The Trump administration appears to be ramping up its war on science.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Interior Department, which overseas the U.S. Geological Survey, has told scientists there they must obtain approval from officials at the parent agency before responding to most media requests.
"This is censorship," commented the March for Science.
Among the documents the Times cites is an April 25 email to employees from the DOI press secretary, which describes protocol as interviews by scientists demanding such approval in cases when there's a request from a national outlet, or when the topic is "very controversial" or "likely to become a national story."
A later email from a USGS official describes the press secretary as being the one authorized to give the thumbs or down to the media requests, and offered up a list of questions they could answer to facilitate that process, including "How will the scientist answer the questions? Be specific. Include links to published studies if available."
"The new protocol also permits the Department of the Interior’s communications office to reject interview requests on scientific matters," the Times adds.
Deputy press secretary for the Interior Department, Faith Vander Voort, brushed off the protocol as a change, framing the directive as merely a call to follow guidelines laid out in 2012.
But that assertion just doesn't pass muster, argued Michael Halpern, the deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy.
"In reality," he tweeted, the Obama-era "policy encourages scientists to 'freely and openly discuss scientific, scholarly, technical information, findings, and conclusions.' No 'permission' needed."
They claim the new muzzling directive is based on an Obama-era comms policy.— Michael Halpern (@halpsci) June 21, 2018
In reality, that policy encourages scientists to "freely and openly discuss scientific, scholarly, technical information, findings and conclusions." No "permission" needed.https://t.co/SGHH64PtXW https://t.co/PqOcLfbBR4
According to seismologist and author Dr. Lucy Jones, it is, in fact, a clear shift from her time with the USGS—a tenure of over three decades that ended in 2016. She also noted that "taxpayers have paid for this science and it belongs to them."
When I worked for @USGS, I was asked to notify DOI about national-level interviews, but never had to ask for permission. Taxpayers have paid for this science & it belongs to them. We need to be able to trust what we hear from our scientists. https://t.co/2nFiFkLoBZ— Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) June 21, 2018
Word of the new rules also comes a week after the Washignton Post reported that USGS scientists, in order to attend two major conferences, needed to seek Interior's stamp of approval on presentation titles to make sure they aligned with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's priorities.
Responding to Thursday's story in the Times, some social media users suggested there were echoes of the muzzling of scientists that occurred in Canada under the former government of conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
Echoes of Canada, 2009-2015... What did we learn?— Aerin Jacob (@Aerin_J) June 21, 2018
1) Donate + volunteer for groups like @UCSUSA.
2) Speak up + don't stop. Write op-eds, letters to editor, elected officials. You don't have to be a scientist to support science.
3) Organize.#ScienceNotSilence #USPoli https://t.co/ClDJkbCPlW