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News Blackout Imposed on U.S. Science Agencies [Updated]

Stop sign

(dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay)

Update 25 January 2017. Buzzfeed News reports today that Department of Agriculture rescinded its order to Agricultural Research Service staff to stop communication with the public. Reporter Dino Grandoni quotes Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the agency’s administrator, that the original order should not have been issued and “is hereby rescinded.”

24 January 2017. Multiple news services today are reporting that the Trump administration is ordering several U.S. government agencies conducting or funding scientific research to cease discussing its activities with the media or public officials. The ban covers agencies in Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, and in the case of Environmental Protection Agency, extends to a freeze on new grants and contracts.

In a story by politics editor Sam Stein and reporter Kate Sheppard, Huffington Post today says agencies inside the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, received a memo with orders not to correspond with public officials, until the Department’s leadership has time to meet with new White House staff on the Trump administration’s policies. A congressional source, say the reporters, confirmed the freeze on HHS interactions with officials.

Stein and Sheppard also reported that a subsequent memo to National Institutes of Health told that agency to freeze new regulations or guidance, and not discuss them in public. The reporters quote the memo as instructing operating divisions in the department, “to hold on publishing new rules or guidance in the Federal Register or other public forums and discussing them with public officials until the Administration has had an opportunity to review them.”

Huffington Post says its sources close to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were not aware of the memo. But CDC on Monday abruptly canceled without comment a conference on climate and health planned with American Public Health Association. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the association, told Associated Press, “They had no idea whether the new administration would be supportive,” calling CDC’s decision “a strategic retreat intended to head off a possible last minute cancellation or other repercussions from Trump officials who may prove hostile to spending money on climate change science.”

Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency, a long-time target for anti-environmental interests, was told to cease all public communications activities, and had its grant-making and contracting authorities frozen indefinitely. In a separate story on Huffington Post, Sheppard reports the agency is imposing tight restrictions on press releases, blog posts, social media and content on the agency web site. The restrictions include reviews of speaking engagements, webinars, list serves, and incoming media requests.

The more damaging restrictions, however, may be on EPA’s grant-making and contracting authorities. ProPublica reporters Andrew Revkin and Jesse Eisinger reported Monday night that a memo from an EPA contracting officer says, “The new EPA administration has asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately. Until we receive further clarification, this includes task orders and work assignments.”

Neither EPA nor Trump administration officials commented on the reports by Huffington Post or ProPublica. But Myron Ebell, who led the Trump transition team at EPA told ProPublica, “They’re trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don’t want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first.”

An extended freeze on EPA grants and contracts could have significant effects on companies doing business with the agency, as well as communities and universities. ProPublica says EPA has contracts valued at $6.4 billion currently in place. The contracts support day-to-day public health activities such as handling hazardous waste and testing the quality of drinking water.

Agricultural Research Service

A report today by Dino Grandoni of Buzzfeed News says staff at the Agricultural Research Service, an agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, received orders to cease its communications with the public. An e-mail message to agency staff, shared with Grandoni, quotes Sharon Drumm, chief of staff at Agricultural Research Service who says,  “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents.” The message continues, “This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

Agricultural Research Service is USDA’s in-house research arm, with some 8,000 staff members including 2,000 scientists. The agency conducts 750 projects at its more than 90 research sites, including overseas labs. Agricultural Research Service last issued a press release and Twitter message on Monday.

The agency issued a statement from spokesperson Christopher Bentley in response to a request from Buzzfeed News indicating that the ban applies to “informational products like news releases and social media content,” but, “Scientific publications, released through peer reviewed professional journals are not included.”

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