October 21, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

The Union of Concerned Scientists has just released a report on the media policies at federal agencies, in order to assess “the degree of freedom with which science is communicated at federal agencies.” The nonprofit organization analyzed 15 regulatory and science agencies’ policies governing communication with the media and the public, and then surveyed a cross-section of federal scientists to learn how the policies are implemented.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was the only agency to earn an “A” grade from UCS for its policy (though its performance is rated “needs improvement”), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration the lone recipient of an “F.” Here’s UCS’s explanation of the variation:

… 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.

As for the importance of having a culture of openness, here’s UCS’s explanation of why it matters:

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.

UCS recommends that the next administration “require all federal agencies to adopt policies that ensure free and open communication between scientists, the media, policy makers, and the public.” It specifically urges that these policies respect scientists’ rights to express their personal views as long as they make it clear they’re not speaking on behalf of the agency and enshrine their “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.” UCS and the Government Accountability Project have developed a model media policy that’s worth taking a look at.

UCS consistently does great work researching conditions at federal agencies, which may get less attention than the White House and Capitol Hill do but are extremely influential in determining how clean our air and water are, how safe our drugs and consumer products are, and what kind of planet we’ll leave to future generations. They’ve documented many of the alarming instances of political interference with science in recent years, and are now also reminding us that less-dramatic policies and practices, like those governing media relations, can also have a big impact.

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