Science and the US: A marriage on the rocks

27 Jan 2017

US president, Donald Trump. Image: Shutterstock/Andrew Cline

This week began with a surprise push to keep various environmental agencies quiet in the US. What followed was numerous rogue Twitter accounts fighting back, a planned ‘march for science’ and now a surprise person taking the blame.

Science and the US is a marriage on the rocks.


On Tuesday, it emerged that employees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) within that, and the Department of Health and Human Services had received orders not to speak to reporters or publish any press releases or blog posts on social media.

The fallout was fast and extensive. Pretty quickly, dozens of Twitter accounts emerged, seemingly created by employees within various US state agencies. One, for example, was @ActualEPAFacts (at the time of writing, it has 144,000 followers).

Where did that come from?

The source of some of these ‘gag orders’ have proved surprising, with ARS officials claiming they pre-empted what they felt was an impending Trump administration order with their own “poorly worded” version.

Regardless of chronology, a reality is proving true. On Wednesday, it emerged that any studies or data from scientists at the EPA must undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public.

Scientists having to get their work signed off by political employees does not a happy researcher make.

The communications director for Trump’s transition team at the EPA, Doug Ericksen, told Associated Press (AP): “We’re taking a look at everything on a case-by-case basis, including the web page and whether climate stuff will be taken down. Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we’ll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA.”

Marching season

Quick as a shot, an organisation behind a ‘Scientists’ March on Washington’ has emerged, with a date yet to be confirmed.

225,000 followers on Twitter holds less currency than 225,000 people on the streets, though given the fact that this whole mess is playing out on social media, perhaps it’s not the bot-heavy Twitter world we’ve been told of in the past.

Paper pressure

A day after speaking with AP, Ericksen called the article “completely inaccurate”, telling Science News that the agency will simply be “freshening up” the website. Though, rather confusingly, all information on the website, including data and research related to climate change, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

When the Obama administration took over eight years ago, similar, but not identical, issues emerged. The difference is that this time, scientific papers could be restricted.

“Scientists worldwide have been alarmed by the clear anti-science actions taken by the Trump administration,” Caroline Weinberg, an organiser of the Scientists’ March, told Vox.

The organisation’s mission statement includes: “An American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.”

After extensive marches already occurring during the early days of the Trump administration, it will be interesting to see if similar numbers go out and protest against this scientific clampdown.

Donald Trump, US president. Image: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic