Less than a week after the inauguration, the Trump administration has already gagged employees at two federal agencies. Memos obtained by various media outlets show that scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture are now blocked from communicating with the public and the press.
At the EPA, whose grants and contract budget have also been frozen, employees are not allowed to talk about this change to reporters or on social media. The EPA is responsible for passing and upholding regulations on issues such as clean air and water and the carbon emissions responsible for global warming. The nominee for EPA head, Scott Pruitt, has made a career out of suing the EPA and trying to weaken its environmental regulations.
Scientists at the research division of the US Department of Agriculture are no longer allowed to communicate with the public about taxpayer-funded research. In general, the USDA is less politically sensitive than the EPA, though it does do some research into genetically modified food and pesticides. That said, it has used research money to investigate how to cut down methane, a greenhouse gas that is a major cause of climate change.
After this story went to press, the department disavowed the memo sent to employees in the Agricultural Research Service — the USDA’s science arm. The USDA’s deputy administrator Michael Young clarified in a follow up memo that the gag order specifically applies to policy-related statements in press releases and interviews, which need to be vetted with the secretary of agriculture. He told the Washington Post that peer-reviewed research papers, many of which are inaccessible to the general public behind paywalls, are OK. Food safety announcements are as well.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services has received guidance asking employees of its agencies — which include the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health — to hold off on publishing new rules until the administration has reviewed them. In contrast to the directives at the USDA and EPA, this is normal.
And over at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, it’s business as usual with no directive to stop communicating. NASA’s charter explicitly has a line confirming that the agency has a mission to“provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” That said, this probably doesn’t provide enough protection. After all, the EPA itself has an entire document on how to disseminate information, and the introduction explicitly states that the agency “is committed to providing public access to environmental information.” Plus, the USDA has an open government plan related to “the spirit of serving the nation through USDA's mission as ‘The People's Department.’ Maybe not anymore.
In case anyone was doubtful, these orders to the EPA and USDA are further evidence of Trump’s anti-science views. Gagging employees is a form of political pressure and a big step toward weakening the agencies, and is quickly taking us back to a time before the Obama administration, when the government actively tried to suppress research.
If you’re a federal employee and are worried about Trump's gag orders, email us from your personal email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send snail mail to either address:
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Vox Media Suite 1700
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New York, New York 10004
Update 1/22/2017 3:57 p.m.: This post has been updated to include new information about NASA.
Update 7:10PM EST, 1/24: This post has been updated to include new information about the USDA’s gag order.