Why we need to protect government scientists from political retaliation

Improper political interference in government research undermines the critical role that unbiased science plays in our democracy.

SOURCEBrennan Center for Justice
Image Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Though it seems like an eternity ago, it was only last month that President Trump presented a doctored hurricane forecast to back up his previous tweets that Alabama would likely be hit by Hurricane Dorian — a claim that National Weather Service’s (NWS) Birmingham office pointed out was inaccurate — an incident later labeled “Sharpiegate.” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly asked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publicly disavow forecasters’ position that Alabama was not at risk. In response, Ross reportedly threatened to fire senior NOAA officials if they did not rescind prior agency statements about the storm that contradicted the president’s.

Condemnation of the episode came immediately from current NWS and NOAA employees, former NOAA administrators, business people, and political leaders, while public commentators highlighted the pure absurdity of it all. It would be funny if it wasn’t so deadly serious.

The episode is just the latest in an ongoing trend of political retaliation and threats against career researchers in the federal government — an issue addressed in a new report released by the bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy housed at the Brennan Center.

Politically motivated manipulation or suppression of government scientists’ research undermines critical government programs aimed at protecting the public’s health, the environment, and the economy. In addition, it drives scientists and experts out of government and stifles public and private sector innovation, which relies on objective government science and research. And it puts lives at risk. For example, if the public loses faith in the National Weather Service’s warnings, people may not heed future warnings the next time a hurricane really is bearing down on their homes.

These actions underscore the need for laws that would prohibit the suppression and censorship of scientific and technical findings, as well as the intimidation of and retaliation against government experts, researchers, and scientists. The integrity of government science depends on it. In turn, the democratic accountability of government policymakers depends on the integrity of government science.

Here are four examples from recent administrations where government scientists alleged retaliation or threats of retaliation for their research, for defending their research, or for speaking out against the inaccurate application of science.

1. A biologist was fired after filing a complaint about the use of flawed science

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), part of the Department of the Interior, is the federal agency responsible for the protection of endangered species. But in 2004, Andrew Eller Jr., a biologist for the FWS, filed a formal complaint that charged agency officials of knowingly using flawed science in an assessment of the Florida panther, the only remaining puma population in the eastern United States, that inflated panther population numbers and mischaracterized their habitat needs. The agency then repeatedly used the inaccurate data as justification to approve permits for real estate development on the panther’s habitat in southwest Florida.

Eller, who had worked at the FWS for 18 years, was fired after filing his legal complaint with assistance from the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The FWS eventually conceded that it had used flawed science, published a revised analysis, and reinstated Eller to his job.

2. A climate scientist was reassigned after speaking about climate change impacts

Climate scientist Joel Clement was the highest-ranking climate policy official at the Department of the Interior, where he served as the director of the agency’s Office of Policy Analysis. But in June 2017, he received a letter notifying him that he would be involuntarily reassigned to an accounting job, an unrelated role for which he had no experience. Clement was not alone: as many as 50 senior-level Interior Department employees were reassigned simultaneously. Five days later, in his testimony before Congress, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Trump appointee, claimed that reassignments were part of the agency’s attempt to save money.

Clement argued that he received his reassignment as retaliation for speaking publicly about how climate change threatens Alaska Native communities — an issue he had previously raised with White House officials, Interior Department colleagues, and the international community. He ultimately resigned from the agency shortly after his reassignment.

3. A climate scientist experienced retaliation after resisting research censorship

For eight years, climate scientist Maria Caffrey worked under contract at the National Park Service (NPS), where she led a major study on the risks faced by coastal national parks due to rising sea levels. But after Caffrey submitted a draft of the accompanying report, its publication was repeatedly delayed. During the editing process, NPS officials removed from the report every reference to human causes of climate change. This included deleting the terms “anthropogenic” and “human activities.” They also replaced the term “climate change” with the terms “energy independence,” “resilience,” and “sustainability.”

Caffrey pushed back against repeated attempts by senior NPS officials to censor her findings. Thanks to ongoing reporting on the delayed report, members of Congress called for an investigation into whether NPS had violated its scientific integrity policy. The report was finally released in May 2018, with the original references to climate change reinstated.

But shortly after the release of the report, Caffrey was notified that there was no longer sufficient funding available for renewing her contract. This happened even though Caffrey was previously told she would be rehired, and even though her branch had surplus funding.

Caffrey asked her supervisor, “Is this because of the climate change stuff?” He responded, “I don’t want to answer that.” 

4. Economists take the heat for research critical of White House tax policies

Established in 1961 and headquartered in Washington, the Economic Research Service (ERS) is a research arm of the Department of Agriculture. Economists at the ERS produce independent research that informs federal policy on issues, including agriculture, food, the environment, trade, and rural affairs.

In April 2019, six economists, with more than 50 years of combined experience at ERS, resigned from their jobs on the same day, with additional departures expected in the aftermath. The economists alleged that they had experienced ongoing retaliation for producing research that was critical of Trump administration policies. Specifically, the ERS had published analyses in 2018 that highlighted how the president’s tax plan would primarily benefit only the richest farm households.

In the ensuing months, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a restructuring plan that would include moving the ERS out of Washington and requiring staff to relocate across the country to a yet-to-be-determined new headquarters. The employees were given just a few months to move, without specific information from the agency about the final location. The Agriculture Department later announced that the new office would be in Kansas City but did not specify whether it would be in Kansas or Missouri. One hundred forty-one of the 181 employees at the ERS decided not to relocate with the service.

Additionally, the White House’s March 2019 budget request included major funding cuts that would reduce the number of ERS staff by more than 50 percent. While Congress is unlikely to approve that budget, some employees have interpreted the relocation of the ERS as an attempt to force out staff members without congressional approval.

Government scientists need protection

Improper political interference in government research undermines the critical role that unbiased science plays in our democracy. These examples highlight the need for laws that protect government researchers and scientific integrity itself.


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Rudy Mehrbani is a fellow and senior counsel at the Brennan Center. He leads the Center’s work on the bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy. He previously served as an assistant to President Obama and director of the Presidential Personnel Office at the White House, where he advised the president, cabinet members, and other senior government officials on human capital issues arising across the executive branch of the federal government. In that role, he served as a member of the White House Transition Coordinating Council in 2016. He has also served as general counsel of the Peace Corps and as an associate counsel and special assistant to the president in the White House Counsel’s Office, where he led the team responsible for vetting President Obama’s executive nominees and appointees. He worked in a variety of other roles in the federal government, including as a special policy advisor to the secretary of housing and urban development. Earlier in his career, Mehrbani practiced law as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Chicago. He received a BA from Emory University and a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law. He completed an international comparative business law program at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany. He is currently a presidentially appointed member of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Martha Kinsella, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, is based in the Washington, DC, office. She works on rights restoration, democracy reform, and government reform. Her principal project has been the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, with a focus on scientific integrity. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, Kinsella worked at the National Labor Relations Board, where she served first as a policy advisor and then as a trial attorney conducting enforcement litigation. During her tenure at the NLRB, she served as grievance chair of her union and received two agency awards for her pro bono work. She began her legal career as a law clerk to Judge Philip Carchman of the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court. Kinsella received her law degree from New York University School of Law, a master’s degree from Northwestern University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago.