The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump creates ‘hostile environment’ for federal government scientists. One speaks out about reprisals

On July 19, former top climate policy official at the Department of Interior Joel Clement, filed a complaint and a whistleblower disclosure form. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Is the Trump administration trying to “delegitimize science”?

Are administration officials “creating a hostile environment for federal agency scientists?”


That’s the upshot of a Union of Concerned Scientists’ report that was released, coincidentally, the day after an Interior Department scientist published a Washington Post article about Trump administration retaliation against him.

The report from the Union’s Center for Science and Democracy acknowledges that “political interference in science is not new,” but under President Trump “these threats to the federal scientific enterprise have escalated markedly.”

Kenneth Kimmell, the union’s president, said in an interview that the interference is worse “in the breadth of the attack on science … and the intensity of it … this is unique,” adding it goes “way beyond a policy dispute.”

The report documents tactics employed by Trump and the Republican controlled Congress that “diminish the role of science in our democracy,” including:

  • Weakening federal advisory committees charged with giving scientific advice to the government;
  • Making it “more difficult for government scientists to speak publicly about their work,” including restrictions on terms like “climate change;”
  • Revoking “science-based safeguards” through “an unprecedented 13 congressional resolutions rolling back science-based protections, including safe drinking water standards and safeguards to prevent worker exposure to harmful chemicals;”
  • Creating a “hostile environment for scientific staff … a culture of fear is increasing at government agencies, undermining scientific research and communication.”

Trump administration officials at three agencies, including the White House, did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

The hostile environment was demonstrated by the recent transfer of Joel Clement, the outspoken Interior Department scientist. In a Washington Post opinion piece on July 19, he said his forced reassignment, one of about 50 affecting senior level staffers, was Trump administration retribution “for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government.”

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift would not comment directly on Clement’s case. She cited an earlier department statement that said members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), such as Clement, “signed up for the SES knowing that they could be called upon to work in different positions at any time … Personnel moves among the Senior Executive Service are being conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the Department’s operations.”

But Clement said his transfer is a “is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars,” because it moved him from his area of scientific expertise to an accounting position, adding,  “I am not an accountant.”

Although Clement kept his pay level, he added during a telephone conversation that the move was a demotion because he went from supervising 25 employees as director of the Office of Policy Analysis to none.

He plans to stay at Interior while fighting his transfer through the Office of Special Counsel. Meanwhile the mood at the department is morbid, he said.

“It’s like walking into the morgue at that place,” he said. “Everyone is looking over their shoulders. After the mass reassignment, everyone is thinking they are next.”

Eight Democratic senators have urged the department’s inspector general to examine the reassignments. “Any suggestion that the Department is reassigning SES employees to force them to resign, to silence their voices, or to punish them for the conscientious performance of their public duties is extremely troubling and calls for the closest examination,” said a letter led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.   

Although there was no coordination between Clement and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the organization’s report speaks to his situation. Citing a Politico article, the Union’s report said Energy Department employees were told “not use ‘climate change,’ ‘emissions reduction,’ or ‘Paris agreement’ in any form of communication.”

But “perhaps the most devastating long-term impact of attacks on science may come from the creation of a hostile work environment for government scientists,” the report said. It cited a decision, made just before Trump’s inauguration, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to withdraw its sponsorship from a long-planned Climate and Health Summit in May. It was rescheduled as a one-day event without government support, instead of three days as initially planned.

“We should ensure that our country’s scientists work in environments where they thrive,” the report said, “not one in which they cannot do their jobs effectively.”

Clement can’t do his job at all, at least not the one he was trained to do.

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