Federal scientists play an important role in our democracy by providing critical expertise to decision makers and the American people. To fulfill this responsibility, they must be able to communicate freely with the media, the public, and their peers.
But in many cases, federal scientists have reported that their public communications are censored, constrained, or funneled through agency media offices.
In 2008, UCS published a report, Freedom to Speak?, that looked at 15 federal agencies and evaluated their media policies and practices. The report found wide disparities among the agencies.
In 2013, more than two years after the Obama administration had issued a directive ordering reform of federal scientific integrity policies—including those governing media access—we published the first version of Grading Government Transparency. This new report added social media policies to the mix, and expanded the number of agencies to 17. Our analysis showed that while many agencies had substantially improved their policies since 2008, significant issues remained.
Two years later, we've taken another look at these 17 agencies' media and social media policies and re-scored them using the same rubrics. (For details on how the scoring is done, see our methodology appendix.)
What we found
Progress has continued since the 2013 report, with a majority of agency policies now including key provisions such as the right to state personal views, whistleblower provisions, and a dispute resolution process. On the social media front, where five agencies in the 2013 analysis had no social media policy at all, that number in the 2015 report has shrunk to just one.
However, most agency policies still lack important provisions such as right of last review and access to drafts and revisions. And while nearly all the agencies now have social media policies, some of those policies are still vague or incomplete. Thus, there is still significant work to do.
Federal agency media policies need to be stronger to offer scientists clear guidance and protections against political interference. More broadly, agencies need to put free and open communication ahead of political considerations.
- Federal agencies should develop strong media and social media policies that grant scientists the fundamental right of scientific free speech.
- The Office of Science and Technology Policy should assess agency progress and speak forcefully on the importance of strong and effective media and social media policies.
- Congress should hold agency heads accountable for encouraging the free flow of scientific information to the public.
- The president should make strong and effective agency policies on media and social media a priority.
- Journalists should call out those agencies that block the free flow of information to the public.