By Grant Jacobs 26/01/2017 14


[A follow-up of sorts is given in the Footnotes.]

Better people offer to do better, not remove or block what they can’t compete against.

Yesterday the Trump administration gagged several scientific institutes from communicating with the public. Grants were frozen to the EPA. And more.

Are these Republications so frightened that their ideas can’t stand up against evidence that they need to gag and remove sources? It would seem so.

Science works on the basis of better evidence bringing better explanations. It does not work by blocking what you don’t like.

Many of these actions by the Trump administration looks to be focused on climate change data.

Whatever the target, if these actions are to be on-going, the Republicans have essentially admitted that their ideas are so much weaker that that they can only try enforce their weaker ideas on others by brute force.

The locations of 15 billion-dollar disasters that occurred in the U.S. in 2016. Source NOAA.

 

Besides, you’d think they’d want to have a better idea of what might damage their economy and country!

What has happened?

There’s now a long list of actions, and media coverage of them:

Department of the Interior

While not a science-related issue, in something of a foreshadowing of what was to come, the Department of the Interior were told to stop tweeting because of sharing a tweet comparing the crowd sizes of Trump inauguration and the Women’s march.

US Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service

Ordered to not publish public-facing documents, photos, fact sheets, news media feeds, and social media content.

From The Guardian,

USDA employees, who were instructed in an internal memo obtained by Buzzfeed not to release “any public-facing documents” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content” until further notice. Specifically the request was made to employees of the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s primary research wing, which is heavily involved in research regarding climate change.

USDA employees, who were instructed in an internal memo obtained by Buzzfeed not to release “any public-facing documents” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content” until further notice. Specifically the request was made to employees of the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s primary research wing, which is heavily involved in research regarding climate change.

This order has since been rescinded by the department.

Mashable points out that “the scientists working at the USDA and EPA”  “are caught between new gag order and their own ethics policies” and “have now been explicitly prohibited from doing things that, as a matter of integrity, they agreed to do while working for their employers.”

Badlands National Park Service

The Badlands National Park twitter account (@BadlandsNPS) was gagged. In response the account shifted to tweeting climate change information.

Those tweets were apparently posted by a former employee who had access to the account, and have since been deleted.

This has been covered in a wide number of media sources, including CBS.

An “Unofficial “Resistance” team of U.S. National Park Service” has emerged. Another is the ‏@BadHombreNPS twitter stream, with this sort of thing:

The National Institutes of Health

The NIH has been directed to, “not to send any correspondence to public officials (to include Members of Congress and state and local officials) between now and February 3, unless specifically authorized by the Department”.

(Sources: Science and American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology blog (the latter especially recommended).

The Environmental Protection Agency

Grants, contracts and hires frozen, and employees banned from offering social media updates or speaking to reporters, as reported by The Hill and The Guardian who report that “Trump is reportedly planning massive cuts and rollbacks for the agency.”

The Independent reports that the EPA has been ordered to remove all climate change information from their website, and freeze their twitter accounts.

That said, at the time of writing the EPA climate page is still up.

Quick rollback

A law potentially enabling the President to wipe existing regulations without further approval was passed in the House. This could allow quick roll back of environmental protections, food and drug regulations, and financial regulations. Reuters notes “Still, none of these bills may become law, as Democrats hold enough seats in the Senate to filibuster.” 

Responses

Media, reporters, and citizen protection organisations have reached out. ProPublica offered their ‘How To Leak To ProPublica’ page. A march by scientists is being organised. For those interested their website has details of their twitter account, Facebook page, etc.

Leading science magazines have waded in, including Nature and the US-based Science.

Why did they do it?

I have no real idea, of course. I can’t read their minds!

One fairly straight-forward guess would be to block what they don’t want their audience to hear or see, so that they might more easily replace it with their own version of ‘truth’.

It’s an extraordinary action, one more reminiscent of totalitarian dictatorships.

Also worth asking is why are they rushing this through?

Perhaps the Republicans want to get as much out of Trump while they can? Perhaps they wish to set up themselves as the ‘heroes’ to run in and ‘save the day’ once he’s gone? Who knows.

Whatever the motivation, the rush is disturbing too.

Footnotes

I’ve no time to substantiate the comments below, and I would ask that readers be considerate about that. I just simply haven’t time to dredge through sources, and quote and cite them. These are essentially comments I’ve made brought up to this Footnote – not the best, but I hope they widen and update the picture a little. There will be some I’ve left out – I have even time to go back through them all.

