Communication Chill

As EPA freezes grants, agencies issue internal guidance to employees on outside communications, stirring fears of political interference in science.

January 25, 2017
 

A series of directives from the Trump administration to key agencies involved in science and research have fanned fears that the new president may muzzle government employees. But it’s not clear how far the guidelines go in restricting the speech of those employed at the agencies.

This week, departments including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidance to employees on communication with the public and members of the media, according to news reports. The Sunlight Foundation began keeping a list of reported actions limiting communication by staff at federal agencies.

The Agricultural Research Service, part of the Agriculture Department, sent an internal email to employees Monday saying that, "until further notice, ARS will not issue public-facing documents." The email specified news releases, fact sheets and social media posts were included in that guidance.

The agency denied that an information blackout was in effect; a spokesman, Christopher Bentley, said in a statement, "ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America." But late Tuesday the agency said in a statement to Reuters that the internal email was flawed and would be clarified.

And, according to reports from various news outlets, employees at other agencies have been told to refer correspondence with public officials to agency leaders until cabinet nominees are in place.

That includes the EPA, where grants were frozen and staff were told not to discuss the decision with anyone outside the agency, The Huffington Post reported. According to the Associated Press, emails sent to the agency’s staff since the inauguration last week banned press releases, blog posts or social media updates.

A spokeswoman for the environmental agency, Cathy Milbourn, said the agency "fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment."

The Huffington Post also reported that the Department of Health and Human Services and subagencies were told in a memo not to send "any correspondence to public officials."

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said his organization hoped the guidance was a temporary measure until new agency heads are confirmed by the Senate. It’s not clear if the guidance was an error of inexperience or major new policy from the administration, Holt said.

“There’s a lot about this transition that is nonstandard and inexperienced,” he said. “If it really is a gag-order policy, we will be very concerned about it. Openness and communication are essential to the practice of good science.”

Asked about a precedent for the guidance, Holt said it has been an important issue for AAAS for years to protect against gagging of scientific information.

The new guidance on agency communications this week follows the decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month to abruptly cancel a long-planned conference on climate change set to take place in February, compounding fears of political interference in government science work. The agency said it was working to reschedule the Climate and Health Summit for later this year. And a spokeswoman said Tuesday that CDC was not under any freeze on external communication.

But Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the guidance issued to employees at other agencies is not a good starting signal from the incoming administration.

“It’s indicating everything is going to be politically managed,” he said. “That's not the way things should go in a science-based agency.”

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