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The Biden administration has proposed what some critics label a “gag order” on federal scientists in the US that would largely bar them from publicly discussing their research, and could effectively prohibit them from taking part in controversial studies on issues like the climate crisis, chemical pollution and biosafety.

The rule would have a “chilling effect” on the nation’s scientific discourse, and a similar policy has already been used to censor scientists, said Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), a non-profit that protects federal researchers.

It would only benefit industrial players who oppose research that could lead to policy changes or stricter regulations, Ruch added.

“Besides being unconstitutional, the prohibition serves no discernible public purpose,” he said. “Government scientists should not need to cast a profile in courage to openly discuss the implications of their research.”

The rule was issued last month as part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) rewrite of the Framework for Federal Scientific Integrity Policy and Practice, composed of employee procedures the administration’s agencies can implement.

The framework was developed during the Obama administration but seen as vague and incomplete. The Trump administration then capitalized on its weaknesses to use it as cover to make controversial decisions, Ruch said. He noted former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt cited the policy when he barred three agency employees from talking about water quality issues in Rhode Island.

“The policies were so ineffective that it provided the Trump administration cover – that was worse than no policy at all,” Ruch said.

The Biden administration rewrite was supposed to strengthen the document, but Ruch said it remains vague, and text was also inserted as a “gag rule”. Ironically, the rule was included in a section entitled “Ensuring the Free Flow of Scientific Information”.

The controversial text reads: “[Agency] scientists shall refrain from making or publishing statements that could be construed as being judgments of, or recommendations on, [an agency] or any other federal government policy, unless they have secured appropriate prior approval to do so. Such communications shall remain within the bounds of their scientific or technological findings, unless specifically otherwise authorized.”

Since 2103, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had in place a similar rule, and used it to censor a scientist at the behest of Monsanto, Ruch said. In 2014, then USDA entomologist Jon Lundgren was part of a study that suggested monoculture farming reduces diversity in insect populations.

Citing the rule, the USDA’s political leadership, then under Tom Vilsack, an Obama appointee, ordered Lundgren to remove his name from the study. It also barred him from speaking at a conference about the effects genetically modified crops and pesticides have on pollinators. Lundgren ultimately resigned.

“If you can’t study pollinators as an entomologist then that leaves you with a lot of things that you can’t do,” Ruch said. “It’s these sorts of scenarios that we’re trying to draw OSTP’s attention to – it’s the science that’s controversial that can get a scientist in trouble.”

In a letter to the OSTP asking it to rescind the rule, Peer cited examples of current research that could be put at risk, including EPA studies of toxic PFAS migrating off of military bases, or Centers for Disease Control research showing dangerous viruses are at risk of release from wildlife laboratories.

The rule also helps give cover to political manipulation of government science, Ruch said. Whistleblowers in the EPA have said agency management altered toxicity reports of some chemicals to make them appear less dangerous, and the new rule helps keep science out of the public view.

Moreover, the model policy doesn’t offer any protections to scientists, Ruch said. If a government researcher filed a controversial study that upset an agency’s management, reprisal could damage their career.

“What legal protection does that scientist have? The answer, from what we can tell, is none,” Ruch said.

Peer also questioned the rule’s constitutionality. In instances when government scientists are speaking or writing as private citizens, the public interest in the issue would likely outweigh any potential disruption of efficient government operations, Ruch said.

He added that he is not sure whether the administration is intentionally aiming to help industry, or if the rule is a case of poor judgment.

“It seems as if they didn’t think it through,” Ruch said.

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