Transparency in Decision Making

The Problem

Both democracy and science are based on the free exchange of ideas. A strong democracy depends on well-informed citizens who have access to comprehensive and reliable information about their government's activities. Similarly, science thrives when scientists are free to interact with each other, opening their ideas to wide-ranging scrutiny. Because our country's decision makers need access to the best scientific information available, federal agencies must allow their scientists to participate in the scientific community and speak freely about their research to Congress, the media, and the public. Yet too often an agency's desire to "control the message" has led to the suppression of information and the censorship of the government's own experts.

Why it Matters

Independent and transparent science is critical to protecting public and environmental health. Suppression and distortion of scientific research led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve drugs such as Vioxx, Avandia, and Ketek that later proved to be harmful. More transparency in the decision-making process is needed at all federal agencies to ensure that the work of federal government scientists is not misused. Transparency will help expose manipulation of science and make other political appointees think twice before altering or distorting scientific documents.


Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona charged the Bush administration with pervasive levels of political interference in his work as the nation's doctor, compromising his ability to deliver the best available public health science to Americans. During his tenure, Carmona experienced censorship of his speeches, suppression of scientific reports, and restrictions on media and outreach opportunities. He stated, "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointee's ideological, theological, or political agenda is ignored, marginalized, or simply buried."

This interference resulted in less information being made available to the public on topics such as second-hand smoke and mental health. The independence of the Surgeon General is vital so that Americans can act on the best available information regarding the risks to their health.
"You don't want Republican or Democratic scientific information," said Carmona. "You want real scientific information, and that's our job, to bring it forward."


1) The president should actively promote a culture of openness at federal agencies. Following the troubled tenure of Ann Gorsuch, the Ruckelshaus memo turned a page at the agency and reassured the American public that new policies of openness and transparency would be implemented. We urge the president to send a message to agency heads, asking each to adapt the major provisions of former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus' "Fishbowl Memo." The memo committed the EPA to:

  • Facilitating "the fullest possible public participation in decision-making," taking "affirmative steps to seek out the views of those who will be affected by the decisions."
  • Prohibiting "privileged status" to any special interest.
  • Ensuring "that the basis for the Agency's decision appears in the record" for either formal or informal rulemaking proceedings under the Administrative Procedures Act.
  • Making accessible to the public the weekly appointment calendars of the EPA administrator and his top deputies
  • Making public "all written comments received from persons outside the Agency (whether during or after the comment period)" and include "a memorandum summarizing any significant new factual information or argument likely to affect the final decision received during a meeting or other conversations."

This model honors the public's right to know and guarantees the government's accountability. A charge to new agency heads to emulate the Ruckelshaus memo would send the strongest possible message of a new direction for the next administration.

2) The scientific rationale for decisions that are based on science, such as the decision to approve a prescription drug or list a species on the endangered species list, should be made public. Also, the name of each officer or employee who participated in the decision should be public. If scientists have significant concerns about the decision they should have the opportunity to make their concerns public. The public deserves an explanation about why they concerns of scientists have been ignored if the decision is supposed to be based on science.

In 2007, a law was enacted that will open to scrutiny the way the FDA reviews drugs and monitors drug safety. The law requires the agency to publicize the documents leading up to the drug approval, as well as whether there was any dissent and from whom. This will help ensure that the FDA relies on scientific research in making decisions about new drugs. 

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to Make Change Happen

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