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Why We Need to Protect Government Scientists from Political Retaliation

Inappropriate interference compromises the objectivity and integrity of government research.

Though it seems like an etern­ity ago, it was only last month that Pres­id­ent Trump presen­ted a doctored hurricane fore­cast to back up his previ­ous tweets that Alabama would likely be hit by Hurricane Dorian — a claim that National Weather Service’s (NWS) Birm­ing­ham office poin­ted out was inac­cur­ate — an incid­ent later labeled “Sharpie­gate.” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly asked Commerce Secret­ary Wilbur Ross to have the National Oceanic and Atmo­spheric Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) publicly disavow fore­casters’ posi­tion that Alabama was not at risk. In response, Ross reportedly threatened to fire senior NOAA offi­cials if they did not rescind prior agency state­ments about the storm that contra­dicted the pres­id­ent’s.

Condem­na­tion of the epis­ode came imme­di­ately from current NWS and NOAA employ­ees, former NOAA admin­is­trat­ors, busi­ness people, and polit­ical lead­ers, while public comment­at­ors high­lighted the pure absurdity of it all. It would be funny if it wasn’t so deadly seri­ous.

The epis­ode is just the latest in an ongo­ing trend of polit­ical retali­ation and threats against career research­ers in the federal govern­ment — an issue addressed in a new report released by the bipar­tisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Demo­cracy housed at the Bren­nan Center.

Polit­ic­ally motiv­ated manip­u­la­tion or suppres­sion of govern­ment scient­ists’ research under­mines crit­ical govern­ment programs aimed at protect­ing the public’s health, the envir­on­ment, and the economy. In addi­tion, it drives scient­ists and experts out of govern­ment and stifles public and private sector innov­a­tion, which relies on object­ive govern­ment science and research. And it puts lives at risk. For example, if the public loses faith in the National Weather Service’s warn­ings, people may not heed future warn­ings the next time a hurricane really is bear­ing down on their homes.

These actions under­score the need for laws that would prohibit the suppres­sion and censor­ship of scientific and tech­nical find­ings, as well as the intim­id­a­tion of and retali­ation against govern­ment experts, research­ers, and scient­ists. The integ­rity of govern­ment science depends on it. In turn, the demo­cratic account­ab­il­ity of govern­ment poli­cy­makers depends on the integ­rity of govern­ment science.

Here are four examples from recent admin­is­tra­tions where govern­ment scient­ists alleged retali­ation or threats of retali­ation for their research, for defend­ing their research, or for speak­ing out against the inac­cur­ate applic­a­tion of science.

1. A biolo­gist was fired after filing a complaint about the use of flawed science

The Fish and Wild­life Service (FWS), part of the Depart­ment of the Interior, is the federal agency respons­ible for the protec­tion of endangered species. But in 2004, Andrew Eller Jr., a biolo­gist for the FWS, filed a formal complaint that charged agency offi­cials of know­ingly using flawed science in an assess­ment of the Flor­ida panther, the only remain­ing puma popu­la­tion in the east­ern United States, that inflated panther popu­la­tion numbers and mischar­ac­ter­ized their habitat needs. The agency then repeatedly used the inac­cur­ate data as justi­fic­a­tion to approve permits for real estate devel­op­ment on the panther’s habitat in south­w­est Flor­ida.

Eller, who had worked at the FWS for 18 years, was fired after filing his legal complaint with assist­ance from the nonprofit Public Employ­ees for Envir­on­mental Respons­ib­il­ity. The FWS even­tu­ally conceded that it had used flawed science, published a revised analysis, and rein­stated Eller to his job.

2. A climate scient­ist was reas­signed after speak­ing about climate change impacts

Climate scient­ist Joel Clem­ent was the highest-rank­ing climate policy offi­cial at the Depart­ment of the Interior, where he served as the director of the agency’s Office of Policy Analysis. But in June 2017, he received a letter noti­fy­ing him that he would be invol­un­tar­ily reas­signed to an account­ing job, an unre­lated role for which he had no exper­i­ence. Clem­ent was not alone: as many as 50 senior-level Interior Depart­ment employ­ees were reas­signed simul­tan­eously. Five days later, in his testi­mony before Congress, Interior Secret­ary Ryan Zinke, a Trump appointee, claimed that reas­sign­ments were part of the agency’s attempt to save money.

