A U.S. Geological Survey geologist collects samples of lava spatter for laboratory analysis on Hawaii on 6 May 2018. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey / Associated Press

By Rong-Gong Lin II
21 June 2018

(Los Angeles Times) – A new directive from the Trump administration instructs federal scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey to get approval from its parent agency before agreeing to most interview requests from reporters, according to employees and emails from officials with the Department of the Interior and USGS.

USGS employees who spoke with The Times on condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to do so say the new protocol represents a dramatic change in decades of past media practices at the scientific agency and will interfere with scientists’ ability to quickly respond to reporters’ questions. They expected that taxpayers would see less of the USGS’ scientific expertise as reporters seek scientific comment elsewhere.

The new protocol also permits the Department of the Interior’s communications office to reject interview requests on scientific matters.

A deputy press secretary for the Department of the Interior, Faith Vander Voort, wrote in an email that “the characterization that there is any new policy or that it for some reason targets scientists is completely false.” She said the Department of the Interior’s communications office “simply asked” the USGS public affairs office to follow media guidelines published in 2012 during the Obama administration. Vander Voort did not answer a question as to what prompted the change in media protocol. […]

Current and former federal employees suggested the new protocols are an unwieldy attempt to control the voices of workers in the Department of the Interior, which employs some 70,000 people, including thousands of scientists at the top of their fields.

“This is really quite troubling. … In the 44 years I was with the agency, I was never required to go through anyone for authorization to speak with a reporter,” said William Ellsworth, former chief scientist of the USGS’ earthquake hazards team and now a professor of geophysics at Stanford University. “The USGS is a nonpolitical science agency. … These new roadblocks will not help them fulfill their mission.”

“You’re hamstringing the ability of the organization to listen to the needs of the public,” said Ross Stein, a USGS scientist emeritus and adjunct professor of geophysics at Stanford University.

Kate Kelly, a former director of communications at the Department of the Interior during the Obama administration, said it’s a problem when political appointees are put in a position where they can require scientists to obtain approval before speaking to journalists.

“This policy, if it’s in fact being implemented as such, has a lot of concerning implications. It essentially gives political appointees veto power over science, scientists and information that the American people should have access to,” Kelly said. “That introduces questions about what scientists are able to say, and whether what they’re sharing is some mangled version of the truth.” [more]

Trump administration tightens rules for federal scientists talking to reporters


By Sarah Kaplan
14 June 2018

(The Washington Post) – Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey must now submit their presentation titles for review by the Interior Department to get approval to attend two major conferences, and they will have to identify how their research relates to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's priorities.

In guidelines posted on the agency's internal website this week and obtained by The Washington Post, the USGS's Office of Administration told employees they will have to provide a detailed “attendee justification” when applying for travel approval for the annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union in Washington and the Geological Society of America in Indianapolis later this year.

Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Thursday that budget limitations mean the department “can only afford to send people who have a meaningful role at the conference. … If taxpayer dollars are being spent to send someone to a conference, we'd like some degree of confidence that their attendance will advance the department’s priorities.”

Zinke has detailed 10 priorities since joining the Trump administration in March 2017, including “create a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt,” “sustainably develop our energy and natural resources,” “protect our people and the border” and “strike a regulatory balance.”

But Chip Groat, who served as USGS director under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, called the new protocol unusual and “inappropriate.”

“Someone from another part of Interior might not understand the fine points of why this science is important,” he said Wednesday. “They’re making some judgment about the type and quality of science the USGS is presenting.”

Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary during the Clinton administration, used stronger language: “It's a form of censorship.” [more]

Scientists at USGS face new scrutiny on research presentations

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