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EPA Scientists' Work May Be Subject To Review By Trump Team

Jan 25, 2017
Originally published on January 25, 2017 9:39 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Trump transition is off to a rocky start at the Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier this week, the transition team ordered a communications freeze at the agency, and this morning NPR reported that even academic papers by agency scientists will be subject to review. Joining us to discuss all this is NPR's science editor Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How unusual is it for things like press releases and blog posts to be halted during a presidential transition like this?

BRUMFIEL: You know, it's not all that unusual. I mean, what happens during a transition is political appointees sort to come in and take control of the top level of the agency. And while those appointees are literally arriving in Washington getting set up, they want to make sure they're in control of the agency, and so it makes sense that they would sort of tamp down on external communications during that transition period. It's happened before.

SHAPIRO: So it's not all that unusual for press releases and blog posts to undergo a review during a period like this, but scientific papers is a little different, and that was not a public announcement. How did NPR learn about this?

BRUMFIEL: That's right. Our reporter Nate Rott called the Trump transition team at EPA and spoke to a guy named Doug Ericksen who's running the transition team communications. And basically Nate called to confirm the freeze, but he also asked what about scientific papers, what about conferences if scientists want to go to conferences? And Ericksen said, somewhat to our surprise, that for now at least, even researchers will be subject to a case-by-case review for disseminating their scientific findings. Here's exactly what he said.

DOUG ERICKSEN: We'll take a look at what's happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that's going to reflect the new administration.

SHAPIRO: And, Geoff, explain why that might be more worrisome when it comes to scientific papers than when it comes to things like press releases and blog posts.

BRUMFIEL: So government scientists produce all kinds of data. And the way that data often makes its way to the public is first it goes and it's presented at a scientific conference or it's published in a peer-reviewed journal. That's just part of the way science works generally. As a result, many government agencies that employ scientists have scientific integrity policies designed to protect the sort of peer-review scientific process. In the case of EPA, the policy specifically prohibits - and I'm reading here - (reading) all EPA employees including scientists, managers and other agency leadership from suppressing, altering or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions.

SHAPIRO: Is that a policy that the Trump administration could change?

BRUMFIEL: It seems to me that - yes. I mean, it's not a law, and it's not a regulation. It is something that they could change if they want to.

SHAPIRO: Do we expect this to be a permanent policy, or is it just a temporary transitional thing?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Ericksen in his conversation to us emphasized that this was during the transition period, that that's what they were thinking about right now. And today during a press conference, White House spokesman Sean Spicer went even further and said there was no coordinated effort to gag government agencies by the Trump administration at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN SPICER: They haven't been directed by us to do anything. I think what they - what - from what I understand is that they've been told within their agencies to adhere to their own policies, but that directive did not come from here.

BRUMFIEL: So I think what we're seeing here is a transition process, maybe a little bit of a chaotic one. But I also think this sort of provides an insight into how the incoming Trump team sees the EPA and how they want to run the EPA, and what's clear is that they want control over the communications.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.