The Washington Post Sunday
The federal government is silencing its scientists
The public deserves to know what it’s funding, writes Gabriel Popkin
The U.S. government employs what may be the most talented and accomplished scientific workforce on the planet. More than 60,000 scientists across 20-plus agencies study every topic under the sun, from curing cancer to strengthening national defense to managing forests to mapping the solar system. All this is done on behalf of you and me, the taxpaying public.
Yet it’s increasingly difficult to know what our publicly funded scientists are up to. Over the past few decades, one federal agency after another has thrown up barriers limiting the media’s access to researchers. Staff members at the Energy Department’s national laboratories have told me they are afraid they will be punished if they speak on the record, and in some cases, they’ve been told not to talk to the press, even about their own research. (I recently wrote an entire story on an Energy Department research program without being able to interview anyone at the agency or a national lab.) The author of an April New Yorker article on the Environmental Protection
Agency noted that she was not allowed to visit the EPA’s world-renowned vehicle testing lab, even though reporters had previously been granted access. At the U.S. Geological Survey, an important, politically neutral agency with responsibilities ranging from monitoring earthquakes to assessing water resources to studying climate change, scientists have long been free to respond directly to interview requests. But as of June, USGS scientists must get permission from public affairs officials at their overseer agency, the Interior Department. Earlier this year, a Food and Drug Administration public affairs officer declined to put me in contact with an expert who could explain how the agency evaluates the safety of genetically modified plants, instead emailing me boilerplate.
The public has an obvious interest in knowing whether the more than $66 billion the government spends annually on research and development is being used responsibly and to our benefit.
Even more than that, government scientists are learning things that are highly relevant to us, such as that climate change is likely to be faster and more severe than previously thought, and that certain chemicals widely used in consumer products and agriculture are dangerous to our health. Citizens rely on these kinds of findings to make decisions about their lives. While scientists’ results are reported in academic journals and conference presentations, nonscientists are far likelier to encounter them in news stories. If science journalists can’t interview experts or visit research facilities, we find fewer original stories, and the ones we do write are less informative. This harms the public — and democracy itself. When agencies refuse access to experts who can explain how scientific knowledge is produced and how science-based decisions are made, understanding of and trust in government suffer. At a time when there is widespread confusion about issues from climate change to vaccines to genetically modified organisms, we need to hear more from scientists, not less.
Blocking or providing selective access to information isn’t unique to the government, of course. It is common at private companies, and is practiced to varying degrees by nonprofits and advocacy organizations, though far less often at universities. Within the federal government, there has been a historical commitment to sharing information with the public, but actual practice has not always met this ideal. For example, during the 1980s AIDS crisis, the Reagan administration clamped down on some HIV researchers’ communications. Later, the George W. Bush administration famously muzzled NASA climate scientist James Hansen and edited his reports. (To its credit, NASA subsequently revised its media policy to allow scientists to speak directly to the press.)
Under President Barack Obama, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy admirably pushed all the many agencies that conduct scientific activities to clarify their media policies and make scientists available for interviews. But government officials also meddled in journalists’ efforts to cover science. In one notorious incident, the FDA required reporters covering a 2014 announcement about regulations on electronic cigarettes to agree to interview only certain preselected experts, preventing journalists from speaking to those who might have aired important questions or criticisms about FDA’s decision-making.
More mundane practices have also come to pervade certain agencies. I and other science reporters have had interview requests ignored, delayed, deflected or denied at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Security Agency and others. New York Times environment reporter Coral Davenport said in 2017 that she had almost never been granted access to career staffers at the EPA in a decade of covering that agency, a claim consistent with my and others’ experiences. In 2014, a U.S. Forest Service researcher needed approval to talk to me about the ecology of the eastern hemlock tree — just about the least politically sensitive topic I can imagine.
Some of these practices clearly contradict agency directives allowing scientists to speak to the press. The Department of Health and Human Services’ media policy, for example, states: “In general, reporters, including bloggers, should have access to HHS employees they seek to interview . . . . Employees are encouraged to speak to reporters about their work whenever possible and appropriate.” EPA policy states that “while a scientist’s primary responsibility is to pursue their scientific activities, it is also a scientist and his/her manager’s responsibility to provide timely responses to requests for information by the media, the public, and the scientific community,” and that EPA scientists are expected to “be available to answer inquiries from the news media regarding their scientific work.” In practice, they never seem to be available.
Early in the Trump administration, science journalists worried that the new president’s attacks on the press would poison relations between federal agencies and reporters. So far, our worst fears have not been realized. At certain organizations such as NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, scientists can usually respond directly to interview requests and talk to reporters without oversight. Even some agencies that require scientists to clear interview requests with public affairs officials, such as the Forest Service and the USGS, are not preventing scientists from granting interviews, though the delays can cause problems when deadlines are tight. And to my knowledge, there is no administration-wide effort to suppress scientific research.
But the administration has clearly embraced, rather than reversed, access restrictions imposed in the past, and it is piling on new ones. The revised USGS policy, requiring interview permission from Interior Department PR officials, comes after many researchers from that agency were prevented from traveling to a major conference last year to present their work and potentially speak to reporters. A Forest Service public affairs officer recently sent me a form asking not only whom at the agency I wanted to speak with, but also who else I had spoken with, what information I had gathered on the topic and what my “story line” was. The agency apparently introduced this new kind of information gathering, which smacks of corporate PR influence, sometime in the past year.
Not knowing why an interview request was denied can be the most frustrating part of the interaction. It’s impossible to know if officials are refusing an interview because the agency is legally constrained, perhaps to avoid compromising proprietary information, or if there is another, less legitimate reason — the desire to stave off a negative story, for example, or to prevent a scientist from undermining an administration’s political goals.
Even some public affairs officers worry that the government has assumed a defensive crouch against the public. “The public information model is dead,” said one officer from a federal agency that deals with science and health, according to a 2017 article in the Columbia Journalism Review. That model, the officer said, “has now been replaced by a highly message-controlled environment.”
Still, there is hope. This fall, the National Association of Science Writers’ information access committee (which I’m a member of) engaged federal public information officers — who are carrying out agencies’ media policies, if not writing them — in a discussion to try to improve the situation. We found that journalists and many PIOs share a fundamental interest in the flow of scientific information between the government and the public. We’re now developing a document that will suggest ways journalists and agencies can improve that flow. This isn’t really about journalists, of course; government scientists work for you, the public, not us. But the less we know, the less you know.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its disdain for certain kinds of science, particularly on climate, the environment and public health. Some of its attempts to shut down disfavored research (such as studies on the health effects of surface coal mining and oil and gas drilling safety) have succeeded; others (such as an attempt to end a tropical forest research program) have been reversed by Congress.
But the creeping obstruction of the science press has gotten little pushback. Perhaps that’s because it’s a trend so long and consistent that we barely notice it anymore.