When Dr. Shaun Marcott published a groundbreaking paper showing the world is warmer today than it has been for thousands of years, climate deniers went ballistic.1 They sent him hate mail, and bloggers twisted his research.

When Dr. Joseph Skorupa's research showed that phosphate mines were polluting waterways and poisoning trout, his supervisors at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told him not to go on The Daily Show to publicize the findings, saying: "the leadership doesn't want you to go on and they will make your life hell," according to Skorupa. "Part of the threat was that my colleagues would also be punished."2 Skorupa felt he had no choice but to decline to go on the show.

Special Thanks to the Union of Concerned Scientists and No thanks to Obama.

1. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/03/response-by-marcott-et-al/
2. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/vergano/2013/04/06/hansen-federal-scientists-communication/2053077/


telliottmbamsc's picture
telliottmbamsc 6 years 31 weeks ago


Can federal scientists speak out freely?

So how do you feel about two-headed trout? Not everyone wants them in their creek, and not everyone wants to talk about them.

But Comedy Central's Jon Stewart did, and he wanted a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist, Joseph Skorupa, to appear last year on The Daily Show. The "fake news" show wanted the veteran scientist to talk about agency research that looked at the two-headed fish of Idaho, linked to selenium pollution from phosphate mines there.

The selenium levels seen there were likely high enough to deform 70% of the young fish it reached, the agency's report had concluded. And the two-headed trout, first noted in the appendix of a mining company-funded analysis, was an example of the kind of deformity they meant. But the Fish and Wildlife Service wasn't too thrilled by the idea of one of its scientists appearing on the comedy show, well-known for its friendliness to scientists.

"Joe, I've talked this over with our leadership. and I feel that The Daily Show is not the venue, and this is not the issue, to be comfortable with you speaking in an official capacity," agency communications chief Chris Tollefson wrote to Skorupa on March 15, 2012, in an e-mail. "Of course you still have the right to go on the show and express yourself in an unofficial capacity, as long as you make it clear that you do not speak for the agency. But I would urge you to take a moment to think about the message your appearance will send."

The Daily Show ended up running a segment on the report in June, featuring comedian Aasif Mandvi running around in a two-headed trout costume as he visited the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA scientists had blown the evaluation of a safety analysis, Skorupa and colleagues had shown in an inter-agency review released last year. The report funded by a phosphate mining firm, which had called for allowing even higher levels of selenium in Idaho waterways, "was a piece-of-junk science," Skorupa says.

But in the end, Skorupa didn't go on the show.

"I was called into my immediate supervisor's office and told that if I did go on as a private citizen, the leadership doesn't want you to go on and they will make your life hell," Skorupa says. "Part of the threat was that my colleagues would also be punished. So I folded, I didn't go on the show."

"Of course he didn't," says Richard Painter on the University of Minnesota Law School. Although government transparency rules do theoretically give scientists the right to speak as citizens, says Painter, a former associate counsel to the president in the Bush administration. "The agency really does have the power to keep mouths shut. If you talk, there might be repercussions. It is always understood underneath everything."

"Personally, I'd like to go on The Daily Show too. It would be awesome. It is a great show and does sometimes do great journalism," Tollefson says today. The agency did tell Skorupa he could go on air as a private individual, he says, just not representing the agency. "We do have a responsibility to determine how our agency is represented and we didn't feel The Daily Show was the appropriate venue."

Because the J.R. Simplot company's Smoky Canyon Mine, the subject of the FWS review, was in the congressional district of Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the effort to look at selenium had political overtones right from its start. The review was requested by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., who oversees the agency on the Senate side. "When I saw the policy that said I could go on (The Daily Show) as a private citizen, I thought, all right, I'm as good as gold," Skorupa says. "But politics will always take precedence over policies if the leadership of an agency doesn't buy into it."

Cases like Skorupa's aborted show visit, the announcement this week of the retirement of prominent NASA climate scientist James Hansen and a March report from the Union of Concerned Scientists about scientific communications at federal agencies finds progress, but also problems, remaining in efforts to ensure that federal scientists can freely provide their expertise to taxpayers. Hansen is perhaps the best-known federal scientist stopped from talking to the public by an agency. He went public and generated headlines on efforts by space agency public relations officials to shut him up about climate change in 2005.

