The Federal Scientist Who Blew the Whistle

Published May 29, 2018

Dr. Joel Clement, a former policy director at the Department of Interior, shares his experience of political interference in the Trump administration and the steps he took to fight back.

In this episode
  • Joel and Colleen discuss the DOI’s unprecedented reassignment of dozens of staff overnight
  • Joel talks about what it means to be a whistleblower and how he became one
  • Colleen asks what the best outcomes are for this whole situation
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Full transcript

Trying to stay current with the latest abuses of science by this administration is like playing Whack-a-Mole. And the moles are on Adderall. And our arms are tied behind our backs. We manage to whack them anyway, but then another pops up. And another. And in the struggle to whack all these moles, I know I occasionally overlook one of the worst abuses of science by the Trump administration—and that is the treatment of scientists.

The thousands of government scientists working for the EPA, NASA, NOAA, and others joined public service because they believed in the power of science to make a difference in people’s lives. Under an administration that suppresses scientific evidence over and over again to create policies that hurt people, many of them are suffering too. They’re worried they’ll be fired if they speak out against science being sidelined. They’re worried if they do get fired, someone with less commitment to evidence will take their place—or maybe worse, that no one at all will be appointed to do their crucial work. They’re watching as their own work is ignored, censored, and twisted to suit an agenda. It’s been…tough.

At UCS, we recently welcomed a new senior fellow to our Center for Science and Democracy, someone who can speak to how difficult it is to be a federal scientist… in an administration that devalues and silences scientists. Joel Clement was reassigned last year from his position at the Department of the Interior… to a job completely unrelated to his skills or background.

Believing his reassignment was politically motivated, he blew the whistle on the DOI and Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Joel joins me on the podcast today to chat about his work at DOI, the populations he used to serve, and who’s doing that work now… the obligation for certain folks to use their voice when they can… and what happens when whistleblowers blow the whistle. Spoiler: there is no actual whistle.

Before we get into it, a quick note on the language that Joel uses. Joel refers consistently to the Indigenous Alaskans he used to serve at DOI… as Alaska Natives. When he’s speaking about his former colleagues at DOI who were Native or Indigenous Americans, he refers to them as American Indians… which is a name that many indigenous Americans use to describe themselves. If you are not an Indigenous American, and you’re wondering how to refer to Indigenous Americans in your life, it’s a good idea to ask what they prefer.

Colleen: Joel, welcome to the Got Science? Podcast.

Joel: Oh, thanks, Colleen, I'm happy to be here.

Colleen: So, you're a scientist and you were previously a climate advisor and director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Department of Interior. You worked with Alaska natives living on land that is rapidly disappearing due to climate change until you were reassigned to the office of Natural Resources Revenue, where your job was to audit fossil fuel royalty income. So, do you have a background in accounting?

Joel: No, I don't. I don't even balance my checkbook.

Colleen: So what happened?

Joel: So, last July 2017, dozens of senior executives at the Department of Interior were reassigned in one night, which is unprecedented. Every new administration, when they come in they move a few senior executives around, but no agency, in any administration, had ever taken such a swing at the career senior executives service at any agency.

So, my sense of the situation is that when they reassigned dozens of us, senior executives that night, that many of us were targeted and retaliated against, and it was hoped that we would quit the agency and leave civil service entirely. And so, they moved me into an office and a role that not only didn't suit my background but was in opposition to my work as a climate policy advisor.

Colleen: Yes, somewhat ironic choice of new position.

Joel: Not nuanced. In fact, their original proposal, which we have found out after the fact, was to send me to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to do that. So they wanted to relocate me and move me into the royalties collection business.

Colleen: So, as part of the Senior Executive Service, this is a mobile service, so it's within their right to reassign you. You actually expect that you might be reassigned quickly, but you would be reassigned to a job within your area of expertise. So, it's hard to come up with any reason for the transfer other than they really wanted you to leave.

Joel: That's right. And the senior executives, all of us, we know that we could be moved, even involuntarily. There are general procedures for doing that, which they ignored. They didn't explain their reasons for our reassignments and why we were relocated to these offices. They didn't leave any paper trail but yeah, this was an unprecedented action.

Colleen: You decided then to speak out about this because it seemed very politically motivated. Is that when you decided to, blow the whistle?

Joel: You know, frankly, I didn't know what to do. You know, most civil servants, whether they're scientists or others, don't know what it means to be a whistleblower, don't know what the rules are, and don't know about their protections. Particularly, under the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. I had no idea what these things were.

