Agriculture Department pushes back against reports it’s trying to curb climate-related science

Source: By Ben Guarino, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, July 12, 2019

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE)

The Agriculture Department’s research leaders appear to be doing damage control after reports that the agency suppressed climate science research and potentially violated its own scientific integrity policies.

The pushback comes after a Politico investigation found the USDA attempted to keep innovative government-funded climate change research from the public eye. And The Washington Post revealed earlier this year the agency required its in-house scientists to label their peer-reviewed studies as “preliminary” — a policy it reversed in May after criticism that such a disclaimer would diminish the impact of the work or prevent its publication.

In an internal letter sent to all research employees on Friday, USDA scientific directors and administrators argued that the department did not undermine climate research — and had not violated its scientific integrity policy.

“USDA has no policy, practice, nor intent to minimize, discredit, de-emphasize or otherwise influence the climate-related science carried out by USDA scientists and agencies,” read the letter signed by deputy undersecretary Scott Hutchins and several top research officials, including acting chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young. Three USDA employees separately confirmed the letter’s authenticity to The Post.

USDA research contributed to more than 500 articles “related to climate science projects” published in scientific journals in 2018, the letter continued.

“Scientific integrity is of paramount importance in USDA, and the USDA scientific integrity policy specifically states that ‘scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subjected to inappropriate influence.’ ”

The USDA did not offer further comment on the letter. “The email sent to REE employees last week is self-explanatory,” USDA spokesman Damon Thompson said in an email to The Post, referring to the agency’s research, education and economics division.

But Politico uncovered that the USDA withheld a news release about a study that found rice loses nutrients when environmental carbon increases.

The communications office also pressured the University of Washington, whose scientists were co-authors of the report, not to publicize the report. “The intent is to try to suppress a message — in this case, the increasing danger of human-caused climate change,” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told Politico.

“When this has to be said, it confirms what we all know,” said a senior employee at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional retaliation, of the letter. “If this were true, scientists wouldn’t have had to publish their papers as ‘preliminary data.’ Instead, two USDA science agencies are being exiled to Kansas City.”

The employee was referring to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement in June that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds more than a billion dollars each year in agriculture research, and the Economic Research Service, an influential statistical agency, would move out of their Washington offices to Kansas City by the end of September. The decision prompted concerns among current and former USDA employees that the Trump administration was seeking to suppress research through employee attrition and physically moving them far from collaborators.

An analysis by the firm Ernst & Young suggests the move will save $300 million over 15 years. But the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, a professional association for economists, has disputed those savings, arguing the move may cost taxpayers up to $128 million because the initial analysis does not account for the value of lost research data and overstates the cost of keeping the agencies in the capital.

Employees, worried about uprooted families and hampered careers — the agencies frequently collaborate with other Washington-based employees — have quit in unusually large numbers. A recent survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents the two agencies, suggests about seven in 10 employees do not plan to relocate to Kansas City.

“Our staff, with all their years of experience, are leaving for other agencies. We should be focused on this, rather than hastily moving the agency,” Wesley Dean, a NIFA employee and vice president of the local bargaining unit, said in a statement on Wednesday.