FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
Jeff Ruch firstname.lastname@example.org (510) 213-7028
May a Federal Scientist Do a Media Interview?
It’s Complicated: “Soft Gags” Mix False Transparency with Vague Threats
Washington, DC —This January, the White House proclaimed that 2023 would be the “Year for Open Science” both to improve access to federal science and to “promote public trust.” However, a reporter seeking to interview a federal scientist today, especially on a topic of any controversy, often faces daunting barriers, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The recent experience of a research microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey offers an illustrative case in point. Eveline (Evi) Emmenegger got into hot water after reporting repeated biosafety breakdowns at the USGS Seattle-based Western Fisheries Research Center. After a botched attempt to fire her failed, Ms Emmenegger is still seeking restoration of all her previous duties, including overseeing the Center’s highest biosecurity lab and membership on the animal care committee, through litigation before the Merit Systems Protection Board, the civil service court, where she is represented by PEER.
In late March, a reporter associated with Nature magazine asked to interview Evi for a podcast about her experiences regarding the treatment of scientific whistleblowers, not as an official agency spokesperson. When asked whether Evi would be allowed to participate in the podcast, the Western Communications Officer indicated any interview in the scientist’ personal capacity must comply with the USGS Communications Policy which includes the following warning:
“Employees may not speak to the media on matters involving USGS budget, personnel issues, or Bureau or Departmental policy or positions in any capacity without specific authorization …”
The Communications Officer then wrote Ms. Emmenegger: “we strongly advise you seek ethics guidance to ensure you conform to ethics rules and regulations” but declined to indicate just what particular ethics rule would be implicated.
Ms. Emmenegger then contacted the Ethics Office of the Department of Interior for guidance. In reply, the Ethics Officer informed her that:
“Since you will be engaging in the interview in your personal capacity, you should submit a DI-7010 (Request for Ethics approval to engage in outside work or activity).”
This is the same form an employee must submit for permission to run an outside business, other non-federal employment, or to accept anything of value from an outside interest. If permission is denied, the employee has little effective recourse, except perhaps to file an internal grievance.
“Like several other federal scientific agencies, USGS uses a soft gag policy in which scientists are intimidated by the threat of discipline, perhaps termination, for an unspecified ethics breach or stalled until the reporter goes way,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that USGS policy does not mention that government employees have First Amendment free speech rights when speaking as a citizen. “At USGS, Open Science apparently does not permit a view of any information that might cast a shadow across official talking points.”
In this instance, Emmenegger’s chain-of-command approved the interview as a permitted “outside activity.” Eleven dates later, the day before the podcast, Interior’s Ethics Office provided generic ethics guidance and approved the interview, more than three weeks after the initial interview request.
This takes place against the backdrop of an ongoing White House effort to strengthen all agency scientific integrity and transparency policies, slated for completion this fall. Last week, PEER and a dozen public health, transparency, and environmental groups jointly urged the White House to embrace “explicit written policies that delineate scientists’ ability to communicate with the media and public about their areas of expertise” as a key component of this effort.
“Open Science should mean that scientists are able to talk to journalists about their work without prior official review or approval,” Ruch added. “Fear of embarrassment is not a legitimate ethics concern.”