Building at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville, Maryland.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville, Maryland.

Luigi Guarino/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Firestorm over supposed gag order on USDA scientists was self-inflicted wound, agency says

Don’t blame this one on the Trump administration.

In a bungled attempt to anticipate the wishes of their new political bosses, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) on Monday imposed what was widely interpreted as a gag order on its scientists communicating with the public. But a senior ARS official tells ScienceInsider that it was a poorly worded effort by career officials—not anyone appointed by Trump—to remind employees of a longstanding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy on clearing statements that have policy relevance with senior officials before releasing them.

The statement was rescinded the next day after a flurry of media reports accused the new Trump administration of attempting to still the voice of scientists at ARS.

Christopher Bentley, ARS’s communications chief in Beltsville, Maryland, blames himself for the wording in a two-sentence staff memo declaring that “until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents.” Bentley says the memo, issued by Chief of Staff Sharon Drumm, used the wrong phrase to describe what is standard operating practice at USDA. (Both Bentley and Drumm are career civil servants; indeed, ARS has no political appointees, not even ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young.)

“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have said ‘public-facing’ documents,” Bentley says. “We never intended it to include scientific information and other documents that have gone through peer review.” Nothing has changed in ARS’s outreach rules since Donald Trump became president, Bentley insists.

What happened, Bentley explains, is that he learned on Monday that USDA headquarters would soon be issuing an interim operating memo for the entire department. The three-page memo from Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Young described the need “to notify the Office of the Secretary in advance” of any responses to media inquiries “relating to legislation, budgets, policy issues, and regulations.” The same notification provision, Bentley notes, was included in a January 2009 memo from Tom Vilsack after he was confirmed as agriculture secretary under former President Barack Obama. But ARS jumped the gun on the release of Young’s memo, Bentley says, and the terse wording in Drumm’s short memo generated a firestorm.

If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have said ‘public-facing’ documents.

Christopher Bentley, USDA ARS

Even worse, says Bentley, his memo ran counter to existing policy. “I thought the definition of public-facing was clear,” he says, referring to press releases, social media content, and photographs. “But it means something different to the scientific community.” He also notes that neither memo prevented the ARS from issuing a press release on Monday that one of its scientists had been honored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The one new wrinkle in Young’s memo is an order “to remove references to policy priorities and initiatives of the previous Administration.” But even that hasn’t affected ARS, Bentley says. As a research agency, he says, “we don’t get involved in policy or regulatory matters. And to the best of my knowledge, we have not removed any references to previous initiatives.”

The concern that the Trump administration is trying to stifle the free exchange of scientific ideas at ARS is misplaced, Bentley says. “Nothing has changed,” Bentley concludes. “But it sure has stirred up a lot of people.”