When I wrote I was aware that some administrators said they think stopping public communications from an organisation that doesn’t have a new political appointee during a transition period was normal.

Since then it grew to similar comments from many administrators.

The pattern these administrators point to is that of a request to (or expectation of) organisations that haven’t yet had their political appointees in place to “refrain” from putting views that might be considered related to policy to the public until the new political appointments are in place.

That happens to have a muzzling effect, it’s meant to, they know that, but they consider it normal in transition (i.e. not malicious), and that it is intended to be temporary.

Hence part of the reason for my opening passage leading to, “if these actions are to be on-going”.

Another reason was a more general point to Republicans that if their government seeks to close off some aspects of science, or communication of it, it is tactic admission that they know their ‘alternative’ is too weak to stand against established work. I wrote that so that this point in particular would stand whatever became of the story in time.

My impression was (and still is) that some people have (mis)taken what is meant as an interim measure as an on-going one, and wrote to that effect online.

I mentioned several different organisations, in particular the USDA, the EPA, and the NIH.

Since writing reports about one of the several organisations (USDA) has pointed to some internal doings.

I haven’t seen anything contrary to the cases of the EPA or the NIH. I’m getting the impression that because so much attention has been on the USDA, people may not be seeing the EPA & NIH cases – ? Unfortunately I now lack time to follow up on that.

Let’s accept this scenario for a moment so that people can see a point I’m trying to make.

If the scenario painted by administrator’s comments is true, it’s not a case of if muzzling is taking place, but if it will be on-going. (Note carefully the muzzling is not (necessarily!) with malicious intent, even if it seems an inappropriate action to some.)

Taken generously the temporary measure might be innocent in the long run, but you can argue if it should even happen at all. After all, these are scientific and technical bodies, not political bodies.

My own impression of what has happened (subjective as that is) is that some sort of instruction to some organisations to refrain from putting views that might be considered related to policy to the public, even if this might have been conveyed by a reminder of some sort of standing order or general understanding of what is expected in a transition period.

My own reasons for taking it to be the Trump administration’s call at the time of writing was in part based on that the copy of the clarification quoted in the ASBMB blog that ended in “Please direct any additional questions to the White House.”

(I’ll return to this.)

There were also other comments that pointed in that general direction. (Excuse me for leaving this at that; I haven’t time to go back through all the sources and these are very distributed so it’d take a long time – time I don’t have.)

Since I wrote, Science has put up a piece writing that,

“Don’t blame this one on the Trump administration.

In a bungled attempt to anticipate the wishes of their new political bosses, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) on Monday imposed what was widely interpreted as a gag order on its scientists communicating with the public.”

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/01/firestorm-over-supposed-gag-order-agricultural-scientists-was-self-inflicted-wound

Contrary to this the New York Times wrote (I believe later the same day),

“The Trump administration has ordered a freeze on federal grant spending at several government agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Health and Human Services, followed by memos telling employees not to send out news releases or to create social media posts, blog entries or official website content, and to consult with senior officials before speaking to the news media.

Such memos landed this week at the E.P.A., Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture in a broad halt to external communications while the Trump administration struggles to put political appointees into position.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/politics/some-agencies-told-to-halt-communications-as-trump-administration-moves-in.html

(Note that the NYT adds the Department of Agriculture in their second paragraph. Note also that Science state that the USDA doesn’t have political appointees. One thing that doesn’t ring true to me is the focus on the publishing research papers in the Science piece – my distinct impression was that was never on the agenda, and most people understood that, that the concerns were re communicating to the public.)

If we are to believe the NYT, the Trump administration asked these organisations to (temporarily) suspend public communication efforts that might be related to policy in some way.

So who is right? You could spend a lot of time on that, and I no longer have time (nor inclination) to. The USDA case is interesting, but it is also a distraction from the EPA and NIH cases. (The NIH falls under the DHHS.) Maybe these two will have other explanations, but I’d be cautious about assuming that to be the case or extrapolating from the USDA case.

My own reasons for taking it to be the Trump administration’s call at the time of writing were in part based on that the copy of the clarification quoted in the ASBMB blog ended in “Please direct any additional questions to the White House.”

It’s hard to see why they’d suggest people to defer to the White House unless that was the original source they were acting on behalf of. The post said that these letters/memos were confirmed.

That post still stands, unaltered. It seems reasonable to take from that that the memos quoted are likely valid.

