22 New York Times op-ed piece “Censoring Climate Change. A group called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) tediously tracks and reports these removals and, by doing so, is performing a crucial watchdog role over this administration’s irresponsible approach to climate change. The group’s reports are thorough and informative; for example, EDGI released a report (.pdf) in October describing in great detail the removal of an EPA website called “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments.” Founded just over one year ago, EDGI describes itself as “an international network of academics and non-profits addressing potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy, and to the scientific research infrastructure built to investigate, inform, and enforce them.” CSPW shares this group’s stated concern that “[d]ismantling this infrastructure — which ranges from databases to satellites to models for climate, air, and water — could imperil the public’s right to know, the United States’ standing as a scientific leader, corporate accountability, and environmental protection.” In other words, it is not wise to fly blind.

Government censorship is also occurring in the form of gag orders: federal scientists are being prevented from presenting talks on climate change at conferences and meetings. We know of some specific instances of this, but fear that much of this form of suppressing free speech is going unreported. CSPW reported in detail the recent case of three EPA scientists in Rhode Island who were ordered not to give planned presentations at a workshop on the health of the Narragansett Bay; the order came from John Konkus, a political appointee in the EPA’s Public Affairs Office, less than one business day before the event on October 23. In another case, Scientific American reports that a scientist with the US Forest Service is being denied permission to even attend an upcoming conference hosted by the Association for Fire Ecology where he was slated to give a talk titled “Climate-Induced Variations in Global Severe Fire Weather Conditions.” Given the raging wildfires occurring right now in Southern California, exacerbated by whipping Santa Ana winds, the relationship between climate change and the conditions that have turned much of the Southwest into a tinder box should be of interest.

Probably the most egregious example of censorship to date was the abrupt reassignment of Joel Clement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Clement was moved from his post as Policy Advisor covering climate change impacts in Alaska to the office that collects oil royalty checks. Clement blew the whistle, filed formal complaints, and eventually quit his new post in protest; CSPW has written extensively about his case.

Censorship is also coming in the form of targeted budget cuts. Federal climate change research programs coordinated under the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) are being subjected to draconian cuts; many are being downsized or totally defunded, and climate change scientists are now routinely being reassigned to other projects. These cuts are not being imposed because the need for climate research is diminished; quite the opposite – as the risks grow in severity, so does the need to better understand our climate system.

The Pushback: Activism, Political Participation, and Whistleblowing
Alarmed at the anti-science messaging coming from the White House, scientists organized a mass demonstration earlier this year: the March for Science on April 22 (Earth Day) was held in Washington, DC and in 600 other cities around the globe. GAP hosted a workshop on whistleblowing that was packed full with interested participants. The March for Science event was not a one-off; the organizers have put together an impressive website and are encouraging scientists everywhere to be more politically active (see The Washington Post, “Six months later, the March for Science tries to build a lasting movement”).

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has also revved up its push for greater scientific integrity, primarily through its Center for Science and Democracy. UCS has also revived its Scientific Integrity Working Group, comprised of a variety of nonprofit advocacy organizations with an interest in protecting government science and scientists from political interference. The group meets monthly and offers a platform for interested parties to share information and advocate together for stronger scientific integrity across all federal entities. One offshoot project encourages federal employees to “Take a Note for the Record” – to document their observations of incidents of concern to them, such as instances of censorship or politically-motivated interference in their work or in communication of their findings, and, when documenting more sensitive matters, to keep a private set of notes stored away from the workplace.

UCS is also preparing a survey for federal employees across about a dozen agencies engaged in scientific research; the survey asks approximately 30 questions designed to gauge each employee’s sense of their own freedom to conduct their research and communicate their results, and their overall awareness of avenues for reporting observed wrongdoing (such as violations to an agency’s scientific integrity policy) and of their whistleblower rights. The survey will go out in early 2018 and will provide a glimpse into the way federal scientists are being treated under this administration and how they are responding to mistreatment. A good summary of UCS’s survey program and the results of past surveys can be found on their website (here).

