The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

USDA scrambles to ease concerns after researchers were ordered to stop publishing news releases

This story has been updated.

Employees of the scientific research arm at the Agriculture Department were ordered Monday to cease publication of “outward facing” documents and news releases, raising concerns that the Trump administration was seeking to influence distribution of their findings.

Department officials scrambled to clarify the memo Tuesday afternoon, after intense public scrutiny and media requests, stating that the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) had not “blacked out public information” and adding that scientific articles published through professional peer-reviewed journals have not been banned. Such a decree would have conflicted with established scientific integrity standards and previous media guidance “encouraging, but not requiring, USDA scientists to communicate with the media about their scientific findings.”

The memo's shortness and terse language seems to have exacerbated the confusion: “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” wrote ARS chief Sharon Drumm in an email to employees.

By Tuesday evening, the guidance had been rescinded in a subsequent email: "Yesterday, we sent an email message about Agency informational products like news releases and social media contact," another email to employees said. "This internal email was released prior to receiving official Departmental guidance and is hereby rescinded."

The ARS guidance was not issued in coordination with other offices at the USDA, department officials said, and partially contradicted a department-wide memo that went out on the same day. The USDA-wide memo, issued by the department's acting deputy administrator, Michael Young, was intended to offer guidance on “interim procedures” until a new secretary takes over USDA.

Young stressed during a phone call with reporters Tuesday evening that his guidance does not place a gag order on publication to scientific journals, does not place a blanket freeze on press releases, or prohibit food safety announcements.

“The ARS guidance was not reviewed by me. I would not have put that kind of guidance out. My guidance has to do with policy-related announcement and that sort of thing,” Young said during a phone call with reporters early Tuesday evening. “I had my memo drafted before the ARS memo, I was not a part of it.”

Young’s memo, a copy of which was given to The Washington Post, emphasizes that press releases and policy statements must be routed through the office of the secretary for approval: “In order for the Department to deliver unified, consistent messages, it's important for the Office of the Secretary to be consulted on media inquiries and proposed response to questions related to legislation, budgets, policy issues, and regulations,” said the memo. “Policy-related statements should not be made to the press without notifying and consulting the Office of the Secretary. That includes press releases and on and off the record conversations.”

Young stressed that he is a “career official,” not a partisan appointee, and said that the memo he issued closely mirrored one sent at the beginning of the Obama administration. He also said he shared the memo with Trump transition official Sam Clovis before issuing it.

“This is really just formalizing again what is fairly standard practice within the department. I just felt like, yeah, I want to be cautious because I don’t want any surprises on my watch. I was trying to avoid any surprises,” he said.

The Agricultural Research Service employs thousands of in-house scientists, maintains scores of research locations around the country and boasts a $1 billion budget. It is tasked with conducting research to “develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority,” according to the USDA. That research focuses on topics such as food safety, nutrition, animal and crop production, and agricultural sustainability.

Research publicized on the USDA's website this month includes papers such as “Helping Arizona Wheat Growers Maximize Resources” and “Test Uses Novel Antibodies to Detect Shiga Toxins.”

The “public-facing documents” memo Monday, which was first reported by BuzzFeed, raised fears that the new Trump administration was attempting to filter articles about ongoing scientific research being conducted by ARS.

The ARS sought to ease those concerns Tuesday afternoon. Young also said Tuesday evening that he had spoken with ARS and suggested he might support clarifying or rescinding the research agency’s confusing guidance.

“As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America,” ARS said in a statement to The Post Tuesday afternoon, seeking to clarify the scope of the memo.

Trump picks Sonny Perdue for agriculture secretary

USDA and ARS have issued media guidance in the past. Under the Obama administration, guidance published in 2013 stipulated that USDA employees should clear any “media inquiries on topics that are sensitive” with public affairs staffers. That media guidance, which appeared to have been last updated in 2016, also urges them to communicate with supervisors about “any instances where they feel public affairs or communications staff is stifling their ability to communicate about their work.”

The USDA does not yet have a permanent department head. Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue was nominated by President Trump to head the USDA last week but has not yet begun the confirmation process. The congressional committee overseeing his hearing has not given guidance on when his hearing will take place, pending his submission of necessary paperwork.

President Donald Trump tapped Sonny Perdue to become Agriculture Secretary. Here's what you should know about him. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Read more: 

Trump administration tells EPA to freeze all grants, contracts

Interior Department reactivates Twitter accounts after shutdown following inauguration

Climate change has big implications for farmers. Will Sonny Perdue get that?