Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Don A Driscoll and Martine Maron
Published in: Nature, volume 542, number 7640 (February 2017)
President Donald Trump issued an order on 23 January to effectively gag US government scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture from communicating with the media and the public (see Nature 542, 10–11; 2017). Regrettably, suppression of public scientific information is already the norm, or is being attempted, in many countries (see, for example, go.nature.com/2kr5dnd). We fear that such gagging orders could encourage senior bureaucrats to use funding as a tool with which to rein in academic freedoms.
In Australia, public servants must abide by codes of conduct for communication that restrict them from contributing scientific evidence to public debates. Allegations emerged in 2011 that an Australian state government had threatened to stop funding university scientists who spoke out against cattle grazing in national parks, despite peer-reviewed evidence that this could damage a fragile alpine ecosystem and was unlikely to reduce fire risk as claimed (see also Nature 471, 422; 2011).
The response of scientists to this type of coercion has been to share scientific information widely and openly using such legal means as social media to defend facts and transparency (see Nature 541, 435; 2017). Academics and scientific associations are among the last still free to speak, so must continue to do so to protect open discussion of government policies.