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Report: Trump Admin. Suppressing Media Access of Government Scientists

Politics
Ryan Zinke visits Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota on May 25. Sherman Hogue / U.S. Dept. of the Interior

A new Trump administration protocol requires U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists to run interview requests with the Department of the Interior, its parent agency, before speaking to journalists, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The move is a departure from past media practices that allowed government scientists to quickly respond to journalists' inquiries, according to unnamed USGS employees interviewed by the Times.


The scientists fear the new rule would give taxpayers less exposure to USGS expertise, as journalists would seek scientific comments elsewhere.

"In the 44 years I was with the agency, I was never required to go through anyone for authorization to speak with a reporter," William Ellsworth, a former USGS scientist who is now at Stanford University told the Times. "The USGS is a nonpolitical science agency ... These new roadblocks will not help them fulfill their mission."

Scientists with USGS study the country's landscape, its natural resources and its natural hazards. The department also measures and analyzes natural and man-made factors that contribute to climate change—an issue that has become increasingly partisan since Donald Trump became president.

The LA Times cited a April 25 email from Interior press secretary Heather Swift stating that it is standard procedure for scientists to first obtain approval for interviews with media outlets when the topics are considered "very controversial or ... likely to become a national story."

The new policy also allows Interior's communications office to turn down interview requests on certain topics, the Times reported.

Faith Vander Voort told the newspaper in an email that "the characterization that there is any new policy or that it for some reason targets scientists is completely false," and that Interior had only asked the USGS public affairs office to follow guidelines established in 2012 under President Obama.

However, the guidelines do not say that scientists must get approval before speaking with reporters.

In fact, a 2015 USGS manual on news release and media relations policy states: "The USGS supports and encourages employees to speak on behalf of the USGS to news media representatives about their official work and freely and openly discuss scientific, scholarly, technical information, findings and conclusions based on their official, published work or area of expertise."

A number of senior employees have left the Interior department headed by former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke. Earlier this year, nearly all members of the National Park Service advisory panel abruptly quit in protest of the Trump administration's policies, which they say have neglected science, climate change and environmental protections.

"We resigned because we were deeply disappointed with the department and we were concerned," the former head of the panel, Tony Knowles, told the New York Times. "[Zinke] appears to have no interest in continuing the agenda of science, the effect of climate change, pursuing the protection of the ecosystem."

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