Clem­ent argued that he received his reas­sign­ment as retali­ation for speak­ing publicly about how climate change threatens Alaska Native communit­ies — an issue he had previ­ously raised with White House offi­cials, Interior Depart­ment colleagues, and the inter­na­tional community. He ulti­mately resigned from the agency shortly after his reas­sign­ment.

3. A climate scient­ist exper­i­enced retali­ation after resist­ing research censor­ship

For eight years, climate scient­ist Maria Caffrey worked under contract at the National Park Service (NPS), where she led a major study on the risks faced by coastal national parks due to rising sea levels. But after Caffrey submit­ted a draft of the accom­pa­ny­ing report, its public­a­tion was repeatedly delayed. During the edit­ing process, NPS offi­cials removed from the report every refer­ence to human causes of climate change. This included delet­ing the terms “anthro­po­genic” and “human activ­it­ies.” They also replaced the term “climate change” with the terms “energy inde­pend­ence,” “resi­li­ence,” and “sustain­ab­il­ity.”

Caffrey pushed back against repeated attempts by senior NPS offi­cials to censor her find­ings. Thanks to ongo­ing report­ing on the delayed report, members of Congress called for an invest­ig­a­tion into whether NPS had viol­ated its scientific integ­rity policy. The report was finally released in May 2018, with the original refer­ences to climate change rein­stated.

But shortly after the release of the report, Caffrey was noti­fied that there was no longer suffi­cient fund­ing avail­able for renew­ing her contract. This happened even though Caffrey was previ­ously told she would be rehired, and even though her branch had surplus fund­ing.

Caffrey asked her super­visor, “Is this because of the climate change stuff?” He respon­ded, “I don’t want to answer that.” 

4. Econom­ists take the heat for research crit­ical of White House tax policies

Estab­lished in 1961 and headquartered in Wash­ing­ton, the Economic Research Service (ERS) is a research arm of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. Econom­ists at the ERS produce inde­pend­ent research that informs federal policy on issues, includ­ing agri­cul­ture, food, the envir­on­ment, trade, and rural affairs.

In April 2019, six econom­ists, with more than 50 years of combined exper­i­ence at ERS, resigned from their jobs on the same day, with addi­tional depar­tures expec­ted in the after­math. The econom­ists alleged that they had exper­i­enced ongo­ing retali­ation for produ­cing research that was crit­ical of Trump admin­is­tra­tion policies. Specific­ally, the ERS had published analyses in 2018 that high­lighted how the pres­id­ent’s tax plan would primar­ily bene­fit only the richest farm house­holds.

In the ensu­ing months, Agri­cul­ture Secret­ary Sonny Perdue announced a restruc­tur­ing plan that would include moving the ERS out of Wash­ing­ton and requir­ing staff to relo­cate across the coun­try to a yet-to-be-determ­ined new headquar­ters. The employ­ees were given just a few months to move, without specific inform­a­tion from the agency about the final loca­tion. The Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment later announced that the new office would be in Kansas City but did not specify whether it would be in Kansas or Missouri. One hundred forty-one of the 181 employ­ees at the ERS decided not to relo­cate with the service.

Addi­tion­ally, the White House’s March 2019 budget request included major fund­ing cuts that would reduce the number of ERS staff by more than 50 percent. While Congress is unlikely to approve that budget, some employ­ees have inter­preted the relo­ca­tion of the ERS as an attempt to force out staff members without congres­sional approval.

Govern­ment scient­ists need protec­tion

Improper polit­ical inter­fer­ence in govern­ment research under­mines the crit­ical role that unbiased science plays in our demo­cracy. These examples high­light the need for laws that protect govern­ment research­ers and scientific integ­rity itself.

For more examples, read the report from the National Task Force of Rule of Law on Demo­cracy. The report also includes propos­als to safe­guard the integ­rity of scientific research and analysis by the federal govern­ment.