USDA Restricts the Public’s Access to Climate Change Research
What happened: Under the Trump administration, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has refused to publicize peer-reviewed studies by USDA scientists that show the impacts of climate change.
Why it matters: Since the public may lack access to technical journals, they depend on federal agencies to communicate and make transparent scientific findings. By refusing to publicize the findings of the agency’s climate-related research, the USDA is elevating political considerations over informing the public of the government’s latest scientific discoveries.
According to a Politico investigation, a “persistent pattern” has emerged at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) where climate-related studies by the agency’s scientists are being sidelined by the communications department. Out of the 45 climate-related studies published, only two press releases have been issued for climate-related studies at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). This breaks with years of practice under the Obama and Bush administrations to promote the research of scientists at the USDA and other agencies. Refusing to publicize the work of USDA’s scientists restricts the availability of science-based information for the general public.
The sidelined peer-reviewed studies focused on a variety of topics. These studies include scientific evidence that high levels of carbon dioxide lead to less vitamin-rich rice, that allergy season will be exacerbated by climate change, and that prairie grass (important for raising cattle) is producing less protein as a result of climate change. These and other studies were cleared by the normal review process at the agency, so it is unclear why the results of these studies were not publicized.
The Trump administration may have actively suppressed the promotion of a rice study which found that higher levels of carbon dioxide induced deficits of protein, minerals, and vitamins in the grain. The ARS communication staff had written a press release about the results of this study on rice; however, “senior leaders” at the agency had “serious concerns about the paper,” resulting in the press release being buried. The USDA’s decision to not promote the study impacted how it was publicized at some of the academic institutions that had collaborated on the paper—the University of Washington conducted an internal review on the paper to check the validity of the science, and Bryan College of Health Sciences in Nebraska decided to shorten its own press release in order to avoid offending the USDA.
The agency claimed that the reason for this decision hinged on a disagreement with the science, not because the study was climate related. According to a communications official at the institution of one of the study’s authors, the University of Washington, the USDA communications office was “adamant that there was not enough data to be able to say what the paper is saying, and that others may question the science.” One of the authors of the rice paper described the USDA’s efforts as essentially “cherry picking” the data in order to raise issues that weren’t scientifically valid.
If the work of government scientific experts is kept in the dark, this may have profound consequences. The USDA’s efforts to bury climate-related work is already affecting the farming community. The Iowa Farmers Union President said that farmers are currently frustrated by the fact that they are not getting information from the USDA on ways that they can adapt their farming practices to better deal with the effects of climate change. Federal agencies should strive to make science conducted by government experts more, not less, transparent. Given that the work of USDA’s scientific experts can have major implications for the public’s well-being, it is critical that such knowledge be disseminated and made accessible to all. By restricting scientific information from the public, the USDA is showing that political considerations are more important to the agency than providing needed scientific data on climate change to the American people.