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USDA Lifts Clampdown On Its Science Division

On Tuesday evening a top USDA official told scientists the order "is hereby rescinded."

Posted on January 25, 2017, at 3:57 a.m. ET

Scott Smith / AP

A Trump campaign sign along a highway in California farming country.

The US Department of Agriculture rescinded an order stopping scientists and other employees at its main research division from publishing documents meant to explain science to the public.

In an email sent to scientists on Tuesday evening and obtained by BuzzFeed News, Chavonda Jacobs-Young, administrator of the department's science arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), told researchers the original order should not have been issued and "is hereby rescinded."

Earlier that day, the department fought off public backlash after ARS issued the notice to workers.

While scientists were allowed to grant department-approved media interviews, publish academic articles, and present work at conferences under that order, they were banned from using a wide array of media — including "news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content" — to communicate with the public.

After BuzzFeed News wrote a story on Tuesday morning about that internal email, the Agriculture Department received a chorus of criticism from the scientific community for what many in it suggested was the suppression of science and a potential violation of its scientific integrity policy by USDA.

"Any efforts to interfere with scientific agencies’ ability to communicate with Congress, federal or state agencies or the public concerns us," Stefano Bertuzzi, chief executive of the American Society for Microbiology, told BuzzFeed News in a statement.

USDA was not alone. Since President Donald Trump moved into the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation and National Park Service have all imposed communications freezes, in one form or another, on employees.

"To our knowledge, there is not a precedent for large-scale communication freezes like this," Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told BuzzFeed News.

Under public pressure, USDA officials on Tuesday began backpedaling. In a statement that afternoon, the department said the internal email — sent by Sharon Drumm, chief of staff at ARS — was "flawed" and released without being cleared by top USDA officials.

"The ARS guidance was not reviewed by me," Michael Young, the acting deputy administrator of USDA, told the Washington Post. "I would not have put that kind of guidance out."

After the department promised a revision, Jacobs-Young, the ARS administrator, emailed employees withdrawing the order on Tuesday evening.

"Yesterday, we sent an email message about Agency informational products like news releases and social media content," she wrote in the email, which was shared with BuzzFeed News. "This internal email was released prior to receiving official Departmental guidance and is hereby rescinded."

Instead of adhering to the previous blanket ban on publishing so-called public-facing documents, ARS will follow USDA-wide guidance that instructs scientists to get approval from top officials before answering questions "related to legislation, budgets, policy issues and regulation," according to Jacobs-Young's email.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.