Defending U.S. Government Employed Earth and Space Scientists


Earth and space scientists work in key positions throughout the federal government. As civil servants, atmospheric scientists at NOAA, seismologists at the USGS, and hydrologists at the EPA– and frankly all other agency scientists – work to help fulfill their agencies’ missions and safeguard the health, economy, and security of all Americans. That’s why it’s so troubling to witness measures taken by some agencies to silence or even discredit federal scientists whose findings may run counter to the scientific narrative embraced by the administration.

In October, as reported widely in the media, the EPA barred three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss recent scientific findings from speaking about climate change at the State of Narragansett Bay and its Watershed conference in Rhode Island. Although the scientists were ultimately able to attend the conference, they were not permitted to present their research. In the same month, a U.S. Forest Service scientist with the Rocky Mountain Research Station, who was scheduled to talk about the role that climate change plays in wildfire conditions, was denied approval to attend an Association for Fire Ecology conference featuring fire experts from around the country. And, as I described in a From the Prow post on 31 October, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently blocked scientists receiving EPA grants from serving on scientific advisory panels, implying that agency grantees have conflicts of interest despite already having passed conflict of interest reviews. This policy forces highly qualified scientists to choose between pursuing their science or serving on critical EPA advisory panels such as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and undermines the ability of the EPA to fulfill its mission “to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment.”

Further, the ability of federal scientists to present their research may be impaired, or even deterred, in more than one way. For example, some agencies have put much stricter review processes and/or budget caps on their employees attending professional science meetings.

AGU condemns, in the strongest terms, any systematic silencing of scientists, especially when censorship is driven by ideology rather than sound science. Interference in the scientific enterprise inhibits the development of the best science, impairs scientific careers, and reduces our nation’s ability to use critical data to inform decisions by policymakers.

In January, AGU signed a letter by scientific societies to then acting EPA Administrator Catherine McCabe, expressing the need to protect scientific integrity in the wake of “federal agency directives to cease communications with the public” which serve to upend “principles of sound scientific integrity.” In June, we again joined our colleagues from other scientific societies in a joint letter to President Trump addressing the pivotal need for scientific advisory boards, and urged federal agencies to “ensure that the process of obtaining scientific and technical advice follows the letter and spirit of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and is in accord with democratic principles of governance.”

AGU is committed to being a voice for science and working with policy makers to ensure scientists are able to do their best work free from ideological interference. We understand that for many this is a particularly anxious and unsettling environment. Thus, we want to ensure that you are aware of resources, like those from our colleagues at the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF), to aid those who might find themselves facing challenges including:

* How Scientists Can Protect Themselves
Handling Political Harassment & Legal Intimidation: A Pocket Guide

And, if you are in fact facing a difficult work environment and wish to talk to someone about your rights as a scientist, we would direct you to speak with staff at the Government Accountability Project (GAP) as well as CSLDF, both of which can provide confidentiality while offering you guidance. Finally, if you’d like to write to the EPA about your concerns, we invite you to send a letter from our Policy Action Center. AGU stands shoulder to shoulder with scientists to ensure that the scientific enterprise remains strong, uncompromised by politics, and free from censorship or other interference.

Editor’s Note: GAP has provided the following resources that may prove useful to federal employees considering speaking out in a more public fashion.

* Whistleblowing Survival Tips
* Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists, authored by GAP, this guide can provide an important reverse-resource for employees when they think about the risks and best practices of working with reporters.
* The Art of Anonymous Activism co-authored by GAP, The Project on Government Oversight, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

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  1. John Mashey

    Good article, but I raise a concern about:
    “especially when censorship is driven by ideology rather than sound science”

    We need a another phrase than “sound science”, maybe “well-established science” or anything, because the phrase has been misused and inverted by folks like Steve Milloy & co back in the 1990s. His The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) was created explicitly to confuse non-scientists & it sadly diluted the phrase.

    Google “sound science” gets many hits, starting with SourceWatch and RationalWiki, which give more of the history of the abuse of the phrase.

    (AGU member)

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