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Grading Government Transparency – Can Your Agency Scientists Tweet?

Transparency is essential for good government. Federal scientists play an important role in fulfilling that mandate by providing critical expertise to decision makers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists new report, Grading Government Transparency, looks at the policies governing scientists’ communications and gives them a grade on their openness.

Gretchen Goldman is an analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the report tracked the change in agency openness for the past four years.

“We did a similar report in 2008 and we wanted to see what had changed in the last four years. There have been a few things that have launched since then; the Open Government Directive, the Digital Government Strategy and the Scientific Integrity Directive. We wanted to see if those policies had made a significant difference. This report was also the first time we had specifically looked at social media policies at agencies,” said Goldman.

Why Does Transparency Matter?

“Scientists have a unique perspective. They are on the front lines and they are the ones actually doing the technical work. In many senses it is still about discovery. The media and the public should get to hear about that work. In reality, scientists are doing critical work about the food we eat, the water we drink and the medicines we take, so we should be able to hear directly from them,” said Goldman.

Big Winners

“On the media policy side, we found some really good agencies that have strong policies in place and really clarified the rights of scientists,” said Goldman. Those include:

  • National Science Foundation
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Environmental Protection Agency

Big Losers

  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Energy
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Social Media

“One of the key things is scientists should have the right of last review on materials that rely heavily on their work. Our thought on social media is that the equivalent should be applied. For example a scientist should be able to review a blog post before it goes out or correct a tweet,” said Goldman.

Failing Grade

“For the lower scoring agencies it wasn’t so much that they have restrictive policies that strictly prohibited scientists rights to speak, but it is more that they didn’t have specific policies at all. We really want explicit provisions that guarantee these rights for scientists. A lot of lower scoring agencies just weren’t there. This leads to scientists not being clear in what they can and can’t do, especially on social media and leads them to be less likely to use these venues to communicate,” said Goldman.

Traits of Successful Agencies?

“Success had a lot to do with agency culture and whether or not they had leadership at the agency that made social media a priority. Better performing agencies had strong leadership that made it clear that it was important and ensured that agencies had specific provisions in their policies,” said Goldman.

Essential provisions include:

  1. Right to last review
  2. Personal views exception. That’s the right of a scientists to express their personal views provided they make it clear that they are not speaking for the agency.
  3. Whistleblower provisions
  4. Dispute resolution process

Why Would You Clamp Down on Content?

“One of the main things that causes agencies to want to restrict transparency is the need to control the message,” said Goldman. “Agencies can and should try to speak in a unified voice. They have missions with very specific messaging. That’s reasonable. But we feel agencies should make an effort to allow their scientists to speak directly to the public.”

Threat of Censorship

“Science can be especially vulnerable to political or corporate interference in general. So transparency is key,” said Goldman.

Did the Bush Administration really silence a NASA scientist?

“One of the most well known examples of a NASA scientists be restricted was James Hansen. He said he was restricted by his agency from talking about global warming for political reasons. (You can check out more on his case here.) Since then we’ve found having a very strong policy to safeguard against abuses like that, so that it is harder for future administrations to restrict their scientists,” said Goldman.

*All images are from the Union for Concerned Scientists.

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