USDA scientists told not to publicly share their work

Jan 25, 2017

A researcher with the federal Agricultural Research Service studies a sample at a vault preserving seeds from thousands of varieties of plants in Fort Collins, Colo.
Credit Grace Hood / Harvest Public Media

Employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s main research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), received an email from the division’s chief of staff ordering them to stop publicizing their work.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” the email from Sharon Drumm reads, in part. “This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

The order does not apply to publications released through professional journals, according to a statement by Christopher Bentley, ARS’ director of communications. Buzzfeed News first reported the existence of the memo.

The directive comes as President Donald Trump begins his term and before his nominee for Agriculture Secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, undergoes U.S. Senate confirmation hearings.

The ARS runs about 750 research projects and had a $1.1 billion taxpayer-funded budget in the 2015 fiscal year. The agency operates research stations, test fields, and laboratories scattered across the country, many of which are in rural areas. ARS researchers study everything from waterway pollution to climate change and often work hand-in-hand with researchers at land grant universities.

The extent to which these orders will hamper ongoing research at the USDA are unclear. But at least two researchers who have in the past worked with ARS say collaboration with the agency is often essential to their work. If continued, this policy would fundamentally alter ARS’ mission, which includes providing access to information about agricultural problems.

"The data that the ARS and other agencies, whether they're governmental or not, provide are very critical to not only the farmer, but to all of us that try to help assist with those decisions,” says Kevin Moore, an associate Professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri. “I think it's critically important for as much information as can be shared is out there so that producers can make as timely and as good decisions as possible with the data that happens to be there at the time."

The office of USDA’s Chief Scientist has not responded to a request for comment.