Sunday, February 5, 2017

Dear America's Scientists

Dear America's Scientists,

I was glad to see that there are some among you speaking up for publicly-funded science at a time when six-day creationists, climate change deniers, and simple greed seem to be ascendant in American politics.

I hope the March for Science Mission Statement will be widely embraced by scientists and everyone else:
The March for Science champions publicly-funded and publicly-communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, non-partisan group to call for science that upholds the common good, and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest. This group is inclusive of all individuals and types of science!
I hope you will do all in your power to resist the sequestration and censorship of information needed by the general public in order for us to make educated and informed decisions. I am writing to you today to suggest one proactive step you can take that will demonstrate that you stand for the pursuit of truth and are champions of informed decision-making.

On February 3, 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed from its website thousands of documents regarding its oversight of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA). The agency says it deleted the records because it was concerned about privacy.

AWA compliance inspections of universities, colleges, and private research companies are conducted by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a part of the USDA. During an inspection, Veterinary Medical Officers document any violations they find and cite specific language in the federal regulations that stipulate the standard that is not being met.

Repeat violations of the AWA can result in fines and in a few cases of apparent willful violation or the inability to correct serious problems have resulted in a facility's closure. This was the case with Santa Cruz Biotechnology and Harvard University's New England National Primate Research Center, respectively.

In both cases and many others, it took repeated complaints from citizens alarmed by what they learned was occurring at these facilities before any meaningful action was taken by the USDA. They learned about these violations and government's lack of action by examining the inspection reports.

The USDA's decision to expunge these records was not driven by a concern for privacy, because no personal data is included in inspection reports. The USDA deleted these records in an effort to shield universities and animal breeders from public watchdogs. They tried this in the early 2000s as well, but a threatened lawsuit caused them to capitulate and restore some of the deleted data.

The use of animals in ways that harm and kill them is a small slice of science. Those working in this area have traditionally resisted efforts by members of the public to bring their practices to the light of day. The USDA's decision to hide evidence of federal violations from the public helps no one but those committing the violations.

You have an opportunity to prove that you are standing up against those who are working to deny the facts and potential and real problems associated with climate change, pollution, overpopulation, nuclear proliferation, and all the rest of the realities that inconvenience certain industries and investors. I know that many of you agree that we have a right to know these things.

The USDA's ad hoc sudden public censorship of its records will not go unchallenged, but you can take direct action right now. Your silence will be seen by the government as an endorsement of its actions. Now is the time to step up and speak up for truth, honesty, and public access to information.

Tell your institution's administrators to place all its correspondence with government agencies concerning compliance with the Animal Welfare Act on a publicly accessible web page and let the public know that it has done so.

I urge you to stand with those who believe in the importance of a well-informed electorate.