FWIW the ASBMB post also writes,

“We spoke with current and former NIH officials, who confirmed the authenticity of the email.  One former official indicated that instituting these temporary new procedures seems an unusual step, even during a presidential transition period.”

If there is anything “wrong” with my original piece, for some readers, is that I didn’t take (or have!) more time to spell it out letter by letter in fully elaborated fashion for those wanting it on a plate, as it were, rather than presenting a list of sources to read and form their own ideas.

I often don’t have time to write in the fashion of, say, Orac, and by the time I’ve collated the links have to largely go with a collation of reports rather than personally breaking it all down.

As a practical matter it will have to rest as is, I just don’t have time to take this further.

With this done, I have to move on. For those that object to the claims re the Trump administration by all means draw your own conclusions, but please bear in mind that I wrote about several organisations, not just the USDA, that, generally speaking, it seems more that a transition process has caught people unawares (one that you can argue about), and that the collation part of my post (i.e. most of it) is just that.

Featured image: See the first image within the post; I copied it in so that people might more easily view it.


14 Responses to “Censoring US science, the backlash, and why”

  • You need to be careful about crying wolf here, Grant. Some of these assertions have turned out to be wrong, or based on junior staff who have reversed their decisions. You acknowledge that yourself further down the page.

    It is clear there will be an ongoing fight between the new administration and sicnece – I say ongoing, but science has been weakened by the increased republican presence in congress and election of Trump. Climate change is a clear fight as evidenced by the published energy polcy. It is possible health related issues like vaccination may also arise.

    But if we shout our mouths off by crying wolf in response to every little action (it started with allegations Trump removed the White House Climate Change web page – when all that had happened is that Obam’s administration web pages had been moved to their own site) or exaggerating or misrepresenting those actions we will just get a reputation.

    Trump hasn’t “gagged” any science yet. It might well happen (but I pick this won’t be for a while yet) – and if and when it does there should be a strong fight back.

  • Ken,

    Try reading more carefully, especially noting the opening material I wrote to gave it context, ending with –

    “Whatever the target, if these actions are to be on-going, the Republicans have essentially admitted that their ideas are so much weaker that that they can only try enforce their weaker ideas on others by brute force.” and not see what I am doing.

    (note emphasis added)

    Also note the body is reportage, not my claims about something.

    More later, have to go.

  • A few hours ago the Associated Press tweeted,

    “BREAKING: Trump administration mandating EPA scientific studies, data undergo review by political staff before public release.”

    Might be read as pulling one thing due to backlash, only to install a deeper control?

  • Grant, you led with the sentence:

    “Yesterday the Trump administration gagged several scientific institutes from communicating with the public.”

    This is false – it has not happened. Reports that it has have been retracted. It comes across as at least crying wolf if not intending to mislead.

    It may well happen in the future. It may well happen in a different form as departmental rather than administration or white house directives. But it hasn’t happened yet.

    We have to be very careful about relying on headlines, tweets and unsubstantiated media claims. Media bias and partisanship are the main reason people were so surprised at the result of the US election. They were misinformed. A partisan media and partisan commentators just produced confirmation bias rather than good information.

    What we need now is good information, not more #fakenews.

  • Since I last wrote, Science has put up a piece writing that,

    “Don’t blame this one on the Trump administration.

    In a bungled attempt to anticipate the wishes of their new political bosses, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) on Monday imposed what was widely interpreted as a gag order on its scientists communicating with the public.”

    See: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/01/firestorm-over-supposed-gag-order-agricultural-scientists-was-self-inflicted-wound

    Contrary to this the New York Times has written,

    “The Trump administration has ordered a freeze on federal grant spending at several government agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Health and Human Services, followed by memos telling employees not to send out news releases or to create social media posts, blog entries or official website content, and to consult with senior officials before speaking to the news media.

    Such memos landed this week at the E.P.A., Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture in a broad halt to external communications while the Trump administration struggles to put political appointees into position.”

    See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/politics/some-agencies-told-to-halt-communications-as-trump-administration-moves-in.html

    (Note that the NYT adds the Department of Agriculture in their second paragraph. Note also that Science state that the USDA doesn’t have political appointees.)

    If we are to believe the NYT, the Trump administration did ask these organisations to stop public efforts.

    So who is right? You could spend a lot of time on that, and I’m not going to. (Sorry, but I have other things I’d rather do.)

    My own reasons for taking it to be the Trump administration’s call at the time of writing were in part based on that the copy of the clarification quoted in the ASBMB blog ended in “Please direct any additional questions to the White House.”

