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 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.
To assess the degree of freedom with which science is communicated at federal agencies, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted an investigation of 15 federal regulatory and science agencies. First, we analyzed existing policies governing communication with the media and the public. Second, we surveyed a cross-section of federal scientists to assess how these policies are put into practice. Our grades for current media policies and practices at each of 15 federal agencies are summarized in the chart below. Underneath the chart, see a summary of the findings and our proposed solutions.
What We Found
Both good policy and good practice in the communication of scientific results to the media are achievable goals for federal agencies. Yet there is no consistency among agency policies, and the ability of government scientists to speak freely about their research depends on the agency that employs them.
For example, scientists at both scientific and regulatory agencies—such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, respectively—reported broad freedom to communicate their findings and opinions. Other agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have set a high standard for clearly articulated policies that value scientific openness.
In contrast, media policies at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission focus on message control rather than openness, and scientists in those agencies feel intimidated and unable to speak freely. Other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, lack any central policy, so their rules about talking to the media vary from office to office. Both strong leadership and strong policies are crucial for achieving the culture of openness that allows both science and good governance to thrive. A strong policy tells scientists that their expertise is valued, but even the strongest policy needs the commitment of agency leaders to put it into practice. Reforming the communication of federal science should be a priority for the next administration.
The next administration should require all federal agencies to adopt policies that ensure free and open communication between scientists, the media, policy makers, and the public. The next president’s science adviser should build upon the guidelines for scientific openness released earlier this year by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the president should encourage agency leaders to adopt policies (or modify existing policies) consistent with these guidelines.
Agency media policies should respect two fundamental tenets of scientific communication:
- Scientists, like any federal employees, have a right to express their personal views outside of certain narrow restrictions. As long as they provide an explicit disclaimer that they are speaking as private citizens and not as a representative of their agency, scientists should be allowed to speak freely about their research and to offer their scientific opinions--even in situations where their research may be controversial or have implications for agency policy.
- Scientists have the right to review, approve, and comment publicly on the final version of any document or publication that significantly relies on their research, identifies them as an author or contributor, or purports to represent their scientific opinions.