Whistleblower Case Shows How Trump Tries to Silence Science

A top federal scientist working with Alaska Native communities on climate change talks about abuses of power and intimidation, while a report details other tactics.

Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke. Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators sent letters reminding Trump administration officials of whistleblowers' rights. Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Share this article

This story was updated July 24 with eight U.S. senators requesting the Office of Inspector General investigate the reassignment of scientists.

For the first time since the Trump administration came to office and began dismantling the key science underpinnings of federal climate policy, a senior agency official has invoked the protections of the whistleblower law to publicly object to what he calls an illegal attempt to intimidate him. 

The official, Joel Clement, had been the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Interior Department before he says he was arbitrarily reassigned to an obscure accounting post to punish him for speaking up about protections for native Americans in Alaska. He says that was ordered by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to force him to be quiet or quit—and to send a message.

Clement, who publicized his formal complaint in a commentary published Wednesday in the Washington Post, said his case is not an isolated example but part of a pattern.

“It’s been a difficult few months for those of us on the inside,” he told InsideClimate News in an interview. “This administration has abused a long list of rules and procedures to purge scientists and experts that don’t agree with their political views. We need to work together strategically to end these abuses or the health and safety of more Americans will be at risk.”

After Clement went public with his experience, eight U.S. senators wrote to the deputy inspector general of the Department of Interior and requested an investigation into reports that as many as 50 senior employees at the department had been arbitrarily reassigned. 

“We believe that any reassignment of highly trained, highly competent senior executives within the department from the positions in which they may best use their training and competence to accomplish the department’s mission and best serve the public interest to sinecures where their talents are wasted would constitute a serious act of mismanagement, a gross waste of public funds, and an abuse of authority,” the senators wrote on July 24.

On Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a detailed report running through a long list of actions the advocacy group says shows the pattern at work. The selection of top officials who dispute the mainstream consensus on the urgency of climate action, the reassignments of career officials and outside advisors, the proposed budget cuts to dismantle climate and other science-related offices while others are left empty, the revisions to published Web pages on the subject, and the attempts to roll back Obama era regulations and policies are all part of a common agenda.

Joel Clement speaks at Department of Interior event. Credit: U.S. Department of Interior
Joel Clement speaks at an Interior Department event. Credit: U.S. Department of Interior

“This is a new era in which political interference in science is more likely and more frequent and will present serious risks to the health and safety of the American people,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Right out of the gate, we saw actions being taken,” said Gretchen Goldman, one of the report’s authors. “By our count, there’s something we would consider an attack on science every four days in this administration. Even I was surprised at just much we have found.”

The result is a hostile atmosphere for federal agency scientists. If the Office of Special Counsel upholds Clement’s rights as a federal employee, he will be able to stay in office, speak freely to sympathetic lawmakers, and communicate to the public and the press without facing retribution.

Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said Clement’s whistleblower arguments could face some challenges. Trump’s nominee to the head the Office of Special Counsel, who would likely decide Clement’s case, is also headed for a confirmation vote soon.

At a Congressional hearing with several Trump appointees one day after Clement’s announcement, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) raised concerns about the reassignment of scientists in the Interior Department. “It’s a lot of confusion and, in my sense, a lot of undermining science,” she said. Cantwell and seven colleagues on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee requested the investigation a few days later. 

Clement told ICN he’s not sure what will happen. “I can’t possibly predict what they’ll do,” he said.

“I hope this inspires other civil servants to speak up,” Clement said. He has spent his career working in science and policy, starting out as a forest ecologist before working on public lands and water issues at a private foundation. Clement was hired nearly seven years ago by the Interior Department, where his work focused on the intersection of climate science and public lands. That’s part of why his reassignment to an accounting position—one that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies—was particularly baffling.

“I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

“As soon as I was reassigned, I thought it was obviously really fishy,” he told ICN. “When Zinke testified the next week that they were going to use reassignments to trim the workforce, then you could really smell a rat.”

“There’s been a malign neglect—anything that relates to this stuff, there’s nobody there to support it. There are only people there to question it,” Clement said in the interview. “The default position to anything we work on has been, ‘Why?’ And if there’s any connection to the Obama administration, it’s that it must be undone.”

Trump Tactics for Muzzling Science

The report by the Union of Concerned Scientists describes tactics it says are used by Donald Trump‘s administration and Congress “to diminish the role of science in our democracy.” In addition to discussing ways science has been misrepresented by the administration, it documents administration efforts to:

  • Sideline independent science advisors, such as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to end the service of many members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors.
  • Restrict scientists’ communication. The report notes that one of the administration’s first actions was to issue a gag order on EPA and Agriculture Department employees, and that the Department of Energy Office of International Climate and Clean Energy in March banned staff from using the phrases “climate change” and “Paris agreement” in communications.
  • Alter scientific content on government websites and reduce public access to data. The report highlights the removal of climate data from the government’s open portal website. A program coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey also recently warned colleagues that the administration’s proposed 2018 budget would reduce or eliminate the availability of some data.
  • Appoint people to scientific leadership positions who have little scientific background or strong ties to industries they would be regulating. The latest example was announced on Wednesday when Trump named Iowa talk radio host Sam Clovis, whose background is in politics and business economics and who has described climate change as “junk science,” to the Department of Agriculture’s top scientific post. The position is tasked with ensuring “scientific integrity” in the department.

The report also describes the creation of hostile environments for scientific staff.

“Evidence is growing that a culture of fear is increasing at government agencies, undermining scientific research and communication. Scientists are speaking to the media anonymously out of fear of retaliation; some are afraid to utter the words ‘climate change’,” the report says.

The report points out that while Trump has appointed opponents of strong climate action to many key posts, the administration has left key science positions empty.

“We risk reducing the role of science in policymaking by decades, just when science is more important than ever in addressing global challenges—from keeping our air and water clean and staving off global pandemics to mitigating and preparing for the effects of climate change,” the authors wrote.

Ignoring Climate Change Won’t Make It Go Away

For a while, Clement said he thought work related to adaptation and resilience might be safe from the politics—that the administration’s ire might focus more on regulations related to greenhouse gas emissions.

Then the president rescinded the North Bering Sea Climate Resilience Executive Order. The purpose of that order, issued by President Obama, was to increase consultation with Alaska native groups on issue that impact them, to require protections from increased shipping, and to prohibit oil, gas and mineral leasing in certain areas.

“That’s when it occurred to a lot of us that maybe climate resilience and adaptation are actually in the crosshairs,” Clement said.

Clement says the problems facing Alaskans are all too real.

“American lives are at risk. I really worry about the coming storm system. I have for the last several years. I feel like every year we dodge a bullet,” he said. Now that the administration has signaled that these communities are not a priority, Clement said he worries more.

“Of all the climate adaptation and resilience things,” he said, “this is the most pressing: The possibility that these communities could become refugees here in the U.S. It’s not something I want to think about.”