Leading Climate Scientist Resigns from USDA, Accuses Trump Admin of Trying to Bury His Study

Published on August 5, 2019 by Athena Pallas

He had worked for the USDA for more than 20 years, through five different administrations, but it was the censorship and suppression of his and other scientists’ findings that was the last straw for Lewis Ziska, a top climate scientist and plant physiologist. “There was a sense that if the science agreed with the politics, then the policymakers would consider it to be ‘good science,’ and if it didn’t agree with the politics, then it was something that was flawed and needed to be done again,” said Ziska, according to Politico, in describing the work conditions that led him to quit the USDA. Ziska is the author of a groundbreaking study showing that increased levels of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, cause rice crops to lose both protein and minerals. That is hugely important because some 600 million people in the world depend on rice for the majority of their calories, and decreased nutrition in the rice therefore means decreased nutrition for those people. It was what Ziska saw as the USDA’s attempt to bury this study as the final straw for him.

Facing the facts of the effect of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide on rice crops is not just a “woe is me” moment – it could lead to resources being devoted to finding strains of rice that stand up better to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, so that they retain better nutrition, but that will only happen if the facts are faced. Ziska asserts that the USDA questioned his findings, despite their being peer-reviewed (and later independently verified by Harvard University researchers), and suppressed press coverage of the study, including by denying an interview request CNN made for Ziska to discuss his rice research. The USDA claims that the objections to Ziska’s work and the minimization of its publicity by the USDA are solely based on science, but when Ziska rebutted the USDA’s concerns and asked to schedule a meeting to discuss those concerns, he received no response. It was at that moment, Ziska told Politico, “That’s when it occurred to me. This isn’t about the science. It’s about something else, but it’s not about the science. When that happened, I realized it’s not just a question of language. It’s not just a question of philosophy. They’re saying we’re not going to support this work. And the reason that they’re not going to support the work is because the science doesn’t suit their – I don’t know what. Ideology?” According to Politico:

One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Lewis Ziska, a 62-year-old plant physiologist who’s worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told POLITICO he was alarmed when department officials not only questioned the findings of the study – which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories – but also tried to minimize media coverage of the paper, which was published in the journal Science Advances last year. …Ziska, in describing his decision to leave, painted a picture of a department in constant fear of the president and Secretary Sonny Perdue’s open skepticism about broadly accepted climate science, leading officials to go to extremes to obscure their work to avoid political blowback. The result, he said, is a vastly diminished ability for taxpayer-funded scientists to provide farmers and policymakers with important information about complex threats to the global food supply.

Ziska is certainly not alone in departing the Trump administration over censorship regarding climate change. According to The Hill, last week an intelligence officer resigned from the State Department after claiming the Trump administration had barred him from testifying before Congress about the national security implications of climate change, and a week prior to that a National Park Service employee alleged she was fired after refusing to remove remarks about the human causes of climate change in a paper before publication.

Ziska has already secured a new job as a researcher at Columbia University. That research is likely, at least in part, to be dependent on funding from the USDA, making Ziska’s decision to speak out about what is happening at the Trump administration’s USDA all the more brave. Time and time again the Trump administration has shown that it is not interested in facts unless those facts support their policy positions, but that, of course, is not how science works. Facts matter. And we need facts to find a way forward.

Featured image of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue with Vice President Pence and President Trump via Wikimedia Commons.