Scientists report political meddling, self-censorship

By Christa Marshall, Sean Reilly | 08/14/2018 01:11 PM EDT

Federal scientists at EPA, the Interior Department and other agencies are reporting political interference with their work, requests to remove “climate change” from research and declining staff levels, a new survey of government employees said.

A survey of scientists working across the federal government showed more dissatisfaction at EPA and the Interior Department than at the Energy Department.

A survey of scientists working across the federal government showed more dissatisfaction at EPA and the Interior Department than at the Energy Department. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (DOE and EPA); Pamela King/E&E News (Interior)

Federal scientists at EPA, the Interior Department and other agencies are reporting political interference with their work, requests to remove "climate change" from research and declining staff levels, a new survey of government employees said.

Overall, 50 percent of scientists questioned on average across 16 agencies — also including the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture — agreed this year that "consideration of political interests" hindered science-based decisions, said the analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology.

"In many of the critical science agencies — especially the agencies that handle environmental regulation — scientists reported that they are having trouble doing their jobs because of political interference, staff reductions and a lack of qualified leadership," said Jacob Carter, a research scientist with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and a co-author of "Science Under Trump."


"Hundreds also reported self-censorship to avoid becoming a political target," he said.

Also, a higher percentage of respondents from EPA, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and USDA reported low morale relative to scientists at other agencies, said the report.

The groups conducted the survey in February and March, before the departure of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. At the time, it was uncertain whether many proposed budget cuts would make it through Congress. Numerous proposed and enacted regulatory rollbacks that affect climate and energy research were — and still are — on the table.

Censorship is an issue particularly on climate science, according to the report. It cites cases such as Interior forcing the head of Joshua Tree National Park last year to fly to Washington, D.C., over a climate-related tweet.

Scientists at the National Park Service were most likely to report censorship related to global warming. "We’ve been told to avoid using words like climate change in internal project proposals and cooperative agreements," one NPS worker said.

Overall, 47 percent of respondents at NPS and 35 percent at EPA said they had been asked to omit "climate change" from their work.

More than 30 percent at the U.S. Geological Survey and EPA said they avoided using "climate change" without explicit orders to avoid problems.


EPA scored highest on many metrics in the survey, including the highest percentage of employees, 32 percent, listing influence of the White House or political appointees as a top barrier. More than half rated morale as "poor" or "very poor," Carter said in an interview.

One unnamed agency employee quoted in the report voiced a belief that internal review requirements have made it harder to provide "timely and important information to the communities within our nation."

Similarly, 70 percent of EPA respondents said the presence of senior "decisionmakers" from regulated industries influenced agency outcomes, compared with only 30 percent in the government as a whole.

EPA had the highest percentage of respondents who strongly agreed — more than 50 percent — that there have been workforce reductions in the past year because of hiring freezes, retirements and departures.

While the report generally does not seek to explore the reasons behind the survey results for individual agencies, EPA has been a particular target for President Trump.

During the 2016 campaign, he suggested the agency should be abolished. Since taking office, his administration has twice sought to slash EPA’s budget by double-digit percentages, although Congress has so far refused to go along.

Last October, Pruitt banned current EPA grant recipients from serving on agency advisory committees. Coupled with a related decision to end a tradition of reappointing first-term committee members to a second term, that step has led to the exodus of dozens of researchers from the Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientific Counselors and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, as well as various subcommittees.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the lead plaintiff in one of three lawsuits now challenging Pruitt’s policy. Records released in another suit show Pruitt’s team relied heavily on input from Republican lawmakers in devising the ban.

Even more contested has been Pruitt’s proposal this spring to limit the types of scientific studies the agency can use in crafting new regulations to those for which the underlying data "are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation," according to the text of the draft rule.

While Pruitt has said his purpose was to bolster confidence in EPA rulemaking, critics see the proposal as a ploy to exclude research that could justify the need for stricter pollution standards.

Under White House pressure, Pruitt resigned early last month. In an interview soon after with E&E News, acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler voiced general support for both initiatives (Greenwire, July 13).

Asked about a finding that fewer than 35 percent of EPA respondents agree or strongly agree that the agency adheres to its scientific integrity policy, an EPA spokeswoman said in an email that the agency has one of the federal government’s most robust training programs in that area, accompanied by regular improvements "to make it even stronger.”

She did not address a separate request for comment on the relatively high level of concern reflected in the survey about the influence of political appointees.

Interior, DOE

Employees at Interior also recorded some of the highest levels of concern. Like EPA, scientists at NPS, USGS and FWS listed political influence as a "top barrier."

"This is particularly notable at the USGS, which as a nonregulatory agency, had experienced lower levels of political influence in previous years," the survey says.

It quotes an anonymous USGS employee saying political appointees at the department require review and approval of all research grants over $50,000.

Earlier this summer, the Trump administration reportedly issued a directive requiring USGS employees to get approval before talking to reporters (Greenwire, June 25). Other department employees left this year after alleging breaches of scientific integrity policies (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

More than 40 percent of respondents at both FWS and NPS agreed that people from regulated industries with a financial outcome in decisions influenced internal deliberations. More than half of respondents at FWS and NPS reported an overall decrease in personal job satisfaction.

In a statement, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said "scientific integrity remains intact at the Department of Interior." She said, "Any assumption otherwise is categorically false."

Researchers at the Department of Energy, and other "energy agencies" at Interior, like the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, were less likely to cite political interference.

At those offices, employees cited "delayed" leadership or absence of leadership with scientific backgrounds as top barriers.

Still, 44 percent of respondents in energy agencies reported resources being moved from scientific work because they were viewed as politically contentious. Some employees reported anonymously that sensitive topics were "line-item" removed from calls for proposals or funding opportunities.

Not all the results indicated dissatisfaction. Scientists at NOAA perceived "significantly less political pressure" than other agencies.

At several energy and environmental agencies, including FWS and NPS, about half of respondents indicated their employer was adhering to its scientific integrity policy.

It’s unclear how representative the survey is for the federal government as a whole, considering the response rate, which was 6.9 percent overall.

The highest response rates were at USGS and the National Park Service, but they fell below 20 percent. The response rate was 8 percent at FWS and 3 percent at EPA.

Some science branches also were not included, such as the Office of Science at DOE, which oversees the majority of the national labs.

To conduct the analysis, UCS obtained staff lists through the Freedom of Information Act, then identified scientific employees based on job titles. Potential respondents were then invited to fill out the survey anonymously.

The survey was conducted among 4,211 scientific experts in the federal government. It is the ninth such analysis from UCS since 2005.