In the summer of 2015 a tropical storm slammed into the mountains of Myanmar and triggered one of the largest landslides not caused by an earthquake in a decade. We know this because of pictures—stunning in their devastation—taken with a satellite run by NASA. We know this because of government science.
On Monday, news broke that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now barred from communicating with the public. That means no press releases, blogs, messages, or social media postings.
And early this morning, Buzzfeed revealed that The US Department of Agriculture has banned scientists and other employees in its Agricultural Research Service division from sharing the results of its tax payer-funded research with the broader public. The ARS is the main research agency of the USDA and is tasked with “finding solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day from field to table.”
The memo outlining these new rules has not been made public, but the ban reportedly includes everything from summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets. Scientists are still able to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, but they are unable to talk about that research without prior consent from their agency.
This is not the first time that public science has been hamstrung by a gag order. To this day, the quantity of oil spewed into the ocean during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil spill remains something of a mystery. Many of the scientists who worked on the spill were hired by BP and barred from speaking on it. But gag orders—while always troublesome—have usually been limited to one specific issue. Right now, the EPA and USDA have been forbidden to speak about all of their scientific research. It means that many of the kinds of stories we now cover will never see the light of day.
To understand what that means in practice, it helps to look to Canada, where government scientists faced censure under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A study by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that, “nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37 percent) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media.” Scientific inquiry is meant to produce hard facts that the world can rely on. But the easiest way to make science lie is to keep the public from interrogating it.
How much does public science really shape our lives?
The weather app on your phone that can sometimes tell you when it’s going to rain with minute-by-minute precision—or warn you about an impending tornado—is underpinned by government science (in this case by the National Weather Service). You may roll your eyes at the importance of weather data that occasionally leaves you stuck in a downpour without an umbrella, but the predictions are right more often than not, and the information is incredibly important.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis barreled down on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta, where locals claim that they were given no notice. And it’s not surprising that residents were caught unawares: Myanmar has no radar network to help predict the location and height of surging storm waters. When the storm brought flood waters 25 miles inland, 130,000 people were killed. As extreme weather events increasingly ravage the United States, the incident is a chilling reminder of the devastation we might face should serious storms catch us off-guard.
The reach of government science isn’t just limited to the weather, either. Government science is what determines which strain of flu should go into each year’s flu vaccine. It’s what helps us avert pandemics and helps farmers maximize yield of the foods that feed us all. The work of Cooperative Extension, which exists to improve the livelihood of farmers, is underpinned by government science. The research has value because of its dissemination to the public. When science isn’t released and discussed, we can’t make decisions based on it.
The government obviously isn’t the only source of science. But industry-funded science comes with its own inherent biases, and academic research can be constrained by the wants of academia—a push to publish. Publicly-funded research can act as a backstop, providing data that’s important for the social welfare but can’t easily be monetized. It’s the third leg that stabilizes the stool, and it doesn’t work without public critique and analysis.
Late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Science will suffer without transparency—and so will we.