GAO report questions policies on dissemination of federal scientists’ research


On June 18 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report supporting recent criticisms that federal agency media policies hinder government scientists from publicizing their research results. Based on a large survey study, the report estimates that 102 scientists at NASA and 76 at NOAA have been denied approval to disseminate their results for reasons other than those stemming from standard technical review. The report says: “At NOAA, researchers who had requests denied represented a diverse cadre of research areas, including climate, environment, or atmosphere; oceans and coasts; and fisheries and ecosystems. Among the most common reasons that researchers reported for the denial of their requests were that the topic or results were sensitive…” We have noted many times that the gatekeepers interfere selectively, when communication of research findings and interpretations of their significance to a wider public audience might call into question current policies.

Some of our previous posts on this topic include:
(1) GAP and UCS call on Commerce Dept. to suspend new restrictive media policy (April 23, 2007)
(2) GAP issues in-depth report on political interference at climate science research agencies (March 27, 2007)
(3) “Exclusive: Report Charges Broad White House Efforts to Stifle Climate Research” (March 27, 2007)

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report: Federal Research: Policies Guiding the Dissemination of Scientific Research from Selected Agencies Should Be Clarified and Better Communicated, GAO-07-653, May 17, 2007

Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, commented: “GAO’s confirmation that government media policies are dysfunctional is only the tip of the iceberg, because it did not consider charges that those policies systematically violate the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Anti-Gag Statute.”

Text of UCS news release:

Union of Concerned Scientists
Citizens and Scientists for Environmental Solutions

June 18, 2007

GAO Report Finds Federal Agency Media Policies Unclear
UCS Calls For Stronger Protections for Federal Scientists

WASHINGTON (June 18, 2007)—The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released a report supporting recent criticisms that federal agency media policies hinder government scientists from publicizing their research results relating to critical public health and environmental issues. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said in a news release the report’s findings suggest agency policies for communicating scientific results need significant clarification and improvement.

“Public health and safety are at risk when federal scientists are prevented from speaking freely about their research,” said Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. “Current policies even with the new GAO recommendations do not protect these basic scientific freedoms.”

The GAO investigation examined communications policies at several federal agencies where the censorship of science has become pervasive, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The GAO report recommended steps federal agencies should take to address the problem. First, agencies need to clarify and better explain existing media policies to federal scientists. Fewer than half of the NOAA and NASA scientists surveyed understand they are allowed to “discuss potential policy implications of their research as long as they identify such views as their personal opinions and not those of the agency.” Second, agencies should provide a robust appeal process for scientists who are refused permission to disseminate their research results. Only a quarter of the scientists at NASA, NOAA, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are aware of an intra-agency appeals process.

While the GAO recommendations are important first steps, they are “insufficient to prevent political interference in the communication of research results and guarantee the First Amendment rights of government scientists,” Grifo said.

The GAO report was released just a few weeks after the Commerce Department issued a new media policy that does little to improve the quality of federal scientific communications, according to UCS. Last month, UCS and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez urging him to address policy shortcomings that are not addressed by the GAO report:

All federal media policies should affirm scientists’ rights to speak freely to the media on any topic, provided they make it clear that any views expressed are their own and do not reflect their department’s official position;
Scientists must have the right of final review of any communication citing their research; and
Federal media policies should guarantee federal scientists’ rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act and other free speech protections.

“The new Commerce policy restricts and confuses scientists,” said Grifo. “Scientists do not leave their basic first amendment rights at the curb when they come to work for the government. The Commerce Department must address the new media policy’s fatal flaws.”

A revised NASA communications policy released in 2006 also fails to guarantee many critical rights, according to an analysis by UCS and GAP.

The GAO report confirms the findings of Atmosphere of Pressure, a joint investigation by UCS and GAP that found that while the quality of federal climate science remains high, there is broad interference in the communication of results. The GAO report found that about 200 researchers at NASA, NOAA, and NIST had dissemination requests denied during the past five years.

In a survey of climate scientists across nine federal agencies included in “Atmosphere of Pressure,” scientists reported experiencing at least 435 occurrences of political interference in their work over the past five years. Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words “climate change,” “global warming,” or other similar terms from a variety of communications. Forty-three percent of respondents reported they had perceived or personally experienced changes or edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their scientific findings. And nearly half (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced new or unusual administrative requirements that impair their climate-related work.

Today’s GAO report was requested in 2006 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), then-ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, in response to allegations of widespread political interference in science.

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