Trump Administration Priorities Dictate if USGS Scientists Can Present Research at Two Major Conferences
What happened: If scientists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) want to attend two major scientific conferences, they are required to undergo a political review of their scientific research. Specifically, the titles of their presentations have to be reviewed by political appointees at the Department of Interior (DOI) and the scientists are required to justify how their research relates to DOI Secretary Zinke’s 10 priorities.
Why it matters: Secretary Zinke’s 10 priorities were developed to promote the priorities of the Trump administration. Judging whether federal science can be presented at a scientific conference on how well the science adheres with the Trump administration’s priorities is a clear example of political interference in science. When federal scientists are required to present only the findings that the Trump administration approves of at conferences, important research is bound to be sidelined.
In June 2018, the Department of Interior (DOI) posted a set of guidelines telling scientists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) that a new political review process was in place to determine whether they could attend two major scientific conferences. In the guidelines, the USGS’ Office of Administration said that science professionals who planned on attending either the American Geophysical Union or the Geological Society of America conferences were required to provide a detailed “attendee justification” to obtain travel approval by the agency. The guidelines were communicated through the DOI’s internal website and were obtained by the Washington Post. Titles of the presentations that the scientists planned on exhibiting at the conferences were judged by political appointees on whether they adhered to Secretary Zinke’s 10 priorities. If the USGS scientists did not pass the review by political appointees, they could not attend the conferences. Bruce Babbitt, the DOI secretary under President Bill Clinton, called this “a form of censorship.”
The DOI justified this action in terms of budget considerations. The reasons behind the policy also appeared to be based on how well the science can politically benefit the department. A spokeswoman for the DOI is quoted by the Washington Post as saying, “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.”
Federal scientists that plan on presenting at conferences are not normally required to undergo a review of their scientific work by political appointees. According to Marcia McNutt, the former USGS director under President Barack Obama, this process has not previously involved political appointees. There is already a process in place that the DOI and USGS uses to review requests to attend conferences.
Attending scientific conferences and presenting research is one of the primary ways that scientists communicate their findings to the scientific community and the general public. However, if political appointees are the main judges of whether this science can be presented at major conferences, important scientific research that may not fully equate to the priorities of the Trump administration is not being communicated with the public. In the words of Chip Groat, the former USGS director under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, “Someone from another part of Interior might not understand the fine points of why this science is important. They’re making some judgment about the type and quality of science the USGS is presenting.” This issue is considered important enough that, in October 2018, 15 Senators sent a letter to the DOI’s Deputy Inspector General on the issue. Specifically, the Senators requested an investigation of political interference in science at the agency, including “instances of interference with… public presentations by scientific staff at the Department [of Interior].” Decreeing that scientific research must align with certain priorities in order to attend major conferences hampers the work of federal scientists. And it provides a chilling message to federal scientists: your work is valuable only if it adheres to the priorities of the Trump administration.