Limited Media Access to Federal Scientists Persists Under Obama Administration

New Scorecard Grades Agencies' Media, Social Media Policies

Published Mar 15, 2013

WASHINGTON (March 15, 2013)—Some federal science agencies are doing a better job ensuring journalists and federal scientists can freely communicate than they were four years ago, but too many agencies still fail to ensure scientists’ First Amendment rights, according to a new scorecard. At the same time, agencies are starting to experiment with social media, but not all have clarified how their employees should use it.

“You don’t give up your freedom of speech when you go to do scientific work for the government,” said Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The public deserves access to the science they’re funding, especially when it comes to research about our health and safety.”

Reports of interference with federal scientists’ ability to speak out have persisted under the Obama administration, including attempts by agency officials to bypass or silence scientists.

Of the 17 agencies and departments graded, only three affirmed scientists’ right to speak to the media in their personal capacity and to have final review on agency materials that rely heavily on their research: the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

While it’s reasonable for agencies to have speech exemptions for national security and proprietary information, such as personal health records, most agencies fail to affirm scientists’ right to speak freely about the research they are conducting. For instance, the Department of Agriculture and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lagged behind, with conflicting and confusing policies that make it easier for agency officials to block communication between scientists and journalists.

Overall, four agencies scored A’s, seven received B’s, four garnered C’s and OSHA brought up the rear with a D while the Department of Energy scored an “incomplete” because it doesn’t publicly share a media policy and researchers were unable to obtain one through a Freedom of Information Act request.”

The Center for Science and Democracy assembled these media policies online to serve as a resource for reporters, the public, and federal employees.

For the first time, researchers also examined agencies’ social media policies. The center recommends that agencies affirm scientists’ right to identify their employer and speak for themselves on social media while making it clear that their views don’t necessarily represent those of their employer.

The National Institutes of Health scored the only A on social media, with a policy that clearly helps employees understand their rights. The agency has also used social media to recruit study participants and provides a streamlined and accessible “New Media Checklist” to assist its employees in understanding and implementing the policy. Five other agencies scored incompletes as they have yet to adopt a social media policy.

“Agencies shouldn’t be afraid to let scientists experiment with social media,” said Goldman. “When NASA has as many Twitter followers as Anderson Cooper, it’s clear that social media has huge potential for science communication.”

Today’s report is a follow-up to a 2008 scorecard by UCS that found a greater number of agencies failing to ensure adequate free speech rights for their scientists. Last week, UCS released an analysis of broader scientific integrity policies the White House asked agencies to adopt. These two reports bookend Sunshine Week, a national initiative aimed at promoting the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Two staffers have blog posts further exploring challenges media outlets face when covering federal science and new ways agencies are using social media.