New study of media policies finds some federal agencies stifle scientists’ contact with reporters


The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report on October 17 grading 15 federal agencies on their policies controlling communication between staff scientists and the news media and the public.  The report concluded that one of the agencies with the worst policies is the Environmental Protection Agency.  A majority of EPA survey respondents indicated that they can’t speak freely to the media, and interviews with journalists indicated that EPA is an especially restrictive agency. We have repeatedly called attention to restrictive media policies as a significant method of political interference with climate science communication.

See the Union of Concerned Scientists press release—“Federal Agency Media Policies Inconsistent: Some Stifle, Some Support Scientists Sharing Information wtih the Press, New Study Finds—Science Group Calls on Next Administration to Improve Scientific Openness”

See the UCS “Report Card of Federal Agency Media Policies”

See the report page for links to the full report, Freedom to Speak?  A Report Card on Federal Agency Media Policies, plus the study methodology and primary documents.

We fully support the UCS recommendation:

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:

o   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.
o   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.

What the report says about EPA:

Policy grade: D
Practice: “Unsatisfactory”
There is no agency-wide media policy for the EPA; we obtained five written policies from various EPA regions and offi ces in response to our FOIA requests. There is considerable variation among these policies, but none include strong protections for scientists. Instructions not to talk to reporters and to forward all media inquiries to public aff airs officials are periodically emailed to EPA employees. A majority of survey respondents did not agree that they can speak freely to the media, and interviews with journalists indicated that the EPA is an especially restrictive agency. The EPA should create a standard, agencywide media policy that protects scientific speech.

On March 27, 2007, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released a comprehensive report, Redacting the Science of Climate Change, detailing the findings of a year-long investigation into how federal agency media policies and practices and other forms of political interference have negatively affected the flow of climate change science communication from publicly funded research. The report focuses especially on problems at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The investigation incorporated dozens of interviews and a comprehensive review of thousands of Freedom of Information Act disclosures, internal documents, and public records.
See the full report here.

In response to the report’s finding, GAP urged numerous recommendations for the executive branch and federal agencies that support climate change research to immediate adopt concerning their media policies. These include, but are not limited to:

o Implementing a clear and transparent media policy in which federal scientists are only required to give their respective public affairs department the prior notification and a subsequent follow-up regarding any media communication. This would eliminate mandatory pre-approvals for media contacts, selective routing of media requests, and drafting of anticipated questions and answers by scientists prior to interviews.

o Educating federal employees about their right to express their personal views (explicitly stated) on any subject without using government time and resources.

o Ensuring the timely and pro-active coordination of press releases and media contacts so as to promote rather than limit the flow of information.

o Ensuring that content-editing and scientific quality-control remains with qualified scientists and the peer review process.

o Establishing accountability procedures that allow for transparency and a scientist’s internal reporting of undue interference, without fear of retaliation.

Also, see our earlier posts:
April 23, 2007:  GAP and UCS call on Commerce Dept. to suspend new restrictive media policy

March 13, 2008:  Stealth release of major federal study of Gulf Coast climate change transportation impacts

June 16, 2008:  NASA internal investigation of climate science political interference let higher-ups off the hook

September 26, 2008:  Notes on Conrad Lautenbacher’s troubled legacy on science and politics at NOAA (Part 2)

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