[WASHINGTONPOST] USDA science researchers ordered to stop publishing news releases, other documents
January 24 at 2:17 PM
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.
“Starting immediately and until further notice, [the Agricultural Research Service] will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” wrote ARS chief Sharon Drumm in an email to employees.
Department officials scrambled to clarify the memo Tuesday afternoon, after intense public scrutiny and media requests, stating that ARS had not “blacked out public information” and adding that scientific articles published through professional peer-reviewed journals have not been banned. Such a decree would have conflicted with established scientific integrity standards and previous media guidance “encouraging, but not requiring, USDA scientists to communicate with the media about their scientific findings.”
“As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America,” ARS said in a statement to The Washington Post Tuesday afternoon, seeking to clarify the scope of the memo.
The original email guidance, which was first reported by Buzzfeed News, remains intact. It specifically bans employees from publishing news releases and social-media content.
The Agricultural Research Service employs thousands of in-house scientists, maintains scores of research locations around the country and boasts a $1 billion budget. It is tasked with conducting research to “develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority,” according to the USDA. That research focuses on topics such as food safety, nutrition, animal and crop production, and agricultural sustainability.
Research publicized on the USDA’s website this month includes papers such as “Helping Arizona Wheat Growers Maximize Resources” and “Test Uses Novel Antibodies to Detect Shiga Toxins.”
The “public-facing documents” memo Monday raised fears that the new Trump administration was attempting to filter articles about ongoing scientific research being conducted by ARS. It is unclear whether the instruction came directly from the White House, from officials involved from the transition, or within the USDA.
USDA and ARS have issued media guidance in the past. Under the Obama administration, guidance published in 2013 stipulated that USDA employees should clear any “media inquiries on topics that are sensitive” with public affairs staffers. That media guidance, which appeared to have last been updated in 2016, also urges them to communicate with supervisors about “any instances where they feel public affairs or communications staff is stifling their ability to communicate about their work.”
The USDA does not yet have a permanent department head. Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue was nominated by President Trump to head the USDA last week but has not yet begun the confirmation process. The congressional committee overseeing his hearing has not given guidance on when his hearing will take place, pending his submission of necessary paperwork.