Science Policy & Funding Opinion

The Government Sidelines Science, but to What Extent?

Anecdotes paint a grim picture about the state of scientific integrity in the current administration. Results from a newly opened and broad survey will show us this problem’s full scope.

By , Jacob M. Carter, and Charise Johnson

In March 2005, a climate policy analyst at the U.S. Global Change Research Program resigned in protest over what he saw as political interference in science. After 10 years in federal service, Rick Piltz said he could no longer be complicit in what he called a “conspiracy of silence.” The people around him, he claimed, were allowing politics to be injected into what should have been scientific work on climate change.

Because Piltz spoke out, we learned that the Bush White House was indeed tampering with science [Doremus, 2008]. In a now widely known case, White House aide Philip A. Cooney, a nonscientist, was editing scientific documents to downplay the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

This was a case of a loss of scientific integrity in the federal government. Such cases include instances where political, financial, and ideological forces interfere in the process of evidence-based decision-making. To be clear, many factors beyond scientific evidence (e.g., cultural values) legitimately go into policy decisions. However, undue influence that interferes with the ability of independent science to inform what should be science-based decisions is problematic [Wagner, 2015].

Evidence collected by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that science in the federal government is currently being conducted in an environment that discourages the use of scientists’ knowledge in decision-making [Goldman et al., 2017]. But little is known about the scope and scale of such issues and how they affect scientists’ ability to meet the goals of their science-based agencies’ mission.

One useful tool for obtaining a broader view is surveying federal scientists. This month, the Union of Concerned Scientists, working with Iowa State University, is conducting a scientific integrity survey to gain such a perspective. The survey includes more than 60,000 scientists in 16 federal agencies, and it asks vital questions about scientific integrity and the atmosphere within agencies.

This will be the first scientist survey under the Trump administration, and we hope it will secure vital data about how the administration is doing on science. Our hope is that these data will pinpoint the challenges to scientific integrity that government scientists face in the current political climate.

Whistle-Blowers and Anecdotes

The written and verbal records of a few whistle-blowing federal scientists and others willing to share stories provide anecdotal evidence on the current state of scientific integrity in the U.S. government.

For example, in a Washington Post piece last July, Department of Interior scientist Joel Clement told the world about the Trump administration’s reassignments of scientists within his department. Clement, whose work focused on helping native Alaskan communities mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts, was reassigned to an accounting office, collecting royalty checks from the oil and gas industry. Clement’s action led to a wave of media inquiries, congressional investigations, and public outcry.

In other cases, scientists have been removed from agency decision-making on scientific topics. Across federal agencies, science advisory committees, which provide crucial independent scientific input to government decisions, have been dismissed, dismantled, and allowed to sit idle [Halpern, 2018]. For instance, in June 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided not to ban certain uses of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, despite recommendations from EPA scientists to ban the pesticide because exposure is linked to neurological damage in children.  Last year, reports from the EPA and Department of the Interior revealed political interference in selection of research grant recipients; administration appointees with minimal scientific training handpicked which grants to fund [Goldman et al., 2018].

These examples are just a few of many. But what’s lacking is a fuller picture: Are these examples indicative of current trends? Or are they aberrations?

A Broad Survey

To understand the state of scientific integrity under the current administration, we need information beyond the accounts of a few whistle-blowers and leaked documents. Surveying federal scientists will help the public gain this understanding.

To that end, 63,383 federal scientists have been contacted and asked to take our survey. If you are interested in learning more about the survey, please visit our survey’s website. Results of the survey will be publicly released in early summer 2018 and will be shared with the scientific community, the media, elected officials, and federal agency staff.

Past Surveys: Results, the Changes They Helped to Trigger, and Lessons Learned

Since 2005, the Union of Concerned Scientists has conducted anonymous surveys of scientists across federal agencies. The surveys provide a needed pulse on the status of scientific integrity across the government, shedding light on how agencies differ between each other and over time, what policies and practices need changing, and the overall well-being of scientists working in the government.

For example, are scientists able to do their jobs and communicate their science? Is political interference affecting their work? How is morale? Are scientific integrity policies being fully implemented?

For more than a decade and across both the Bush and Obama administrations, surveys of federal scientists have provided answers to these questions—and those answers have led to concrete changes at federal agencies. In 2011, the National Science Foundation developed a media policy following survey responses and policy analysis developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 2013, within hours of the release of a cross-agency social media communications assessment, the U.S. Geological Survey improved its social media policy to better ensure scientifically accurate agency communications. Scientist surveys have improved policies and practices across the government, providing crucial data on federal scientific integrity issues [Carroll et al., 2017].

The surveys also provide a window into the evolution of policies and practices within agencies over time. Between 2005 and 2007, the surveys indicated that federal scientists had few protections against overt political interference in their work. Some 1,028 scientists (60% of respondents) from a survey of climate researchers at seven agencies and a separate survey of EPA researchers reported that they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference in their work over the previous 5 years [Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009].

