The Trump administration’s decision to stop Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials and other government staff from speaking out publicly has prompted the country’s leading scientific organisation to warn against “censorship and intimidation”.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific society in the world, said many federal agencies had policies that “prohibit political interference” in how they relay information to the public.
And the World Resources Institute think tank said the move to stop the “free flow of information” would have a “chilling effect on staff”.
In addition to the media blackout at the EPA, some other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, were also told to suspend external communications, although the latter department's gag order was subsequently lifted.
The ban includes the issuing of press releases, blogs, messages on Twitter and Facebook posts, according to information leaked to several media organisations. All media requests must be “screened” by the administration.
The decision came after the new administration ordered a “temporary suspension” of grants to the EPA, stopping new business activity.
Donald Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, who is known as a climate science denier, to run the EPA, an organisation he has taken to court on a number of occasions.
In a statement, Rush Holt, the AAAS’s chief executive, said: “We are concerned about reports that federal agencies – including the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency – have issued directives to staff that may silence the voices of scientific researchers and others working for the federal government.
“Our hope is that this is a temporary measure put into place until the new government agency heads are confirmed by the Senate.
“Many federal agencies have existing scientific integrity policies that prohibit political interference in the public dissemination of scientific findings.
“As the AAAS Council stated in 2006: Censorship, intimidation, or other restriction on the freedom of scientists employed or funded by governmental organisations to communicate their unclassified scientific findings and assessments not only to each other but also to policymakers and to the public is inimical to the advance of science and its appropriate application in the policy domain."
And Sam Adams, the US director of the World Resources Institute, called for the bans to be lifted.
“These actions will stem the free flow of information and have a chilling effect on staff in these agencies,” he said.
“This flies in the face of effective policymaking which requires an open exchange of ideas, supported by the best science and evidence available.
“Curtailing communications from these agencies will hinder their ability to provide clean air and water and protect people’s health across the country.
“The administration should lift these bans as soon as possible and ensure that the role of science is respected within our government agencies.”
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