This Trump administration whistleblower has some advice for young scientists

Joel Clement was the top climate policy expert at the U.S. Department of the Interior before he was reassigned to a post collecting royalty checks from the oil and gas industry.

Ja-Rei Wang/Union of Concerned Scientists

TORONTO, CANADA—One year ago, Joel Clement—then a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.—wrote in The Washington Post: “I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.”

And with that, Clement went public about his ongoing feud with President Donald Trump’s administration, alleging that Trump appointees had retaliated against him and transferred him to an inappropriate position because of his work on climate change policy. He filed an official complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel—a complaint that, a year later, is still being investigated. And in October 2017, he resigned from his position entirely.

ScienceInsider caught up with Clement last week here at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology, where he received an award for his work on climate change and his “courage in upholding the highest standards of scientific integrity in government service.” This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: For readers who aren’t familiar with your story, can you take us back to what led to your op-ed in The Washington Post and eventual resignation?

A: I was the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the Department of the Interior, and in that role was the climate change lead for the agency.

I spent most of my time on the impacts of climate change on Alaska Native villages in the Arctic and the implications for these people for getting them out of harms way. These villages are perched on melting permafrost on a coastline that is no longer protected by sea ice most of the year, and every fall we cross our fingers that a big storm doesn’t wipe one of them off the map.

I went from that job to being reassigned to the office that collects royalty checks from the oil and gas industry. The political appointees were sending a very clear signal they wanted me to quit. And it was inappropriate and it was retaliation. They also reassigned a very disproportionate number of American Indians at the same time. So there was discrimination and retaliation; they checked all the boxes for bad management.

Q: What was the hardest part about transitioning away from civil service?

A: It was difficult to leave because working in the federal government exceeded all of my expectations in terms of access and impact. You can’t do a lot of those things from outside government. You can throw ideas over the castle walls, but until you’re inside you don’t know how those ideas take.

In my case, they’d already taken the job I was there to do and all I had left was my voice. It became clear that if I was going to be effective any longer it had to be outside the agency. So I have no regrets about leaving.

Q: What are you doing now?

A: Since January, I’ve been a senior fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on scientific integrity. The Harvard Kennedy School recently spun up an Arctic initiative, so they brought me on a senior fellow with that as well.

I’ve essentially taken my portfolio into these other arenas. I’m able to continue my work and, under the current circumstances, can be more influential and effective in these roles. So it’s worked out.

Q: What’s your advice for other potential whistleblowers?

A: You should say something if you’re being asked to do something that goes against your values or the mission of the agency, or if it’s an issue that’s important to the health and safety of Americans. But before you do anything, get to know your rights and protections and what could happen to you.

You have to figure out where you draw the line between keeping your head down and raising your hand. That line is different with every issue and every individual.

I understand why people don’t do it. They have families to support, mortgages, health insurance, and so on. They may also view their particular issue as not being a big enough deal.

But one thing I’ve learned from working with journalists is there are a lot more stories out there than people think, and they’re more interesting to people than you would guess. So I always encourage people to talk, but I’m a rabble-rouser.

Q: How do you see the federal scientific workforce changing going forward?

A: A lot of people are leaving federal service now because of the current administration. I hope when this is all over we’ll be able to bring back the scientists and policy experts and get back to the business of serving America’s needs instead of industry, which is what it’s become.

Right now nearly 50% of the federal workforce is approaching or already in retirement age. So there is a huge opportunity coming up to transform public service and the science enterprise. Early- or mid-career scientists could jump in and really bring new energy. So I tell people: Do some time in federal service. It’s gratifying and maybe that will help restore the damage that’s been done to silence experts.

Americans in general appreciate the role of science. So after this administration, I would expect that we’d get back to science-driven policymaking.

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