There are at least two problems with bottling up federal agency scientists, Painter says. One is that agency information can end up leaking out to insiders and financial industry types ahead of everyone else, leading to illicit activities on the stock market. Another is that shaping the agency's message about scientific information "politicizes" science, he says, where agency "reviews" of scientific reports can lead to illegitimate pressure being brought to bear on researchers to change their conclusions to ones more palatable to policy-makers, Painter says. "Scientific information ought to be disclosed as quickly as possible to the public without restrictions."

The Union of Concerned Scientists' "Grading Government Transparency" report assessed how 17 federal agencies handled scientists speaking out, and gave the Fish and Wildlife Service, best known for worrying about endangered species, a "B" on its policies. The report called FWS rules good but complained about vetting of scientist interviews. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention topped the list with an "A" for openness, and the report gave the Occupational Safety and Health Administration a "D" for a scientist policy that "emphasizes controlling agency message rather than promoting transparency."

A phosphate mine in Idaho, a source of selenium run-off.(Photo: GAO)

Selenium, in particular, has a checkered history with scientific freedom, notes Lloyd Carter whose California-based Chronicles of the Hydraulic Brotherhood blog first reported Skorupa's troubles over The Daily Show. Selenium is produced by phosphate mines in Idaho, in farmer's evaporation pools in California's San Joaquin Valley and in mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia. It is found at 200 EPA "SuperFund" pollution sites nationwide. Selenium is toxic to fish and birds and causes numbness, hair and fingernail loss, and kidney damage to people in high doses.

"It is a pretty potent poison for anything that lays eggs," Skorupa says. "For people, it is not nearly as dangerous, but you can get into problems."

The first big public outcry over selenium pollution came in 1983. That's when dying and deformed herons and other birds at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California made headlines when Fish and Wildlife Service scientistFelix Smith leaked details of attempts to delay release of a critical report.

The latest report critical of EPA was presented to Congress, and generated a lot of news coverage, Tollefson says. "We stand behind the report the agency did and we think the report speaks for itself," says Tollefson, who notes he arranged interviews for Skorupa with other news organizations besides The Daily Show, when the story broke last year.

"I understand that there at times may be disagreements with our decisions about how to represent the agency's views in an official capacity. Those instances are few and far between. But regardless, we will protect our employees' right to express their personal views," Tollefson added in a follow-up e-mail.

Carter doesn't buy the personal views argument, however, about agency scientists or Skorupa's research. "How can his views not reflect the agency's? He wrote the agency report."

Beneath the TV show disagreement, Carter says, is the simple issue that the EPA standard for selenium allowed in fish is almost twice that recommended by the Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies. New EPA standards have been left hanging for years, while farming interests in California are calling for building more selenium-retaining ponds. "Here we have settled science, there is no dispute that selenium is a dangerous problem nationwide, and we have three decades of waiting for action," Carter says."If that isn't mixing politics with science, what is?"

"Knowing what I know now, I would go on the air despite everything," says Skorupa. In budget-cutting maneuvers, his office has been eliminated from the Fish and Wildlife Service since the show aired. Skorupa still works for the FWS, in Denver. Tollefson says there is no connection to the selenium report. "That's what happens when you don't do the brave thing anyway," Skorupa says. "Here we had a great opportunity to show the public the great science that the Fish and Wildlife Service does to the taxpayers, and politics took over instead."

telliottmbamsc's picture
telliottmbamsc 6 years 31 weeks ago

Profit for Washington's friends before the best interest of the People.

nora's picture
nora 6 years 30 weeks ago

John Locke went into exile (leaving England to hide out in Holland) when his talk about the people in politics/government was considered a threat to the British Royal/aristocratic ruling classes.

However, when the need for greater freedoms to exchange ideas and data without constraint from government were obvious in the development of European science, there was a change in the attitudes on the part of the Elite toward some of the freedoms John Locke proposed.

This is how the science portion of The Enlightenment actually saved the other portions. The rapid growth of scientific endeavors created a new climate of information exchange which helped John Locke to return to England.

(How lucky the colonies were to have in Benjamin Franklin a advocate with combined insight into the needs for social/political freedoms and participation and scientific needs for freedoms too This made Benjamin Franklin our greatest Enlightenment leader. As scientist, scholar, library advocate, publishing and post office (communications) specialist extraordinaire, creating an infrastucture for optimum communications, Ben Franklin was our North American Enlightenment specialist.(

So with this introduction made, here's my comment on the way scientists are losing their freedom to exchange findings, discoveries, and ideas in the public arena: It is contrary to all the ideas of freedom that were from the Revolution!

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