New Survey Shows More Progress Needed on Protecting Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies

Published Oct 1, 2015

Washington (October 1, 2015)—Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Drug Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have experienced political interference and barriers to publically sharing their work, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report, “Progress and Problems: Government Scientists Report on Scientific Integrity at Four Agencies,” is based on a survey of 7,000 scientists at the agencies, all of which have policies meant to protect scientific integrity.

“Federal scientists are working on behalf of the public,” said Gretchen Goldman, a UCS analyst and lead author of the report. “They need to be able to do their jobs without fearing political interference or the consequences of speaking up. When thousands of scientists think political considerations are given too much weight, that’s a problem. We need to make sure scientific integrity isn’t just a box to check off and forget about, but that it’s integrated into the culture of federal agencies.”

Although the Obama administration directed agencies to adopt scientific integrity policies, the survey shows the difficulty of properly implementing these policies. They have had some positive effect, but scientists still need better protection from inappropriate political influence in their work, and agencies need to improve training so that scientists, managers and agency leaders are aware of scientists’ rights and responsibilities, according to the report. Another finding was that agencies need adequate funding and staffing, as well as budget certainty, so that resource constraints don’t interfere with the important work they do.

“The survey shows that progress is being made, but highlights that more needs to be done to ensure that science is guiding decisions and not the fear of political rebuke,” said Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.). “As a scientist who is also a congressman, I think this should serve as a warning to Congress to take care that our actions don’t have a chilling effect on the necessary scientific work of the agencies we rely on.”

In August, UCS released “Mediated Access,” a report on a survey of science journalists that found that barriers between reporters and government scientists federal agencies’ press offices are making it harder for science writers to keep the public informed.