    (It’s hard to see why they’d suggest people to defer to the White House unless that was the original source they were acting on behalf of.)

    See: http://policy.asbmb.org/2017/01/24/nih-transition-trying-to-provide-clarity/

    (There were also other comments that pointed in that general direction; I haven’t time to go back through all the sources.)

    Note the ASBMB post also writes,

    “We spoke with current and former NIH officials, who confirmed the authenticity of the email. One former official indicated that instituting these temporary new procedures seems an unusual step, even during a presidential transition period.”

    In contrast, a number of (other) people in administration have said that this restricting public engagements is the normal state of affairs for these organisations during a presidential transition. It’s one of the reasons I wrote “if these actions are to be on-going” in my post.

    Either way I’m left with a few questions, one being why should this be normal?

    It clearly is a stop-gap for a new administration who has not appointed their people, or established what they want from the organisation in time.

    It seems an very disruptive way of going about it. There’s also that potentially it opens the opportunity for any controls to be left in place, not quite lifted.

    Another approach might be for organisations to continue as they were until new forward-going directions are given. (How long old directions might linger would then depend on the tardiness of the new administration – which might be a positive motivating force!)

    As a stray thought, the NIH request seems at odds with keeping director Francis Collins in place. Surely if that’s the case, the NIH get to carry on as-is as far as public communications go?

    Anyway, enough thoughts on this for one day!

  • On a tangential note, the CDC has cancelled a climate change summit meeting. This at least seems of their own accord. My guess is that part of the issue would be cost if the Trump administration canned the meeting – large conferences cost a lot to set up.

    http://www.the-scientist.com?articles.view/articleNo/48186/title/Scientists-Respond-to-CDC-Climate-Summit-Cancellation/

    (FWIW, the relationship between climate change and disease is one that has interested me for a long time. There’s an example of this that I ought write about… one day…)

  • Ken,

    Our comments crossed, I wrote independently of your reply. Nevertheless see what I wrote – it *might* be internal for the USDA, but that’s not actually clear-cut if you think it through, and it does seem to be directed for the EPA or NIH.

    An important point is that it’s not that the Trump admin asked this, or not, but if they intend to keep it going. (This was something I thought at the time, hence how I opened.)

    “It comes across as at least crying wolf if not intending to mislead.”

    Better to just talk about the subject (without accusations) and perhaps make a better effort to understand what they were saying, I think. And of course I’m not “intending to mislead” – a bit of a cheap shot.

    “We have to be very careful about relying on headlines, tweets and unsubstantiated media claims.”

    I didn’t.

    If there is anything “wrong”, for some readers, is that I didn’t take (or have!) more time to spell it out letter by letter for those that wanted in fully elaborated on a plate, rather than taking it as a list of sources to read and form their own ideas. I pointed out some things that didn’t fit as a heads-up (you seem to be reading past them). One thing that probably isn’t clear is that I picked up that some administrators thought it normal for a transition (i.e. that it happened, but was what they expected) – but that message was muddled at that time – so I presented it with that in mind, but it seems it was too subtle?

    “Media bias and partisanship are the main reason people were so surprised at the result of the US election.”

    Too simple really, there’s more to it than that as others have written, but that’s your topic of interest not mine (not interested in taking that further).

    Cheers

  • Grant, I accept you have acknowledged retraction and that there is now a more finessed reporting of this – but you lead in remains:

    “Yesterday the Trump administration gagged several scientific institutes from communicating with the public.”

    That is incorrect.

    Yes, the partisanship and media bias is my topic of interest – that is why I have tried to raise the issue of knee-jerk, partisan, posting and commenting by people I otherwise consider rational.

    That partisanship and bias actually help Trump into office. it is ineffective and only discredits the person doing it. it is another reason why I now refuse accept reports and blog post like yours at face value. I refuse to rely on the “reputation” of a media source. I either do my own fact-checking or hold off commenting.

    That is my interest – but it also combines with my own interest in science and the need to fight for its credibility and oppose misrepresentation of science. Currently, I am concerned about the misrepresentation of the White House “muzzles science” claims and the arguments about “alternative facts.” These have been taken up by some science people – and I think their partisanship on those issues is not good.