GAP Steps Up its Outreach to the Scientific Community
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) will be represented at the upcoming conference (the Fall Meeting) of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in New Orleans. GAP Investigator Zack Kopplin will be presenting a talk about whistleblowing rights for federal employees at a “town hall” meeting at the conference, and handing out an informational fact sheet on whistleblower rights.

Similarly, GAP will be reaching out to other large scientific societies – such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Chemical Society (ACS), the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and so on, to help educate member scientists on whistleblower rights and safety precautions to exercise when blowing the whistle.

New Group Gets EPA to Affirm its Commitment to Scientific Integrity
One of these new groups, calling themselves Speak Out for Science, formed a political action committee (PAC) called 314 Action. Only math majors and science geeks will get the reference to the mathematical constant: Pi (π). The PAC’s mission is focused on seeing more people from the STEM community (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) be elected to political office, and advocating for “evidence-based policy solutions to issues like climate change,” according to their website.

Speak Out for Science and 314 Action say they are “calling on US government scientists to blow the whistle on malfeasance, science being silenced, and other evidence of this administration’s war on science” and announce their Scientific Integrity Whistleblower Project on their website. The group promises confidentiality, and offers legal support as well as secure and anonymous methods for whistleblowers to come forward. While GAP encourages new groups like these to emerge, we also caution that best practices must be carefully adhered to, primarily to protect the whistleblower. It is imperative to consult with experts on whistleblowing before making a disclosure. Visit here for more information, or contact GAP directly.

On November 2, Speak Out for Science published an open letter on its website and sent the letter via email to tens of thousands of federal scientists, including many at the US EPA. The open letter notes that under other administrations, government scientists have been free to publish and share their findings with the general public free from political interference. (CSPW has long argued and was founded on the fact that this was not the case under the George W. Bush Administration). The letter further states: “Unfortunately, the current administration has chosen to engage in an all-out war on science.”

On November 9, all EPA staff received an internal email from EPA’s Scientific Integrity Program that stated: “The message [from Speak Out for Science] included information about a Scientific Integrity Whistleblower Project that is not affiliated with EPA at all. EPA does not endorse this organization or its project.”

Then, much to its credit, the staff at EPA assigned to protecting scientific integrity went on to describe in the email the agency’s efforts in this area and resources available to staff:

EPA has robust scientific integrity and whistleblower protection resources for scientists and managers. You can find information on scientific integrity on our intranet and internet websites: [intranet address] and https://www.epa.gov/osa/basic-information-about-scientific-integrity These websites include background information on scientific integrity; how to report an allegation of a loss of scientific integrity; what the Agency is doing to promote a culture of scientific integrity; annual reports, other publications, and training materials on scientific integrity; and information on other Agency resources (e.g., where to find information on whistleblower protections). EPA’s Scientific Integrity Program hosted our annual “Employee Conversation on Scientific Integrity” this past September and October. You can review the presentation slides at [intranet web address]. During the conversation, EPA’s Whistleblower Protection Ombudsperson, Steve Alderton, spoke to those in attendance about the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. If you have questions about scientific integrity, you may contact me or Vincent Cogliano, backup to Francesca Grifo, EPA’s Scientific Integrity Official. If you have questions about such issues as how and where to make a protected disclosure, or any other question related to whistleblowing, please contact the EPA Whistleblower Protection Ombudsperson – Steve Alderton – on 202-566-0841 or at alderton.steve@epa.gov. In addition, managers and supervisors may contact their servicing legal office for advice on employee whistleblower protections and other whistleblowing-related matters.

Thank you for all that you do to help to promote a culture of scientific integrity at EPA.

The underlying message in this email is a hopeful and positive one: everyone would like to think that the EPA is not engaging in a “war on science” as 314 Action says is occurring. However, we already have evidence that EPA will censor climate scientists and attempt to limit the degree to which they communicate with the media and the public at large. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the recently confirmed Assistant Administrators brought in to run the various EPA programs all have track records that indicate preferential treatment toward polluters at the expense of public health and safety.

We simply cannot let ideology trump good science, no matter who is the President.

 

CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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