The Trump administration’s efforts to rationalize any policy decision—or self-aggrandizing propaganda—with the use of “alternative facts” has generated criticism that his administration is anti-science. Critics have taken to social media and even organized a March for Science to call “for science that upholds the common good, and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.”
Some of this concern was triggered by last-week’s so-called “gag order” at USDA, when a top official sent out a memo barring the agency’s scientists from sharing information with the public. Journalists cited it as the most recent in a series of such gag orders issued during the first week of the new Trump administration.
This gag order doesn’t appear to be a completely new practice at USDA. During the Obama administration ten USDA scientists petitioned the USDA about suppression of science, citing the agency’s efforts to support the research agenda of corporate agribusiness interests (Monsanto was the only company named in the complaint).
One whistleblower who went public, Jonathan Lundgren, claims that the USDA railroaded him when he began sharing scientific findings that challenged the industrial model of pesticide-soaked monocultures. USDA severely penalized Lundgren for not filing his administrative paperwork correctly, a routine sin among USDA scientists that is usually overlooked.
Whether it’s Obama or Trump in the White House, the political power of the biotech and pesticide companies does not change. These industries pour hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign coffers and lobbying, which generates unparalleled influence over government rules and regulations—and government science that is supposed to inform public policy.
Lundgren’s whistleblower complaint was dismissed by USDA, naturally, and the agency has walked back its most-recent gag order as having been a mere miscommunication. That explanation rings hollow in light of the similar news from other government agencies under the fledgling Trump presidency. As now-former USDA researcher Lundgren commented on twitter, USDA can rescind the gag order, but “the message was sent.”
Over the next four years, Trump may politicize science in new and unprecedented ways, and Food & Water Watch will continue to fight these abuses. However, we know that simply producing good, independent science won’t be enough to solve what are, at the end of day, political problems that require political solutions. Combatting Trump’s destructive political agenda requires both exposing its contradictions and building political power so we can hold elected officials accountable.