Our Beacon Forum

An uneasy new era for scientists
By:Karen Kaplan, NJ
Date: Saturday, 28 January 2017, 11:12 pm

An uneasy new era for scientists

Some are alarmed at Trump administration restrictions on agency communications.

By Karen Kaplan

It may not be the most romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day, but Dr. Georges Benjamin had been looking forward to a trip to Atlanta.

On Feb. 14, he said, he was scheduled to speak along with former Vice President Al Gore at the opening session of a conference hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The topic: the health effects of climate change.

But in the weeks after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Benjamin received word that the conference would not be happening as scheduled.

“It is very unusual,” said Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Assn. However, considering Trump’s skepticism toward the idea that industrial activity is warming the planet — a position held by 97% of climate scientists — it wasn’t entirely surprising, he said.

“I’m sure that was on their minds,” Benjamin said.

The conference hasn’t been officially canceled. The CDC is “exploring options to reschedule the meeting while considering budget priorities for fiscal year 2017,” according to a statement from the agency.

Some would-be attendees said they weren’t holding their breath. In their view, it’s just one in a series of unsettling actions in the first days of the Trump administration.

Just hours after the inauguration, the official White House website was scrubbed of any mention of climate change. After that, scientists and other employees at several federal agencies were told not to speak directly to the public about their work.

“I fear we’re going to see a war on scientists inside the government,” Norman Ornstein, a government scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Thursday in a meeting sponsored by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. Among other things, Ornstein cited efforts to block the publication of research findings until they’ve been vetted by political appointees as “a troubling sign of where we might be headed.”

The communication restrictions extended to social media, including messages sent via Twitter, Trump’s preferred mode of communication.

“It looks like we are going on hiatus,” announced a tweet sent Wednesday from the account of the United States Arctic Research Commission. “To keep up on arctic science, sign up for the Arctic Daily Update at arctic.gov.”

(A few hours later, the account was active again, posting a story about climate change in the Arctic and another about Russia’s sole offshore oil platform in the region.)

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, employees in the Agricultural Research Service were asked to keep their lips sealed.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, the chief of staff, wrote in an email. “This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds and social media content.”

The message did not go over well. A second email, from ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, was sent Tuesday to clarify matters: “The departmental guidance does not, and was never intended, to cover all public-facing documents. For example, scientific publications released through peer reviewed professional journals are not covered.”

Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency received a similar admonition against communicating directly with the public. In addition, transition team spokesman Doug Ericksen told NPR that scientists would need to have their work vetted before they can share it.

Officials said this was standard procedure after a change in power.

“The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public,” the agency said in a statement. “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.”

Routine or not, the moves make some scientists uncomfortable. Rush Holt, a physicist and ex-congressman who leads the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, issued a statement expressing concern that these moves “may silence the voices” of scientists who work in the federal government. He noted that “many federal agencies have existing scientific integrity policies that prohibit political interference in the public dissemination of scientific findings.”

The CDC’s decision not to proceed with its February conference on climate change and health was “motivated by political concerns,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington. He said he was told this by “reliable sources within the CDC,” where he previously worked as a special assistant to the director for climate change and health.

On top of that, Frumkin added, “there is no other plausible hypothesis to explain the cancellation.”

“I think this decision was ill-advised,” he said. “Climate change poses substantial public health risks.… Scientists need to share this information, to refine and continually improve it, and scientific meetings are a prime venue for this exchange.”