Associations, researchers, and journalists call on Trump Administration to uphold and protect the sharing of information and data from federal sources

Private industries, academic institutions, and even countries look to the U.S. federal government to supply relevant data for their day-to-day operations — population numbers collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, climate patterns recorded by U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites, seismic activity logged by the U.S. Geological Survey, crop behaviors documented by the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and much more. This data and research is invaluable globally. The data enable all sorts of entities to function and plan for the future. But what happens if this input of research is shut down or if the data are obscured? Can the integrity of the data still be deemed reliable? Many are asking these questions now.

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of
Water Environment & Technology magazine.

Science first

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Changes raising alarms
According to media reports, under the new Donald J. Trump Administration “gag orders” have been placed on some agencies, instructing employees to no longer talk openly with the press and to restrict some federal agency personnel appearances at events. Though these orders have been imposed by previous administrations, the extent of them this time around has been questioned.

According to a Feb. 15 online article, “Acting EPA head: Hiring freeze challenges ‘our ability to get the agency’s work done,’” in The Washington Post, “The EPA has been among the agencies on the tightest leash since Trump took office.” Employees are now limited in “their ability to communicate publicly.” The article points out that no one at EPA (at press time) has tweeted since Trump took office.

In the Jan. 28 print edition of The New York Times, Bobby Magill, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists (Jenkintown, Pa.) wrote in a letter to the editor: “In light of public communications restrictions placed on federal agencies by the Trump administration, including the Environmental Protection Agency gag order, the Society of Environmental Journalists strongly urges the federal government to commit itself to transparency and to provide verifiable, factual information to all Americans, including journalists.”

Magill went on to write, “Any public information lockdown is an affront to both the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the public trust. The public is entitled to accurate information about polluters and how the government is enforcing environmental laws. Americans rely on journalists to bring them this information, so it is important that journalists have access to federal agency officials, government scientists, and scientific data.”

There also are reports of data and research now being filtered by the new administration, especially research related to climate change.

According to the Jan. 25 online article, “EPA science under scrutiny by Trump political staff” by the Associated Press, the Trump transition team revealed that the new administration planned to closely scrutinize “studies and data published by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, while new work is under a ‘temporary hold’ before it can be released.” The transition team explained that the review “extends to all existing content on the federal agency’s website, including details of scientific evidence showing that the Earth’s climate is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame.”

Changes also occurred at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Jan. 25 Washington Post article, “USDA scrambles to ease concerns after researchers were ordered to stop publishing news releases” stated, “Employees of the scientific research arm at the Agriculture Department were ordered Monday to cease publication of ‘outward facing’ documents and news releases, raising concerns that the Trump administration was seeking to influence distribution of their findings.”

By Jan. 25, the “gag order” at the ARS was lifted after the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that an internal email — with no input from the Trump Administration — to its Agricultural Research Service unit calling for a suspension of “public-facing documents,” including news releases and photos, was flawed and that new guidance has been sent out to replace it, according to the Jan. 24 Associated Press article, “USDA disavows gag-order emailed to scientific research unit.”

Appeals to uphold data integrity
This lockdown on disseminating information and vetting of research and data has caused both concern and alarm among some associations and academics.

Scientists and researchers are asking that scientific integrity of federal data and research be protected.

On Jan. 30, the American Society of Agronomy (Madison, Wis.), Soil Science Society of America (Madison, Wis.), and the Crop Science Society of America (Madison, Wis.) sent an open letter to President Trump asking that he “protect and defend the scientific integrity of federal scientists.”

“All scientists rely on robust federal science and data to benefit Americans’ daily lives — ensuring safe, nutritious, affordable and plentiful food supply that is produced with sustainable technologies,” the groups wrote in their letter to Trump. “We ask that you act quickly to protect federal scientists, bolstering the integrity and credibility of your Administration, and ensuring America continues to lead the world in scientific research and innovation.”

These sentiments were echoed by Charles N. Haas, head of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Drexel University, past chair of Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Disinfection Committee, and past editor-in-chief of the journal Water Environment Research.

“During my entire career, I have always enjoyed the free exchanges with EPA scientists and engineers, and their input to the scientific enterprise is important,” Haas said. “Furthermore, reduction in their ability to participate in technical meetings (maybe including WEFTEC®) will reduce their ‘currency’ with progress in the fields that they need to maintain to do the best job at protecting environmental and human health in the most cost-effective manner.”

He said he knows of several of his colleagues in the academic community who rely “heavily on work” of [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)] and NASA, and international partners.

“If NOAA and NASA data are compromised, either by making them harder to obtain or by interfering with continuity of data collection — for example, it has been suggested that NASA should not be making Earth observations — this will interfere with our understanding of these critical issues.”

Independent actions to safeguard data
Haas said he is aware that federal government websites discussing climate change have been changed to draw the phenomenon into question by exaggerating “the uncertainty in the forecasts.”

He also said he is concerned about the possible removal or muddying of available data on federal government websites. The concern is why he supports “datarefuge.org activities, which have been aimed at downloading important federal data in a traceable and archival form to enable access should further limitations be imposed,” he said.

Haas pointed out that “outside the environmental area, we have already seen access to animal health data disappear from USDA’s Web sites, and so further removals would not be surprising.”

Haas said this isn’t the first time that an administration has tried to influence the data disseminated by federal scientists.

“During the George W. Bush administration, important ‘gray’ literature became harder to obtain due to the closure of U.S. EPA libraries,” Haas said. (Gray literature is information that falls outside of the mainstream research journals. It can include hard-to-find studies, reports, or dissertations, conference abstracts or papers, governmental or private sector research.) “In other countries — notably Canada under the Harper administration — Canadian federal environmental data were literally discarded from libraries,” Haas noted.

No wall
The hope is that history doesn’t repeat here.

Haas said the Trump administration needs to realize that “walling off” federal science does neither the federal government nor the scientific enterprise any good.

“It may be that we are in for an ‘alt-truth’ and ‘alt-science’ period, and so this line of argument may not be appreciated,” Haas said “I think societies need to encourage their members, both in the government sector and in the various nongovernment sectors to be vigilant about efforts to shade scientific findings to advance particular pre-conceived notions.”

Congressional action
On March 2, U.S. Rep Paul Tonko (D–N.Y.) introduced a bill called the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1358). The bill is aimed at securing an open exchange of data among federal scientists, their colleagues, and the public. It would require U.S. federal agencies to adopt or strengthen policies to insulate government-directed research from the influence of political pressure and special interests, according to a committee press release.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology commented on her support for the bill: “I am concerned about the increasing suppression or denial of widely supported and tested scientific findings by some government and private sector leaders because of politics, ideology, or financial conflicts of interest.”

Johnson continued, ”Those actions have contributed to an erosion in the public’s trust in science and done great harm to policy makers’ ability to develop smart solutions to our nation’s challenges. It’s time to restore the public trust and ensure the integrity of science in the policymaking process.”

At press time, the bill had a total of 77 cosponsors and had been referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T

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