June 29, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

If a study’s published in a journal but no one reads it, does it make an impact? A new POLITICO investigation suggests that might be a relevant question when it comes to studies from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, because the agency has pulled back from publicizing studies on how the climate crisis affects agriculture. Helena Bottemiller Evich reports:

[A] POLITICO investigation revealed a persistent pattern in which the Trump administration refused to draw attention to findings that show the potential dangers and consequences of climate change, covering dozens of separate studies. The administration’s moves flout decades of department practice of promoting its research in the spirit of educating farmers and consumers around the world, according to an analysis of USDA communications under previous administrations.

The lack of promotion means research from scores of government scientists receives less public attention. Climate-related studies are still being published without fanfare in scientific journals, but they can be very difficult to find. The USDA doesn’t post all its studies in one place.

One noteworthy example is a study that found rice loses protein, minerals, and vitamins as it adapts to rising Co2 levels, which the journal Science Advances published in May 2018. USDA researchers collaborated with scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Tokyo, Bryan College of Health Sciences, University of Queensland, and University of Washington on the study, and the study underwent technical and policy review within ARS as well as the journal’s peer-review process. USDA and UW planned to coordinate press releases for the study’s publication, and both had prepared the announcements. But then, USDA abruptly decided not to publicize the study — and they also urged UW to refrain from issuing their own press releases.

USDA’s purported reason for pulling their press release was that officials had determined there wasn’t enough data to make the conclusions the scientists did. Previous rounds of review had found the authors’ interpretations to be appropriate, though, and that’s also the conclusion that UW came to in deciding whether to accede to USDA’s suggestion. In making their decision to go ahead with the planned press release, UW officials also would have had to consider the fact that the agency was a substantial funder of the university’s research. Such considerations might have also played a role in Bryan College’s response. Evich writes:

The USDA’s attempt to quash the release had ripple effects as far as Nebraska. After catching wind of USDA’s call to the University of Washington, Bryan College of Health Sciences, in Lincoln, Neb., delayed and ultimately shortened its own release to avoid potentially offending the Agriculture Department.

“I’m disappointed,” said Irakli Loladze, a mathematical biologist at Bryan who co-authored the rice paper. “I do not even work at the USDA, but a potential call from the government agency was enough of a threat for my school to skip participating in the press-package arranged by the journal. Instead, our college issued a local and abbreviated release.”

This isn’t an isolated example of an important study that the agency decided not to publicize. POLITICO’s review of recently published research found “at least 45 ARS studies related to climate change since the beginning of the Trump administration that did not receive any promotion.” Other research addressed topics such as nutrient runoff in the lower Mississippi delta; vulnerability of Southern Plains crops and cattle; protein content of prairie grasses that cattle eat; coffee’s lessons for plant-pest interactions in a changing environment; runoff in the Chesapeake Bay; and how pollen counts rise as temperature swings increase. Evich points out that selective publicity efforts are happening despite the presence of policies intended to prevent political interference in science:

[ARS] has stringent guidelines to prevent political meddling in research projects themselves. The Trump administration, researchers say, is not directly censoring scientific findings or black-balling research on climate change. Instead, they say, officials are essentially choosing to ignore or downplay findings that don’t line up with the administration’s agenda.

Some scientists see the fact that the administration has targeted another research arm of USDA, the Economic Research Service, as a warning shot. Perdue is moving ERS out of Washington, which some economists see as retribution for issuing reports that countered the administration’s agenda, as POLITICO recently reported.

“There’s a sense that you should watch what you say,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s going to result in some pretty big gaps in practical knowledge. … it will take years to undo the damage.”

In the short term, the ARS refusal to publicize studies on impacts of the climate crisis seems to have resulted in more attention for them. In response to the POLITICO investigation, several members of Congress issued statements and spread word of the story on social media, which generated additional news coverage. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue with the following questions:

  1. Which individual ARS studies were not publicized by the agency?

  2. For each specific ARS study that was not publicized by the agency, please provide an explanation of the precise justification for not publicizing the study.

  3. What actions has the agency taken to empower farmers, ranchers, and rural communities to plan for the consequences of climate change?

  4. What steps does the agency plan to take going forward to ensure that climate science research is publicized?

The question now is whether the agency will change its behavior going forward, and whether scientists within and outside of the agency feel confident that they can talk to reporters and otherwise disseminate their work without suffering reprisal. Reporters, Congress, and members of the public will be watching.

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