So, I didn't know that I was gonna blow the whistle. I just knew that I wanted the world to know about these abuses of this administration, that you can't just do this sort of thing and not have a light shined on it. That's all I wanted to do.

Colleen: What do you actually do? Did you file something?

Joel: I had no idea actually, what a whistleblower was, frankly. But I did have the sense to find an employment attorney, and an employment attorney who understood the federal service and the federal constraints and so on, and the Whistleblower Protection and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

So, I sat down with the attorneys and came to understand that when you're retaliated against, you can take action. Especially if there's an effect on American health and safety as we're seeing up in Alaska in these Arctic villages.

So you then file your paperwork with the Office of Special Counsel, in this case, and they begin an investigation. It can take a long, long time. It's already taken, you know, 10 months, but I want them to do a good job, so I don't mind that. And I think that they will take a very close look at the problem.

Colleen: So when you went to the Budget Office, they had no role for you? They didn't have a job description.

Joel: That's right. I was just called a senior advisor to the program there.

Colleen: With really nothing to advise on.

Joel: That's right. And over time, they realized, "Boy, we better give him something." And the political leadership at Interior insisted that the leadership in this office come up with something for me and start training me in the auditing programs and auditing procedures of collecting and dispersing royalty income. So they realized that they had made a mistake that there was a fake position that they had moved me into. It was a little too obvious, "So let's put some work in front of this guy."

Colleen: So, how are your math skills?

Joel: I'm not bad. You know, I'm a biologist. I've got the math skills of a biologist.

Colleen: So, you then resigned. Why not stay and try to fight from the inside?

Joel: So, two reasons. First of all, this office that I was moved into, they're a fantastic bunch of hardworking civil servants and they are focused on making sure these royalty revenues go to the right places, like tribes, for example. Some tribes, it's their only source of income. So they do play an important role. I know nothing about that, I know nothing about auditing. I was clearly a square peg in a round hole and it wasn't going to enhance their operation to have to bend over backwards and train me and so on.

So, I didn't wanna string them along on this. And also, I'd already essentially, lost my job. All I wanted to keep, at this point, was my voice. And within this job, I was being tamped down. You know, from within Interior, I had very little voice left. And so it was clear to the agency and Zinke, Secretary Zinke, were not gonna do anything on climate change and they weren't gonna act to protect the Alaska natives threatened by the impacts of climate change. So if I wanted to make a difference there, I had to go do it from outside the agency.

Colleen: Tell me more about the work that you were doing with the Alaska natives.

Joel: Yes. So, at Interior, first of all, the Department of Interior is the federal trustee for American Indians and Alaska natives. So, it plays a special role within the federal family in advocating for representing and supporting tribes and Alaska natives. In the case of these Arctic villages up there, we get visitors from these villages every month or so coming to Washington to say, "Hey, we're extremely threatened. There's a GAO report, General Accounting Office, report out there that says there are 31 villages that are highly vulnerable right now to the effects of climate change."

And in the case of these coastal communities, it's not just sea level rise. They sit on islands and narrow spits of land that are essentially, locked in place by permafrost. Well, that's no longer true, and they're getting very quickly eroded and the sea ice is not coming in. When the fall storm season comes in there's no sea ice to protect them, so they're now being...the seas from these storms are devouring these bits of land, meters at a time.

So they come into Washington, they're like, "We need help." And DOI plays an important role in that, the Bureau of Indian Affairs at DOI plays an important role there, but there was no coordinated action in Washington to address that. And what we started, over the years, before I left, was to develop a program to address this in a coordinated way among all the federal agencies that work in Alaska, and there are quite a lot of them.

So, my role was to coordinate, as the senior executive, senior career guy, to coordinate all those agencies and their senior career leaders to make sure we're able to provide resources where possible and advance the ball and at least, start to address the problem.

Colleen: what would adaptation look like for community in Alaska on a spit of land that's in grave danger of disappearing? Do you move a whole community? I mean, what do you do?

Joel: Yeah, that's one word, relocation. You know, I think, some of the communities have wanted to stay and defend in place, and that's their prerogative and it's actually their decision to make, but many of them will have to relocate. And there are so many questions of governance and land issues and, of course, money issues and relocatability.

Colleen: And community.

Joel: Exactly, cultural persistence.

Colleen: Can you move the whole community...

Joel: Yeah.

Colleen: ...or do you move people individually, and then they lose their community?

