From ‘The Daily Show’ to the daily news, federal scientists often face obstacles sharing their knowledge

Senior Washington Representative
Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Did you hear the story about the federal scientist and the two-headed fish? The fish? Maybe, but likely not the scientist. That’s because the scientist in question turned down the chance to tell his story to The Daily Show, discouraged from making the appearance by his bosses at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And that’s too bad, because it would have given a federal scientist the opportunity to directly engage with an audience of millions of viewers, and explain how science won the day. The scientist in question studied the impact of a mining operation in Idaho, linking its toxic by-products to the appearance of the two-headed fish, and refuting mining company claims that the selenium from its mining activities had nothing to do with the mutation.

Unfortunately, scientists are discouraged from speaking in far more venues than late-night comedy shows. Federal scientists are often denied the opportunity to share their research and views directly with much more conventional media and with the general public.

Journalists from local newspapers to big national outlets tell us that federal agencies regularly stonewall them when they seek scientific information, especially around sensitive issues that involve powerful industries. And scientists from dozens of federal agencies have relied on us to help them deal with efforts to suppress their work.

As someone who has been a journalist and a public interest advocate for equal portions of my career, I value both professions. They tend to share one value above all others: a respect for transparency.

When the government keeps information secret or discourages federal scientists from publicly sharing their research, everybody loses.

Rigorous science helps address our nation’s biggest problems and inform and civilize public policy debates. Whether it’s the damage caused by the BP oil spill, the levels of toxic air pollution in New York City after the Sept. 11th attacks, or the concerns of Food and Drug Administration scientists about new medications or medical devices, the public is harmed when information is kept under wraps.

The reason we have taxpayer-funded research, after all, is to help us study big issues that affect all of us.

Which brings us back to the bigger picture. Fish and Wildlife isn’t the only federal agency that has made it difficult for scientists to communicate their findings and views directly to the media and the public. Our Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists is about to release a report card assessing 17 federal science agencies and their written media policies advising scientists on how to deal with media requests and use social media to communicate with the public.

We found a mixed record and lots of room for improvement. For starters, there was the availability of the policies themselves. In at least two instances, agency policies that should be about transparency were themselves not publicly disclosed. While some agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, do a relatively good job freeing their scientists to speak about the oil spills, climate change, and weather events it tracks, others do not. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, which retains strong ties to the industry it regulates, still keeps a tight lid on its scientists.

Since our last report card in 2008, the Obama administration has made some significant strides in improving transparency. Nevertheless, too much institutional and industry pressure on federal scientists still remains.

The First Amendment ensures not only the free-speech rights of all Americans, including scientists, it also protects the free exchange of information. A democracy thrives when information freely circulates and when scientists are free to communicate with journalists, and to use new social media outlets to communicate directly with the public.

After all, the public has a right to know the views of federal scientists whose research they fund. If those scientists have opinions that diverge from agency policy, they should be able to express their views as citizens, provided they make the distinction that their statements are their own and do not represent the position of their employers. Scientists also should have the right to review the way their research is presented to the public to ensure that their work is not manipulated or distorted.

The Obama administration must do more to help agencies live up to his promise to “restore science to its rightful place” and make government more open and accountable.

That’s another value that transparency advocates and journalists share: respect for the truth in service of citizens.

Celia Wexler is Senior Washington Representative for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Sunshine Week partner. Wexler is the author of Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis.

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