USDA silences scientists after USRTK interview requests

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Photo illustration by Rebecca Raney

Two scientists who sought permission to speak with U.S. Right to Know were silenced last month by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The officials gave no reason for their denials of the interviews.

In one case, a public relations specialist declined an interview after the scientist said that he was “happy to arrange a time to speak with you” in an email exchange with a reporter. In the other case, officials denied a request after the scientist submitted it to the communications department for approval.

In all, U.S. Right to Know requested interviews with seven USDA scientists on the matter, which did not relate to the scientists’ work for the federal government. Several scientists did not respond to the inquiry.

Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said that the First Amendment rights of government scientists are under attack.

“The ability of scientists to speak and write on matters of public concern, whether in their field or not, right now is up in the air,” he said. 

The topic of the interviews proposed by U.S. Right to Know dealt with a component of the researchers’ citizenship activities in the scientific community and fell outside their duties for the federal government.

Before the first denial for an interview with the scientist who was willing to speak on the topic, Public Relations Specialist Jessica Ryan asked for a detailed list of questions by email and asked if U.S. Right to Know granted pre-publication review. After receiving a list of questions, along with an explanation of the organization’s policy to not submit articles for review before publication, the official said that the scientist “won’t be available to answer questions for this story.”

Ryan did not respond to repeated requests for a reason for the denial.

In the second case, Ryan responded by recommending that the reporter call an outside organization instead of the USDA. In this case, she also did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation for the denial of the interview.

The USDA oversees important public health matters, including recalls of meat and poultry, as well as monitoring of bird flu. The agency also bears partial oversight in communication about nutrition labeling, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services.

Among press advocacy groups, this type of silencing of federal employees is known as “censorship by PIO,” or public information officer. In recent reports, the Society of Professional Journalists has found “a relatively rapid trend toward prohibiting staff members from communicating to journalists without reporting to some authority.”

“You’re not the only one who has noticed this,” said Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit group that protects and defends public-interest journalism. “You’re not the only journalist who thinks this is a problem.”

The problem is magnified, she said, when the sources who are silenced are scientists.

“The American people rely on journalists to translate very complicated pieces of science for them, including science being done by our government,” Vogus said.

Because scientific issues are complicated, she said, “I think it’s all the more important that journalists are able to talk to the scientists directly when they’re trying to report on these issues.”

Ruch said that PEER has represented more than 50 federal scientists in the last 30 years who work in about a dozen federal agencies. Most faced official restraints on their speaking or writing about their research.

“This is about control of information,” Ruch said.

In the past, he said, the USDA silenced scientists by applying a regulation that governs scientific integrity. The policy is designed to ensure that government employees only disseminate high-quality, consistent scientific information to the public.

Ruch said agency officials have employed provisions of the policy to shut down public communication from scientists that included conference presentations and peer reviews of articles in scientific journals.

The operative clause, he said, was that USDA scientists “should refrain from making or publishing statements that could be construed as being judgments of, or recommendations on, USDA or any other Federal Government policy.”

The inquiry by U.S. Right to Know did not delve into federal policy, but into work outside the agency.

Also, the scientific integrity policy stipulates that “when communicating with the media or the public in their personal capacities, USDA scientists may express their personal views and opinions. . . . Personal or private activities may not violate Federal ethics rules.”

Ruch pointed out that policies to silence the speech of scientists are spreading to other agencies that oversee critical public health functions, including the Centers for Disease Control.

New rules for several federal agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health and Human Services, are as restrictive as those that have been imposed on USDA scientists.

He was not surprised to hear that several scientists, having seen their peers silenced, declined to respond.

“It seems to me, they would be prudently deterred from speaking on any topic,” he said.

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