The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has issued a report card grading 15 federal agencies on their policies controlling communication between staff scientists and the news media and the public.

According to a recent press release, the report found significant inconsistencies and confusion among agency media policies and their implementation. Some agency policies encourage free speech, but the agencies stifle communication. Other policies are weak, but in practice the agencies allow scientists to speak freely. And although overall many agency policies are deficient, UCS has seen some positive changes in recent years. (For the report card, go to: www.ucsusa.org/mediapolicies.)

“We’ve learned that with a little determination, agencies can become more responsive to the public through the media,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. “But too many agencies have a long way to go. Too often the press and the public are being shortchanged.”

The agencies with the best policies and implementation were the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agencies with the worst policies were the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

NASA made improvements in the wake of a widely reported incident in which a political appointee censored top climate scientist James Hansen. “When presented with allegations of censorship, NASA moved quickly to take steps to clarify its media policy and move toward a culture of openness,” Grifo said. “It’s time for other federal agencies to make the grade.” The report gave NASA’s policy a B and its implementation of the policy a “satisfactory.”

UCS analyzed the media policies at regulatory and science agencies and surveyed staff scientists to assess how the policies are implemented. UCS also interviewed dozens of agency scientists, public affairs officers, and journalists who cover the agencies.

Among other things, UCS’s investigation found:
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent media policy, with provisions that allow scientists to state their personal views and review press releases about their research. When it comes to implementation, however, many scientists say they are not allowed to speak freely to the media, and many fear retaliation for doing so. UCS gave the CDC an A for its policy, but a “needs improvement” for implementation.
  • OSHA’s policy is more focused on controlling the agency’s message than communicating scientific results and analysis. Most agency scientists told UCS they could not speak freely or feared retaliation for stating their personal scientific opinions. UCS gave OSHA’s policy an F.
  • FWS has no national policy, forcing scientists to rely on informal, ad hoc local policies. Many FWS scientists told UCS that political appointees have interfered with science-based decisions in recent years and, as a result, scientific openness has suffered. UCS gave FWS’s policy a D.
  • In addition to receiving poor marks on numerous regional media policies, the EPA is especially restrictive, according to interviews UCS conducted with journalists who cover the agency. Many EPA scientists concur, telling UCS they cannot speak freely to the media. UCS gave the EPA policies a D.
Besides the aforementioned agencies, the report also graded media policies at the Bureau of Land Management, Census Bureau, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Geological Survey.

The report calls on the next administration to ensure federal scientists are allowed and encouraged to share their expertise freely with the media. Furthermore, the report recommended that agency media policies grant scientists the right to final review of press releases and other documents that rely upon their research or purport to represent their scientific opinions. In addition, the policies should protect scientists’ freedom to speak openly about their research and scientific opinions in a private capacity, even in situations in which their research may be controversial or have implications for agency policy.

“The common-sense reforms we are suggesting wouldn’t cost the government a penny,” said Grifo. “In these tough economic times, adopting and enforcing good media policies is a way to strengthen the government’s ability to protect public health and safety without putting additional financial strain on taxpayers.”