By Joel Clement, Union of Concerned Scientists
Can scientific staff at the US Department of the Interior rest easy knowing that their colleagues at other agencies have it worse when it comes to political interference?
Survey says: Nope.
Today the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the results from their periodic survey of scientific professionals at federal agencies, and the results from the Department of Interior (DOI) are damning. Not only do the responses indicate plummeting morale, job satisfaction, and agency effectiveness, but politics is now being felt significantly at the US Geological Survey, a non-regulatory scientific bureau at DOI that has historically operated without substantial political interference. In all, concerns about political interference, censorship of politically contentious issues, and workforce reductions at DOI are higher than most other agencies.
The comments from the survey read like an organizational leadership seminar’s list of fatal flaws: Hostile workplace, check; fear of retaliation and discrimination, check; self-censorship, check; poor leadership, check; chronic understaffing, check. To make matters worse, the political leadership at Interior, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, has a deserved reputation for barring career staff from decision-making processes.
In addition to the undue influence of political staff, the top concern from DOI scientific staff was lack of capacity. One respondent commented: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”
As a former career civil servant at Interior I can attest to the plummeting morale at the agency—even before I resigned in October 2017 there was a pall over every office and bureau and career staff were feeling completely ignored by Trump administration officials. This led to some very bad decisions from Zinke, but that has not led to greater inclusion—in fact, team Zinke has continued to alienate career staff and seems to be betting that they will remain silent.
Some good investigative journalism and a lot of Freedom of Information Act disclosures have shown that only industry representatives get meetings with the top brass, decisions are made without input from career staff, censorship (especially of climate change related science) is on the upswing, science is routinely ignored or questioned, and expert advisory boards are being ignored, suspended, or disbanded.
All of this adds up to an agency that is being intentionally hollowed out, with consequences for American health and safety and for our nation’s treasured lands and wildlife. Americans are clamoring for more information on how their businesses, lands, and communities can address the climate impacts they see all year round—but DOI scientists responding to the survey pointed to how Zinke is slowly shutting down the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) that deliver that information. Congress provided Zinke with the money to keep growing the LCC’s, but he continues to let them wither on the vine just as they are providing important and timely support for communities in need.
As the Federal Trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Interior should be expected to support tribes and villages in need of resources and capacity for relocating or addressing dramatic climate change impacts, but Zinke is leaving them to fend for themselves despite a bipartisan call to get them out of harm’s way.
As the land manager for America’s most treasured landscapes, Interior is expected to be an effective steward of our National Parks and other areas dedicated to conservation, recreation, and the protection of wildlife habitat. Instead, Zinke ordered the largest reduction in conservation lands in our nation’s history when he shrunk Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by nearly half. Scientists responding to the survey referred to these decisions as lacking scientific justification. Thanks to recently disclosed documents and emails, we now know that science was pushed aside and the real reason for shrinking the Monuments was to encourage oil and gas extraction in those locations, despite Zinke’s emphatic statements to the contrary. The most damning evidence? The new maps for these shrunken Monuments match the maps that industry lobbyists provided for him. This is yet another insult to the American Indians for whom this area is sacred.
While this is consistent with the Administration’s goal of hobbling federal agencies and opening the door for industry donors, it is not consistent with the use of taxpayer dollars to protect national assets and address health and safety needs, and it is not consistent with the role of public servant. The UCS survey results are a damning indication of the depth of dysfunction that Ryan Zinke has fostered at Interior, and it is essential that Congress implement its important oversight role to prevent the rot from spreading still further.