Joel: Exactly. And that's failure there. So, from our perspective it was, "We need to find a way to serve the community, ensure cultural continuity, and relocate a village as one unit so that they can continue their traditions." Each of these villages has their own practices and traditions, many of them their own dialects, some different languages. They really punch above their weight in terms of their contribution to global, cultural diversity. So, you really do wanna act to maintain that, whether it's language, cultures, traditions, and so on. So, relocating them as villages is very important.

Colleen: What are some other adaptation methods that don't require relocation?

Joel: Yeah, you know, adaptation, particularly in the Arctic is very complicated, right? And relocation is important for some villages but for others, they may wanna defend in place. And historically, that's what they've done. The Army Corps will come in and build some riprap or provide an elevated area for security or an emergency shelter. They may build a shelter off the island, somewhere where people can congregate in the event of an emergency.

But frankly, every adaptation plan, every emergency preparedness plan in the Arctic depends on air support and there is no air support up there. I mean, it would take hours for a support to come from Kodiak, Alaska to get all the way up there to get people out of harm's way, and so that's why this is such a disaster in the making and it's why lives are at risk.


Colleen: How much information do you get from individual tribal members? Do they come to Washington to talk to you or is there a lot of communication with the people in the communities that are being affected?

Joel: So, these community members would come to Washington directly. We'd have whaling captains come to Washington, we'd have local tribal leaders come to Washington, they would send letters. They made many appeals. Villages like Shishmaref where the youth were some of the most outspoken of the community members saying, "Hey, we know we need to move, please help us. We don't wanna find that we no longer have a home in 20 years. We wanna establish that home that we know we'll have when we are the tribal elders."

So, we had very direct contact with folks. I did pay an occasional visit up to the region but for the most part, this organizing and support had to take place in Washington because without Washington behind it, there's not much you can do in the region to protect these folks and to relocate them.

Colleen: So what has happened to the work that you were doing now that you and others have been reassigned?

Joel: Well, they haven't replaced me, they haven't filled my position. And right now, there is no one in Washington coordinating the federal response to this slow-moving disaster. There's no one doing it. Now, that's within the Trump administration. Congress has stepped up in the absence of action from the executive branch to provide some funding for one of the villages to start to relocate. It's a very expensive proposition, but in the most recent budget bill, there was money to go to the Denali Commission to help fund some transitions up there because the executive branch was totally punting on the issue and ignoring them completely.

Colleen: So, you just described this as a slow-moving problem, but before the interview, you were telling me about a USGS, NOAA study that actually says that things are happening faster than we expected.

Joel: Yeah, that's right. I say slow-moving disaster in contrast to what FEMA is required to respond to, which is an immediate event like a giant storm. So, a study just came out, a USGS, a NOAA study, it was actually funded by the Department of Defense, that found that many low-lying atolls in the Pacific will be uninhabitable by the middle of this century.

Now, what this means is that these low-lying atolls who know that the sea level rise is gonna take a lot of their land, they thought they had until the end of the century, all of a sudden, this new modeling explains that aquifer inundation and other things are gonna eliminate potable water there within 30 or 40 years.

So that's within the timeframe where there's not much we can do on the mitigation front, there's not much we can do in terms of cutting back on greenhouse gases that will change what happens with the climate over the next 20 or 30 years. So it has to be all about adaptation, and building resilience, and finding ways to get through the eye of the needle for entire cultures. Just like the Alaska villages, these atoll communities have been there for hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years, and they've developed their own practices, own traditions, and languages, and so on, they'd be wiped out. They'd have to go blend in somewhere in Fiji or something and really lose their cultural continuity.

Colleen: So there's another aspect to this story that you've been vocal about, and that's the blatant discrimination against American Indians and other minorities at the DOI. Talk a little bit about that.

Joel: Yeah, there have been several disturbing incidents. One of them, of course, was when they reassigned all of us that night, last summer in July of 2017, a disproportionate number of us were American Indian. So, a third of those who were reassigned were American Indian, and half of them were minorities. And a disproportionate number were also women. But the focus on American Indians was unusual, it was striking and I know that there have been many follow-up investigations to look into that because it's not an isolated incident, there have been other situations where this administration has targeted American Indians.

Colleen: And the DOI, by design, gives preference to indigenous peoples'...

Joel: That's right. Because DOI, as the federal trustee for American Indians and Alaskan natives, there is what's called a hiring preference for American Indians, and many jobs, there's a preference to hire American Indians into these positions to ensure that we have good representation of American Indians and Alaska natives on the career staff at DOI. So, to be targeting them, not only is it discriminatory, but it goes against the mission and intent of the Department of Interior.

