Report: Government agencies make quick turnaround in letting scientists speak up

Posted at 2:17 PM, Mar 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-16 19:24:42-04

A major part of a scientist’s job is to base findings in fact, but when the federal government is your employer, those findings can carry strong political weight, which means sometimes the truth might be harder to share than it should.

That’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists, a government watchdog group, found two years ago when it did its first survey of the media and social media policies of 17 government agencies that deal in science. The group’s verdict: The agencies did a pretty bad job of letting their scientists know they could speak about the work they were doing -- and in some instances the scientists were barred from speaking openly.

“We saw this largely under the Bush administration when stories started coming out of scientists saying they were muzzled and were prevented from communicating their findings, particularly if it was on a political or controversial topic,” said Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst at UCS. “So we saw a lot of cases where there was prevention or discouragement of scientists from communicating and as a result there was good science that couldn’t get to the public and couldn’t influence decision makers.”

Instances in particular that the UCS has tracked as part of a case study include deleted or altered findings in final reports. It cites an example in 2004 in which scientists said their advice on protecting salmon was dropped from a report to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and what it found to be misrepresented information in a challenge many scientists leveled at the Bush administration in 2004 surrounding HIV/AIDS prevention data.

But there seems to have been a quick turnaround—something that is often rare for the federal government—in the two years since that first ominous UCS report came out. Some big strides apparently have been made. Of those 17 agencies evaluated, a report released Friday found that most had established stronger policies that allow for more transparency – that in fact let staff scientists speak openly about the findings they are paid with tax dollars to ... well find.

UCS found that the majority of the agencies’ media policies now include key provisions that allow for a right to state personal views, whistleblower provisions and a dispute resolution process. And on the social media front, gains were even bigger. In 2013 five agencies had no social media policy at all, but now all agencies evaluated, but one—The Food and Drug Administration—have guidelines in place.

Though the policies all vary, the UCS found that it’s still something to brag about.

“Our thought was the first step to having a culture where there is greater freedoms for employees is to have a policy in place and this goes into the next administration where we don’t know if the president will be as interested in transparency,” Goldman said.

So who is rated the highest in the new report?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation are tied with As in their media policy grade, the UCS scorecard shows. The U.S. Geological Survey has a perfect score of an A+ in its social media policy guidelines.

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“One agency we really did see come a long way was NOAA,” Goldman said. “Under the Bush administration there were reports of scientists being restricted and not being able to communicate particularly around climate science. And their new policy is that their scientists can pick up the phone and talk to a reporter. They don’t have a clearance process. They don’t have to get permission.”

In the past, scientists at the agency often found themselves limited from speaking freely at committee hearings, which often lead to media reports lambasting the administration for not demanding straight answers from the employees.

She added that the need for such guidelines ultimately has to do with individual rights. Just because a scientist may be employed by a government agency where they handle often confidential information, doesn’t mean they should be kept from offering their own scientific opinions—especially if their opinions might be the ones that matter the most.

“We would say that for scientists the first amendment doesn’t stop when they enter a lab,” Goldman said. “Increasingly we are seeing situations where we need a scientific expert and we need them fast. An example is the chemical spill that happened in West Virginia last year. We had this situation where there was this chemical that had leaked, it might be in people’s drinking water and it might be harmful, and yet we were not hearing from government experts on it, when they were arguably the only people who had any information about the hazards of the spill.”

[Also by Miranda Green: States limited in regulating oil trains]

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