Catalyst Summer 2013

[PERSPECTIVE]

Freedom of (Scientists’) Speech

In a watershed moment this year, President Obama signed into law the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which—for the first time—shields government employees from retribution if they report political interference in their scientific work. For nearly a decade, UCS and our supporters helped educate Congress about the need for these protections, and pushed for this and other strong policies that would allow government scientists to pursue critical research and publicly communicate their results.

During President Obama’s first term, we advised many federal agencies in their efforts to improve transparency and accountability, and we recently analyzed the government’s progress in protecting scientists’ First Amendment right to communicate with the public via social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs) as well as traditional news outlets. The resulting report, Grading Government Transparency, found that some agencies have listened to our concerns and taken action: for example, since the last time we examined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s policies, the agency had given its scientists the right to review agency materials that rely on their research. And to its credit, the U.S. Geological Survey improved its social media policy within four hours of learning of our report’s critique of its earlier policy.

While the gains we’ve seen on paper are significant, the message has not sufficiently filtered down to all agency managers. Reports of interference with federal scientists’ work have persisted under the Obama administration, including attempts by agency officials to prevent staff scientists from speaking to the media. This past April, for example, members of the Society of Environmental Journalists spoke of being stonewalled when they tried to speak with Environmental Protection Agency scientists. We will keep the spotlight on such obstacles to scientific freedom through venues like our Lewis M. Branscomb Science and Democracy Forum; our first forum in September 2012 provided a foundation for our future efforts by bringing together journalists and government officials to identify ways to overcome barriers to scientific information.

In addition to our continuing work to protect scientists’ rights, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS—with your help—aims to strengthen the role of science in decision making. On such complex issues as natural gas “fracking” and disaster preparedness, we will be helping communities fully understand and consider the scientific evidence when making important choices that will affect their economic security and public health. Follow our progress, and learn how you can get involved.

Andrew Rosenberg, director, Center for Science and Democracy