It turns out a U.S. Department of Agriculture memo construed by news outlets as a Trump administration gag order on federal scientists was nothing of the sort, despite the media firestorm it generated.
The Trump administration had nothing to do with the memo to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), reports ScienceInsider. ARS officials released a short memo in advance of a USDA-wide memo with the same provision “included in a January 2009 memo from Tom Vilsack after he was confirmed as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.”
ARS chief of staff Sharon Drumm, however, used the “wrong phrase” to describe “standard operating practice at USDA,” said ARS communications chief Christopher Bentley.
Drumm wrote that “ARS will not release any public-facing documents.” The terse wording likely got some ARS personnel worried, so they leaked the memo to the media.
Buzzfeed reported Tuesday that USDA “ banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing everything from the summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets,” which “department scientists around the country interpreted it as a message from Trump.”
Though USDA clarified to Buzzfeed that “[s]cientific publications, released through peer reviewed professional journals are not included” in the memo, the news outlet claimed scientists were on “lockdown” under Trump.
Buzzfeed’s article came out amid reports the Trump administration was freezing grants and contracts spending at the Environmental Protection Agency, and days after the National Park Service suspended its Twitter activity after tweeting two posts seen as critical of Trump.
Other media outlets echoed the alarm.
Quartz reported “Trump has gagged the US Agriculture Department’s research arm from publicly sharing its work.” Mashable wrote “Government scientists are caught between new gag order and their own ethics policies.”
Bentley, who’s not a political appointee, admitted he should have used different wording to describe what’s “standard operating practice at USDA,” reports ScienceInsider. Nothing has actually changed in regards to ARS outreach under Trump, Bentley said.
“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have said ‘public-facing’ documents,” Bentley told ScienceInsider. “We never intended it to include scientific information and other documents that have gone through peer review.”
USDA’s official memo to agency employees, telling them to clear public policy statements with higher ups, was the same as the Obama administration issued in 2009.
“This memo is not some sort of creative writing exercise,” USDA Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Young, who wrote the memo, told The New York Times. “This is almost exactly what was issued eight years ago. I just updated it a bit.”
“Before we issue some policy-related announcement or before agencies take these other actions, we just need to have a review of it,” Young said. “It’s not meant to stop it, it’s not even meant to delay it, it’s just common practice to have news releases reviewed and reports reviewed.”
Young’s memo did order agency personnel “to remove references to policy priorities and initiatives of the previous Administration,” but that order doesn’t really impact ARS scientists.
ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, also not a political appointee, rescinded the order Tuesday evening after a day of being thrashed by the media. She said the memo had been sent out before it was officially approved by USDA.
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