Survey Shows Real Progress in Restoring Federal Science

Scientists at Six Agencies Report Improved Effectiveness, Better Morale

Published Feb 22, 2023

Washington (February 22, 2023)—Federal scientists faced extraordinary challenges under the previous administration: unprecedented levels of political interference, active hostility from political leaders, and a botched pandemic response that vividly demonstrated the dangers of undermining science. But there’s good news: a just released survey shows that science is coming back strong under a new administration.

The survey, “Getting Science Back on Track: Voices of Scientists across Six Federal Agencies,” offers strong evidence that science is being restored to its proper place, and that scientists are better able to do their work on behalf of the public. The survey was conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

The survey results show the administration’s efforts to support scientists and introduce new scientific integrity guidelines are paying off. Compared to survey results under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, this year’s survey respondents reported higher morale, job satisfaction, and effectiveness of their agencies. A majority of scientists surveyed said that their agency’s determinations and actions are always or frequently “consistent with the scientific findings contained in agency documents and reports.”

In particular, the survey shows that the strengthening of scientific integrity policies is having a noticeable positive impact. Majorities of respondents reported that they have received adequate training on scientific integrity policies, they can openly express concerns about the direction of their agency without fear of retaliation, and they feel that senior leaders with a background or financial interests in regulated industries are not inappropriately influencing their agency’s decisionmaking. These all represent marked improvements over previous years, especially the 2018 survey.

Federal scientific integrity protections should get an additional boost once the administration’s scientific integrity framework, released in January, is fully implemented across all agencies.

While the survey shows positive trends for working conditions among federal scientists, challenges remain. Survey respondents pointed to a lack of staff capacity as the biggest impediment to agency effectiveness. Nearly 60 percent of respondents noted staff departures, retirements, and hiring freezes at their agencies, and 62 percent said they experienced burnout over the past two years. In addition, while most respondents said they can carry out their work freely, hundreds of scientists reported that they’ve been asked to avoid topics or words in their work that might be politically contentious.

“People’s lives depend on the federal government getting the science right and communicating it honestly with the public,” said Anita Desikan, senior research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “Whether it’s ensuring food safety, conducting medical research, reducing pollution, or monitoring natural disasters, the work of federal scientists really matters—and those scientists can’t do their best work if they’re afraid to communicate that work honestly, or subjected to political interference. When the government doesn’t base its actions on the best available science, it can cause real harm—especially to marginalized communities who are exposed to the biggest risks from environmental and health hazards.”

UCS documented more than 200 attacks on science under the previous administration.

“The progress we see in this survey is heartening, but there’s still work to do,” said Desikan. “Although the Biden administration has made huge strides on scientific integrity, the test of these policies will be how they’re implemented and enforced. And to permanently protect against future abuses, Congress needs to put strong scientific integrity protections into law.”

This is the tenth survey of federal scientists that UCS has conducted over the past two decades. This year’s survey was administered to scientists at six federal agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.