Which agencies let their scientists speak freely?

The Union of Concerned Scientists finds that policies at some agencies inhibit the freedom of scientists to express opinions.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists graded agencies on their policies for allowing scientists to speak.

Scientists in the federal government's foremost scientific agencies can speak – or tweet – their thoughts more freely than four years ago, but some agencies' media and social media polices still fail to promote scientific transparency, according to a new report.

The report, a nine-month effort authored by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, found that only three of the 17 agencies graded – the Environmental Protection Agency, Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation – affirmed scientists' rights to speak personally and on the record to the media and to have final review on agency materials that relay on their research.

Agency grades in media polices were compared to the same study carried out in 2008, and while some fared better, that was not the case for all, said Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It was somewhat surprising, she said, considering the advent of three transparency-focused White House initiatives over the past four years: theDigital Government Strategy, Open Government Directive and Scientific Integrity Directive.

"All these things came out that you'd think would allow transparency to be a priority at some agencies – it was for some, but not all," Goldman told FCW. She added that scientists going to work for the government do not give up freedom of speech rights, though the report highlights attempts by agency officials to bypass or silence government-employed scientists.

Those reports have persisted under the Obama administration, the report states, denying the public access to information from the mouths and minds of some of the nation's best and brightest scientists.

"Federal scientists perform research that ensures our food is safe, that our medicine works, that are air and water are clean – they are doing all these things, so the public and media should have access to results of that work," Goldman said. "Sometimes, it is difficult to access them. It shouldn't be."

EPA, NOAA and the NSF were recognized for well-designed media policies while the Department of Agriculture and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lagged due to "conflicting and confusing policies." The Department of Energy received an "incomplete" grade because it does not publicly share a media policy and researchers were unable to obtain one from the agency through the Freedom of Information Act.

The media policy scoring rubric consisted of six measures of open communication that assessed how policies, including accessibility, protecting scientific free speech, safeguards against abuse, consistency with legal requirements, openness and timeliness and handling of misconduct and abuse.

Overall, four agencies scored As, seven received Bs, four more received Cs, one received a D and one got an incomplete.

The report also critiqued agencies' social media policies, and good grades were a little tougher to come by: Only the National Institutes of Health received an A, "with a policy that clearly helps employees understand their rights."

Social media policies were graded on accessibility, protecting scientific free speech and openness and timeliness. Five agencies scored incompletes because they have not yet adopted or created a social media policy, Goldman said.

"Agencies shouldn't be afraid to let scientists experiment with social media," said Goldman. "When NASA has as many Twitter followers as Anderson Cooper, it's clear that social media has huge potential for science communication."

Interestingly, the United States Geological Survey, which scored a "B+" on their social media policies, used the March 15 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists to modify their policies within the same day.

In a series of tweets, USGS Web and Social Media Coordinator Scott Horvath said the report provided useful feedback, pointing out some missing parts to its social media policies that are now corrected.

Justin Herman, new media manager at the General Services Administration's Center for Excellence in Digital Government, said the report "provides a valuable opportunity for the GSA-led Federal Social Media Community of Practice (SMCOP) to continue the discussion on collaboratively identifying how to improve our services and citizen engagement."

The government's use of social media "continues to evolve and weave into existing policies," he added. "Oftentimes the most compelling engagement happens when a subject matter expert can convey important, timely information with a high level of authenticity.  In order for anyone ... to effectively communicate on social media, organizations need to have sound policies, good training and knowledge of boundaries, and tolerance for some risk and approaches on how to mitigate those risks."

The report underscores the need for agency social media policies to be available to the public, Herman said. At GSA, "we are aggregating these policies more transparently and integrating them with the existing social media best practices we have on HowTo.gov. There’s also a great opportunity for agencies to evolve their social media policies in concert with their overall strategic goals, performance metrics and tools."

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