Colleen: So, you did sue the department to see internal documents and memos about the mass reassignment. And the Inspector General's Office recently released its report and it pretty much verified that the reassignments were of a political nature. What do you wanna see happen now?

Joel: Well, you know, the problem with an investigation like that is they can find all this information out and it certainly affirms everything we've been saying, that it's quite likely that these reassignments were retaliatory, in some cases there was discrimination. But they kept no paper trail at all, they were not able to explain why they reassigned us to the positions they did.

So, it's good to have that stuff out there but really, all they get, in that case, is a slap on the wrist and "Hey, don't do it again." Right?

The problem now is what about all those senior executives that were reassigned? Particularly, what about all those American Indians who were reassigned without any good reason? Is there any way to make it right?

So, I would like to see further steps at the Interior Department to make that right. There's still an ongoing investigation, the Office of Special Counsel is still investigating my whistleblower complaint, and my hope is that they'll be able to go a bit further and beyond the fact that there's no paper trail, and they have nothing to say, and they've conveniently forgotten all their reasons. Take it another step and connect the dots and demonstrate that there was some real abuse here and that things need to change with the culture in the agency.

And my hope is that we can just continue to shine a light on this because if they get away with this kind of thing they're just gonna keep doing it, right? I mean, these abuses are not...there's a pretty clear pattern and we've seen this over and over, right? There's just, kind of, these ham-fisted punches that rules and regulations and they try and stay just shy of breaking the law, but in many cases, they're winding up in court. And in this case, hopefully, we'll see them taken to task on the issue.

Colleen: The problem is it takes time, and we don't have a lot of time for some of these communities.

Joel: Yeah, that's right. And they're doing some damage already. And not only is it communities on the edge, in Alaska or on the Pacific Islands, but elsewhere, Houston, Puerto Rico, you know, these extreme weather events are very connected, the tendencies of these events and characteristics are very connected to climate change. So, to be ignoring the impacts of climate change and denying the fact that it's human cause, as they've been doing, goes against the mission of the agency. And it's the very antithesis of public service, in my view.

Colleen: What would the best outcome be?

Joel: The best outcome would be to...obviously, if the Office of Special Counsel rules in my favor, I want them to then hold the agency accountable, all right? And it's not because I need anything out of it. I don't get a payout, I don't get money from this. It's just they need to be held accountable for this behavior so that they can't do it again. So, whatever the OSC needs to do to make that take place, I'm fine with it as long as there's an understanding that they did the wrong thing and they can't do it again.

They need to be held accountable in this case because there are consequences. And we're talking about the consequences, not just for the Alaskan natives, but across the country for American health and safety. If the OSC rules in my favor and says, "DOI needs to do these things," and they don't do them, then I sue, to make them do it.

Colleen: So if they say, "DOI, you need to do these things," could they say, "You need to reinstate that program?

Joel: Yeah. You know, and then maybe that's a question for my attorney because I don't know the details of what they can be asked to do, but I absolutely think that would be a great outcome for DOI to be asked by the OSC to, at very least, ensure that the programs continue and that scientists are in place to help these Americans in peril, in this case, the Alaska natives, but possibly, others as well. Ideally, holding them accountable on climate change would be even better, right? They can't be asked to put me back in my job because I've resigned, but they can be asked to make sure the work happens. Yeah, I think that would be a very good outcome

Colleen: And what about the future for you?

Joel: Well, you know, in many ways, this has woken me up to a pervasive problem. I think that the Union of Concerned Scientists has been on top of this for a long time and the fact that science-based evidence-based policy is how we operate in this country and compromising that is a much bigger problem than I think most Americans are aware.

So, I do wanna continue focusing on that. I am getting back in the Arctic game soon. I'm a senior fellow now with the Harvard Belfer Center working on an Arctic initiative and working on climate change and adaptation issues. So I'm continuing the work that I was doing from outside the government now, but maintaining the affiliation and the efforts with the Union of Concerned Scientists is important because I think that organization plus the Government Accountability Project and others that are focused on whistleblower rights, they need all the attention and help they can get, yeah.

Colleen: Well, thanks Joel for being a tireless advocate for science. You’re making a difference and we’re very greatful.

Joel: Well, thanks, Colleen, for having me on here, but also for those sentiments. I never know quite what to say to people when they say "thank you" because, in my mind, it was a no-brainer, right? You have to use your voice. I hope other civil servants do the same. So, thank you.

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Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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