Accumulating Evidence: Federal Scientists are being Silenced

What happened: Three EPA scientists that were scheduled to speak at a conference on the effects of climate change to the Narragansett Estuary Bay were restricted from attending. It is unclear why the scientists were not allowed to speak.

Why it matters: Conferences provide opportunities for federal scientists to speak about novel findings that could be crucial to solving pressing issues. Additionally, professional conference provide opportunities for federal scientists to network with other scientists, decision makers, and concerned citizens. Therefore, restricting scientists from presenting at professional meetings hinders research progress and effectiveness, ultimately stifling federal agencies from fulfilling their science-based missions


In October, 2017 three scientists slated to present on the effects of climate change on the Narragansett Bay ecosystem at a scientific conference were instructed by EPA officials not to speak. John Konkus, an EPA spokesperson and former campaign operative for candidate Donald Trump, said, “EPA scientists are attending, they simply are not presenting, it is not an EPA conference.” Konkus provided no further information for why the scientists would be restricted from presenting their work.

These three EPA scientists were scheduled to speak at a conference in Providence, RI about a recent report on the state of the Narragansett Bay and its watershed. The report was a product of the EPA-funded Narragansett Estuary Bay Program, and the scientists restricted from speaking at the conference contributed substantially to this report. The report highlights work still needed to assure good water quality and the protection of habitat, wildlife, and the societal and environmental benefits that this ecosystem provides. This work includes understanding and being prepared for climate change risks, as the introduction of the report summary notes, “While some forms of pollution have been reduced significantly, other pollution sources and the escalating impacts of climate change influence the bay’s ecosystem and public health conditions.”

Many have voiced concerns that this is another indicator of the Trump administration’s attempt to muzzle scientists. This claim is not unfounded - in a similar incident during February, 2017, EPA staff were restricted from attending the Alaska Forum on the Environment. The EPA reported that a prior review of travel-related costs is the reason why the 17 staff members were restricted from attending the conference. Yet, some of the EPA officials restricted from attending the conference lived only blocks away from the forum’s site in Anchorage, AK. In another case, 27 scientists from the Department of Energy were barred from speaking at the quadrennial International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on fast breeder nuclear reactors in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in late June, 2017. These 27 scientists were listed in the program to speak, but didn’t show up to the conference.

Sometimes, it is less clear whether scientists are being denied permission because of what they study. In October, some suggested that a decision to prevent Forest Service scientists from attending the International Fire Congress this year was politically motivated. The Forest Service has disputed this claim, and it is likely that excessive travel restrictions on all government employees—due to a scandal at the General Services Administration during the Obama administration—played a significant role in the Forest Service’s decision.  

Yet whatever the motivation, scientists need to be able to participate in professional conferences. Presenting research at a scientific conference serves as a means to have one’s work vetted as well as get the word out to the larger scientific community of novel findings, and provides an opportunity for scientists to network and build relationships within their field. Such presentations often spur collaboration among scientists that can result in innovative approaches to answer scientific questions resulting in higher quality research products. Therefore, restricting scientists from presenting at professional meetings hinders research progress and effectiveness, ultimately stifling federal agencies from fulfilling their science-based missions. This attack on science also sends a chilling message to the scientific community that their work is not valued. 

Last Revised Date: 

December 5, 2017