Science Advocates Tell Federal Employees: Write It Down

Guide Offers Advice on Keeping a Record to Prevent Political Misconduct

Published Feb 21, 2018

WASHINGTON (February 21, 2018)—Over the past year, stories of political interference with science have emerged from key federal agencies with disturbing frequency. Reports indicate that federal scientists have been moved around arbitrarily in their jobs, prevented from attending conferences or even instructed on what words not to use. In a hostile environment for science, how can federal employees protect themselves and uphold scientific integrity?

A new guide from a coalition of science and transparency advocates offers an answer: write it down.

“The purpose of the federal government is to serve the public interest,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a former regional director for NOAA’s fisheries program. “If, as a federal scientist, you see something happening that violates that standard, it’s important to document it—especially if the violation comes as a verbal order, without a paper trail.”

The guide offers best practices and resources for federal scientists on good record-keeping, including making sure that the information is detailed and accurate, with dates, times and names.  

"When you work for the federal government, your first responsibility is to the law -- and the law clearly stipulates that partisan activity must never be allowed to undermine the integrity of government operations, " said Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, a former State Department official who is now a distinguished professor at Georgetown University. "Serving the American people by upholding the law is a responsibility that public servants put above all else.  If federal employees see misconduct or abuse of power, or if they receive instructions based on false or destructive premises, they should immediately and extensively document what is happening.  Public servants can never allow themselves to become pawns in a partisan game.  Doing your job means telling the truth and writing it down."  

Advocates for transparency and accountability in government agree that keeping a record of what’s happening inside federal agencies is a vital tool for defending the public interest—and it’s protected by the law.

“Government scientists need to understand that they are protected by the same laws as other federal employees and can blow the whistle on censorship of science that creates a specific and substantial risk to health and safety,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Taking notes is not just a vital tool for identifying abuses of power—it’s also necessary for fixing them.

“Carefully documenting events as they occur is one of the most important means for holding government officials accountable,” said Louis Clark, Executive Director and CEO of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), the nation's leading whistleblower organization. “Any federal employee who suspects wrongdoing, or even feels uncomfortable in the workplace, can help ensure corrective action. A detailed, authentic record is an essential tool in the whistleblower toolbox.”

To make sure that decisions are informed by the best available science, scientists should keep track of the work they do, and be on guard for when scientific findings are suppressed, ignored or manipulated.

“Federal scientists must be allowed to continue their critical work to protect public health and the environment,” said Lauren Kurtz, the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. “As part of this, it is important to keep tabs on political attempts to hamstring public science.”

The guide is a joint project of UCS, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, GAP, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and POGO. Science advocates will distribute the guide through scientific conferences and professional networks, and UCS will continue to offer resources to combat abuses of scientific integrity through the Science Protection Project.