After the introduction of scientific integrity policies at more than 24 federal agencies by 2011, the surveys began to indicate a shift in scientists’ experiences. On a 2015 survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 67% (2,351 respondents) agreed or strongly agreed that their agency adhered to its scientific integrity policy [Goldman et al., 2015].

But we have also learned from surveys that policies don’t equal practice. Despite strong policies in place, many scientists in the same 2015 survey reported scientific integrity challenges at their agency. For example, 1,412 respondents to the survey (23%) disagreed or strongly disagreed that they can openly express any concerns about the mission-driven work of their agency without fear of retaliation (Figure 1).

Chart showing response of federal scientists in 2015 to survey about expressing concerns without fear of retaliation
Fig. 1. On a 2015 survey, 52%–59% of federal scientists across agencies said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I can openly express concerns about the mission-driven work of my agency without fear of retaliation.” Do federal scientists still feel this way? A 2018 survey will shed light.

What can be effective, we learned—in addition to having a strong policy in place—is strong leadership that prioritizes scientific integrity and creates an environment where it can thrive. For example, one NOAA scientist stated in an open response to a question, “In general, I think there is a culture of scientific integrity at NOAA.…Although I do not connect much with the highest levels in the agency I feel that, with a few exceptions, they are making the best decisions they can under the circumstance.”

Overcoming a Culture of Fear

Surveys like these provide a needed and anonymous voice for federal scientists, which is crucial because for every Rick Piltz or Joel Clement, many within the government stay silent. Currently, the reason may be in part because the administration has created a culture of fear. Thus, federal employees may feel they are best served by keeping their heads down and avoiding any attention from those in charge.

We’ve already seen several cases where government employees who manage scientists or serve as the gatekeepers of scientific output chose to avoid certain politically contentious scientific work—even without being explicitly directed by political appointees. Before President Trump was even sworn in, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention canceled a long-planned conference on climate change and public health. Both the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA have released press releases on new climate-related research, with references to climate implications suspiciously absent.

These individual acts of censorship serve the status quo, perhaps even allowing scientists and other government employees to continue their day-to-day work. But en masse, this censorship harms the public good [Ritchie et al., 2017; Branscomb, 2004].

The Public Good of Freely Conducted Federal Science

All Americans depend on the science produced by federal agencies. From weather forecasting to disaster preparedness, food safety inspections to drug approvals, federal scientists play a key role in protecting the public good. Pollution mitigation, medical research, and infectious disease monitoring by government scientists have saved countless lives. If scientists are unable to freely conduct research, if they avoid studying politically contentious topics, and if they can’t talk to the public honestly about the work they do, the scientific enterprise and the lives that depend on it are at risk.

The process by which scientific knowledge informs policy-making decisions works, but only if there is an environment that allows federal scientists to effectively produce such knowledge. Because the current political climate may discourage federal scientists from speaking out on their working environment, it is important for scientists outside of the government to investigate and assess these working conditions. Only through such knowledge can we effectively guide actions to ensure scientific integrity within our government.

This year, as a flood of unsettling stories on the treatment of science and scientists within the federal government has raised alarms in the science community, this kind of broad view is incredibly important, and the input of federal scientists is crucial. We cannot again allow a “conspiracy of silence” to stop scientists from doing their jobs and to prevent science from serving the public. Our nation’s future depends on it.

Acknowledgment

The authors would like to acknowledge the support of members of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

References

Branscomb, L. M. (2004), Science, politics, and U.S. democracy, Issues Sci. Technol., 21(1).

Carroll, C., et al. (2017), Defending the scientific integrity of conservation-policy processes, Conserv. Biol., 31(5), 967–975, https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12958.

Doremus, H. (2008), Scientific and political integrity in environmental policy, Texas Law Rev., 86, 1,601–1,653.

Goldman, G. T., et al. (2015), Progress and problems: Government scientists report on scientific integrity at four agencies, Union of Concerned Sci., Cambridge, Mass., http://www.ucsusa.org/scientistsurvey.

Goldman, G. T., et al. (2017), Ensuring scientific integrity in the age of Trump, Science, 355(6326), 696–698, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aam5733.

Goldman, G. T., et al. (2018), Risks to science-based policy under the Trump administration, Stetson Law Rev., 47(2), 267–293.

Halpern, M. (2018), Bottling up science, Environ. Forum, in press.

Ritchie, E. G., D. A. Driscoll, and M. Maron (2017), Communication: Science censorship is a global issue, Nature, 542, 165, https://doi.org/10.1038/542165b.

Union of Concerned Scientists (2009), Voices of federal scientists: Americans’ health and safety depend on independent science, Cambridge, Mass., https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/Voices_of_Federal_Scientists.pdf.

Wagner, W. E. (2015), A place for agency expertise: Reconciling agency expertise with presidential power, Columbia Law Rev., 115(7), 2,019–2,069.

—Gretchen T. Goldman (email: [email protected]), Jacob M. Carter, and Charise Johnson, Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, D. C.

Citation: Goldman, G. T., J. M. Carter, and C. Johnson (2018), The government sidelines science, but to what extent?, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO093961. Published on 28 February 2018.
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