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fighting restrictions on UK researchers is best way to show solidarity with our friends across the pond

By Fiona Fox

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

There are worrying reports from the US suggesting that the Trump administration may be about to restrict government scientists from communicating their findings openly.

Last week, BuzzFeed reported the alarming news that the US Department of Agriculture had banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing information.

According to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department told staff – including some 2,000 scientists – at the agency’s main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to stop communicating with the public about their work.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email shared with BuzzFeed News. “This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” she added.

The reports were widely shared throughout the world and by the end of Wednesday Canadian scientists had issued a message of solidarity with their US colleagues and a scientists’ march on Washington had been announced.

I am impressed by the bold and defiant response to the threats and reassured that if the Trump administration does try any widescale gagging, US researchers will not be easily cowed.

But we need to be careful to examine what is really happening in the US and not risk the very distortion or exaggeration of which we accuse Trump of perpetuating.

My first question when reading the BuzzFeed piece was whether the email from the chief of staff was a response to an instruction from the administration or self-censorship by a risk averse senior manager. The SMC has seen in the UK how fear of damaging relations with Government departments has led to unnecessary self-censorship in research institutes.  And indeed, within 24 hours of the news of the gagging order on ARS scientists BuzzFeed updated their report to reveal that the gagging order from the chief of staff was apparently lifted.

I am also keen to know whether any of these restrictions have happened at the early stages of previous administrations.  After all, we have purdah in the UK, a rule that means no government research institutes or research councils are allowed to publish or say anything publicly about science during general elections, council elections or referendums.  I was once asked to leave a scientific meeting of toxicologists immediately after my speech because there were government scientists in the room and they could not be heard, even by me, during an election.

Similarly, confusion surrounds the widely circulated and shocking reports of a move to remove the EPA web pages on climate research.  According to Scientific American that order has also been countermanded and the pages will remain, though talk of reviewing the content remains ominous.

In recent weeks, federal employees at the National Parks Service, EPA and other agencies have reported they are under “gag orders” – restricted from using social media or taking any action not approved by the new administration. As of Monday evening, the EPA hadn’t tweeted a single item since 19 January, the day before Trump was sworn in as president.

At NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), however, social media managers continue to post information about climate change. This includes a tweet on the 25 January directing people to the agency’s fact sheet on climate change, which states that human activities are the major cause of the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere. So it is unclear exactly who is under restriction and who is abiding by the order.

The other thing I am keen to know is whether US government researchers have enjoyed more academic freedom than their counterparts in other countries up to now. The reports of the gagging of government researchers in Canada became a global scandal in the scientific community. But the transparency around the introduction of the Canadian gagging policy and its later glorious and explicit lifting – within hours of the election of a new government – left government scientists in New Zealand, Australia and the UK scratching their heads as to why similar rules in our countries were passing unchallenged. Colleagues who have worked in media relations and journalism in the UK and the US confirm that US government scientists enjoy much more free speech than their UK counterparts. If so, then any threat now is a travesty and must be resisted with vigour; these freedoms once lost are hard to re-gain.  But this article widely circulated last year suggested that US government research institutes might not have been the bastion of unfettered open communication we like to think. Government research agencies in the US it seems were already suffering from the affliction of controlling and politicised communications managers,  a phenomenon which can have as chilling an effect on free speech and open inquiry as any gagging orders.

We in the UK also need to avoid hypocrisy in denouncing the US government’s gagging of scientists when what we may be seeing in the US is the introduction of restrictions that have been in place on our own government- employed researchers for many years.  The SMC has enjoyed great success in the UK and we are highly acclaimed for our work in persuading more scientists to engage with the topical controversies hitting the headlines.  But we have abjectly failed in our attempts to free government researchers from the controls and restrictions placed upon them. There are hundreds of researchers in one government research institute who we are barred from speaking to directly and cannot add to our database, even though they are researching areas that desperately need more explanation to the media and public.

In the past week I have sat and watched an agency, set up to be arm’s-length from Government, castigated for communications that have caused embarrassment to a government department. I also discovered that another agency that I see as independent has to have its website pages approved by the Cabinet Office. Believe me, that was a standard week.

In the last two years the SMC has joined forces with our friends in science to fight a new Code requiring all civil servants to seek prior approval from a minister before speaking to the press and another new rule restricting those who receive government money from lobbying for change. So there are battles to fight closer to home too.

None of this is to say that we should not all be joining in solidarity with our US science colleagues, and the march on London planned around the impact of Brexit will rightly have an element of camaraderie with researchers who face new threats to their freedom.  But, in our anger and dismay, we should be careful not to fall into lazy thinking about the new administration. We need to check our facts, work out what is real censorship and what is self-censorship and which rules are a genuine break from the past.  More than anything, those of us in the UK who are alarmed by this news need to galvanise our anger against a US threat by looking to our own backyard.  After all, if the new president wants handy tips on how to stop the mass media freely accessing government researchers, he need look no further than the UK.

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