Could NASA Be Muzzled Under Trump Administration?

Article written: 25 Jan , 2017
Updated: 25 Jan , 2017
by

The Trump Administration appears to be trying to change how government agencies disseminate information to the public. According to reports from multiple outlets, several agencies are being told to discontinue or suppress communications with the public, the media and even Congress.

Additionally, Reuters is reporting that the Trump administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove information about climate change from its website. (An update today from The Hill quotes Doug Ericksen, EPA transition team spokesman as they are only “taking a look at everything on there.”)

All this has anyone interested in NASA’s activities wondering if the US space agency could be ordered to stifle its very active social media presence, or to remove the extensive information it has available on several NASA-related sites on climate change.

Universe Today contacted several NASA sources to see if the space agency has received any orders similar to the other agencies. All indications appear that, for now, NASA has not received any such orders.

John Yembrick, who heads NASA Headquarters’ social media team told us via email that “Nothing has changed here at NASA. We are continuing to share information about our missions on social media.”

Another NASA employee who wished to remain anonymous said they would be surprised and horrified if the social media blocks would extend to NASA but it seems nothing is out of the question now.

This morning, several NASA social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook are posting as usual.

Jeff Foust from Space News reported on Twitter last night that he attended a talk by Michael Freilich, the director of NASA’s Earth science division at the meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) going on this week in Seattle, Washington, and Freilich was asked if NASA been given direction like EPA and other agencies to not communicate with public. Foust tweeted that Freilich said they “have been given no direction to change” and that the transition to the new administration’s “landing team” of about eight people at NASA has gone smoothly.

NASA’s ‘meatball’ logo.

It is important to remember that federal law has required NASA to widely disseminate information about its activities and scientific research in a timely way. National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 chartered NASA to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.”

The anonymous NASA source Universe Today talked to said the bigger issue for them right now is the hiring freeze that was imposed on all government agencies, and a possible grant freeze, such as the freezes posed on the EPA. Many scientists and graduate student work programs rely on grants for their salaries.

Other agencies that have been reportedly muzzled are the Interior Department (and the National Park Service), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Commerce, and Health and Human Services. All this is sparking concerns that the new president might be attempting to silence any dissenting views and control any information from federal agencies.

A news article out this morning says the USDA has now “disavowed the gag order”, calling it “flawed” and indicating that new guidance would be sent to its employees.

“This internal email was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued,” the USDA said in a statement.

Is This ‘Normal?’

It’s important to point out that previous incoming presidential administrations have placed somewhat similar restrictions on limiting communications during the transition in order to have consistent messages come out across agencies.

But of course, there hasn’t been a new administration for eight years, and during those years the amount of information government agencies have made available on the internet has increased exponentially, and participation on social media has exploded. So, the moves to limit or silence the information disseminated by the agencies via online outlets is therefore unprecedented.

And many say this presidential transition feels completely different from any before.

National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Nathan Rott interviewed Andrew Light, Senior Fellow in the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., who formerly worked at the State Department. Light said the muzzling of agencies “seems to be aimed at a cluster of science-driven agencies that primarily work on the environment or climate change, and that seems unique or targeted in this case and unprecedented.”

You can listen to the NPR interview below:

The two highest people in leadership at NASA under the Obama Administration, Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, both stepped down on January 20 at the end of Obama’s term. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot was named as acting administrator of NASA. Two White House appointees were named, Erik Noble as White House senior advisor and Greg Autry as White House liaison, part of an eight-member “landing team” assigned to NASA by Trump’s transition team.

Autry is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California. He has been “a proponent of commercial space activities,” according to Space News. Noble, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental studies from the University of Colorado, spent seven years at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York, working on weather and climate models.

Concern about agencies being silenced were heightened yesterday when a National Park Service (NPS) Twitter account from the Badlands National Park in South Dakota began posting information about climate change, which were later deleted. The NPS told media outlets that a former employee without approved access wrote the Tweets and that’s why they were deleted.

A screenshot of a now-deleted Tweet from the Badlands National Park Twitter account.

This came just days after the NPS was told to shut down its Twitter activity over two retweets about crowd sizes at presidential inaugurations. The Department of the Interior said those tweets were deemed inconsistent with the agency’s mission.

About 60 science and journalism organizations have requested a meeting with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to discuss access to government, but the newly elected team has not replied to the request.

The Sunlight Foundation, “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses technology, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all,” has posted a list of government agencies that have reportedly been directed to not communicate with the public.

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10 Responses

  1. Jim Krug says

    This was a good article, Nancy, and well-written!

    However, keep in mind there’s a reason people jokingly say that NASA stands for “Never A Straight Answer.”

    I would be disappointed if Donald Trump curbed communication from NASA with the public, but let’s also keep in mind that this agency does have a history of not being particularly forthcoming with the public on all matters of space exploration.

  2. mharveyww1 says

    I can only “second” Jim’s comment regarding the overall quality of the article.
    It IS somewhat ironic, however, that a fear should be expressed about NASA being “muzzled”. It already is…and has been!
    As with, apparently, all-things-Government…NASA has become highly politicized.
    An obvious solution would be to privatize NASA. We’ve already seen private launch ventures make more progress in a couple of years, than NASA has made in a couple of DECADES.
    I’ve come to believe that if the NASA was NOT a Government agency, we might have already sent manned missions to Mars!

  3. Hamilton1 says

    What a silly, misleading title… It’s not NASA that’s being muzzled but one Earth science section which should not be in NASA’s remit anyway. I suppose you didn’t bother reporting your hero’s decision to scrap the Constellation program which was far more relevant. Quit the political agenda UT and stick to non-partisan space reporting.

  4. Member
    Aqua4U says

    When I logged into this room, the little blue circle started spinning. I waited… and waited. And nada. ?? Say what? I thought, PLEASE don’t tell net neutrality be gone as this comment might now be considered a bit too informative?

    First of all. THANK YOU administrator Bolden for your service to this country! Herding a space station around like that with one hand tied behind your back and the other dealing with the Russians… you done good. The science from the ISS is already making a difference! By the way, how are those Russian plasma experiments coming along? Hard to imagine the issues that come up over the years that you had to deal with. Cudo’s and thanks!

    P.S. I’m a “Lets go back to the moon first to set up a mining and element extraction, reduction and handling infrastructure for gathering building materials and consumable for transporting a (At first) scientific colony to Mars and reliably resupplying them.

  5. Member
    Sean Kenney says

    As an amateur astronomer and member of the LGBTQ world, I’m in a state of rage….. I was proud to hear of resistance tweets coming from Death Valley, one of my favorite place on Earth. Many years ago we meet the San Fransisco Sidewalk Astronomers there. It was the first time I saw the Sun through a telescope. <3 At night the had a huge 25" telescope looking at Saturn. 🙂

  6. RUF says

    It seems that politics has infiltrated everything:
    Sunday football, the Superbowl, healthcare, NASA and UT.
    *sigh*

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