    I suppose I must add (and I shouldn’t have to but I have got avoidance responses from some commenters who label me a Trump supporter) – I am not a Trump supporter. I despise the man – and I support only one of his policies – a policy I think all sensible people who aren’t ideologically or commercially linked to the military industrial complex would also support. That policy is outlined at the White House website (https://getpocket.com/a/read/1572502801) – specifically:

    “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

    And:

    “Finally, in pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”

    • As I’ve written elsewhere you can try make your points without making accusations. (It occurs to me that problem is that this is a crusade for you.)

      “I accept you have acknowledged retraction and that there is now a more finessed reporting of this”

      That over-simplifies, and it’s not really what I wrote. I think my previous comment covered that. You seem taking a (it reads to me as rushed) reading on what has been written about the USDA case and spreading it across all the organisations.

      “that is why I have tried to raise the issue of knee-jerk, partisan, posting and commenting by people I otherwise consider rational.”

      Not called for. I was aware of potential bias before I wrote, should be clear from my previous comment. I many hours after first seeing the initial accounts – not knee-jerk. I was limited in time, though, and I’ve seen others take my short-sentence reporting as my claims rather than summaries of others’; I pointed you to that earlier, too.

      You still seem to not understand why I lead up to “if these actions are to be on-going”? If there is any error in my post it’s not laying that out on a plate as it were. There’s some of in my previous comment. I don’t have time now to try break it down further for you.

      One thing you could try check for yourself is to start with the many administrators who’ve said that they think stopping public communications in an organisation that doesn’t have a new political appointee during a transition period is normal. That happens to have a muzzling effect, it’s meant to, they know that, but they consider it normal in transition, and that it is intended to be temporary.

      Hence why I wrote “if these actions are to be on-going”.

      Also factor in that administrations will back-pedal and cover up things that go badly! Also consider that populist administrations have a flaw in that they can’t tolerate large numbers of people objecting, because they’re based on populism. Worth considering that their basis is their biggest weakness if you tackle it. Hence speaking out early and loudly is a good idea, if nothing else to keep them off things you don’t want hit. (Off-topic but look at the response to the vaccine committee tweets as an example: they back-pedalled, at least for now.)

      “I refuse to rely on the “reputation” of a media source.”

      I didn’t either.

      The sidetrack to military stuff is off-topic; for your blog if that’s an interest.

  • My addition of the sole policy of Trump’s I support was simply to counter a diversion I am encountering which sees me as carrying out a pro-Trump crusade. No attempt to discuss it here.

    I realise that you are going to stand by your misleading lead-in. I think that is unfortunate as it casts aspersions that are not necessarily true. But that is up to you.

    My comment on ““that is why I have tried to raise the issue of knee-jerk, partisan, posting and commenting by people I otherwise consider rational.”” is not directed at you. It is a general problem I see a the moment.

    In the science community, I have noticed in particular with respect to the misleading claim of muzzling and also the misrepresentation of the unfortunate “alternative facts” statement. The latter is a lost cause because it lends itself willingly to political memes, but I thought the muzzling charge could be easy to deal with as the retractions are already there.

    • “I realise that you are going to stand by your misleading lead-in. I think that is unfortunate as it casts aspersions that are not necessarily true. But that is up to you.”

      Can’t help noting the touch of caution (“not necessarily”) you’ve now added. (The corollary, “not necessarily false” also applies; try re-reading what I wrote earlier perhaps – but please note I don’t have time for further replies.)

      Whether you realise it or not, you’re writing pre-emptively. Your constant nagging as taken away any time I have to do anything more. (Somewhat ironically.) You’re just not giving me any chance to do anything.

      I have spent far more time that I can afford replying to you; as I wrote elsewhere, I just don’t have more time.

      Similarly as I wrote to you elsewhere, “You’re made your point several times. I do “get” it; no need to repeat it further.”

      *IF* I can find time, I will try add a footnote. But if I do, it will almost certainly just reiterate the points I have already tried explain.

      I’d try yet again to get the key points across to you, but what’s the point? I got your point the first time, but you don’t seem to read mine, so it would seem I can’t do anything with you.

      So, as a practical matter: I don’t have more time for this (you’ve used it all up!), and you don’t seem to what to read any of the points I’ve made so it seems pointless for me to continue.

      “My comment on […]”

      Thanks – might pay to read back what you write before posting and try see how others read it? I’m not perfect by any means, but I try do this. In particular I’ve long learnt it’s best to be explicit about who and what, and that phrases like “people I otherwise consider rational” will be read as referring to the correspondent – because you’re replying to them they will read it as applying to them unless you explicitly say otherwise.