Censorship or business as usual?

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There’s a screenshot of an email from the Department of Energy that is making the rounds. I’d like to add some context to this for folks who haven’t dealt with this kind of stuff directly.

Based on my experience with federal agencies, I regard this as simultaneously outrageous and mundane. It’s not a situation where our government is crossing a new line in censorship or controlling science. Nonetheless, it’s a tragedy that this is where we are as a nation with respect to basic research and climate change, even if it’s not a new threshold.

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The post in question

What happened? All I directly know is what I’ve read from the screenshot on Facebook: A scientist was awarded a grant from the Department of Energy, and the program officer (PO) asked the PI to change the language in the abstract to remove the term “climate change.” (Here is the post. Here’s one tweet of the screenshot that’s been widely circulated. Now you have access to the information I have about this incident.)

Yes, there is a lot of reason to be upset. But not at this particular incident — it’s more useful to direct anger at the root cause, which we’ve been living with for a long time.

At face value, it is entirely outrageous. We have an employee of the federal government asking a scientist to eliminate the use of the term “climate change” in the abstract of their work. Even though this doesn’t change the nature of the research one bit and has no impact on what will be funded or published, the idea that we need to hide the term “climate change” from any official record is problematic, to say the least.

This is also business as usual in federal agencies. No surprise at all. Not a shift of the baseline. Because our current President, who runs the executive branch, is on record about climate change being a hoax invented by the Chinese. And the party that runs congress is damn clear that they don’t want money being spent on climate change research. The good news is that our executive branch isn’t particularly competent in wiping out federally supported research on climate change. The DOE just gave an award to a scientist who is working on climate change related issues! The bad news, as we’ve seen, is that we can’t trumpet this on the rooftops, because it will imperil future funding. This is no surprise. We’ve known this is the way things are.

What’s new here is that more people are aware that “climate change” can be a verboten term in funding abstracts because it draws the attention of bad actors in Congress. That’s a damn shame. It’s not a crime for the PO to ask for this change in verbiage, it’s just wisdom. The PO can’t fire the President, but they can fund work on climate change as long as they don’t use that word.

Since the Gingrich era, some Congress members habitually make political hay out of federal research awards that can be readily sold to the public as something ridiculous or inappropriate. As a waste of federal funds. For example, google up “shrimp on a treadmill.” Earlier, work on digitizing museum specimens and preventing the spread of invasive species was characterized as travel to tropical islands to “photograph exotic ants.” These are public relations disasters for federal agencies, and it makes it harder for them to land the appropriations they need to keep us funded.

If you’re experienced with the federal funding game, then you know that you need to to keep the title and your project abstract clean enough so that it won’t attract the undue attention of congress members. Because if you don’t, your abstract becomes a weapon used to cut the agency’s budget. Just because you’re researching sexual selection, doesn’t mean you need to put “sexual selection” in the abstract. Because if you do, then you’ll have Rand Paul attacking you for wasting taxes on watching fruit flies having sex. Giving them this ammunition does not help anybody, and just makes it harder on the earnest and overworked POs at NSF who are trying to keep funding great science.

If you don’t like how our elected and appointed officials obstruct research on climate change, there are a jazillion ways to get this point across. You don’t have to choose an avenue of protest that puts POs in the crossfire, and you don’t have to draw even more attention to federal agencies with scientists who are doing their darnedest to make sure that we have funding for research.

It’s the job of program officers in federal agencies to fund the best science out there. They do a damn good job of this, even as their resources get thinner and as emboldened anti-science politicians turn up the heat. POs do heroic work that is inadequately appreciated (and I’d be saying that even if I didn’t have a proposal still pending).  We need to make their job easier, not harder. When we make a huge fuss out of the language in the abstract of a grant which is already funded, we’re just making more trouble for our POs and the good people in the agencies who are on our side.

I have a big grant pending at the moment. (My hope wears thin, but still.) This grant is all about climate change. But my PO won’t be asking me to change my title or abstract. Why is that? Because I had the wisdom, prior to submission, to watch my language. Because I know this would be a problem for my funding agency. It’s a courtesy to the people who are doing the hard work of keeping science in America funded.

Let’s say you have the good fortune of getting funded, and your PO wants you to change a bit of language to keep the agency out of the crosshairs of the executive and legislative branches. Why don’t you do them a solid and just make the change, take the money, and join me by spending our spare time protesting our corrupt and dangerous federal government?

One thought on “Censorship or business as usual?

  1. National lab employees (with a small number of exceptions) are employees of the managing entity of the lab, and not direct federal employees.

    I absolutely agree with your strategy of pragmatism – choose language carefully, continue to conduct relevant and necessary research, and spend time on endeavors that may result in positive change to the corruption and stupidity at play in our government.

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