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Congress Does Something Right — For Federal Scientists

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Today, Congress did something good for the American public and good for science. After a 14-year struggle, the House and Senate approved a bipartisan whistleblower protection bill that will make a difference to all federal workers, but that should be especially welcomed by federal scientists.

That’s because the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) recognizes for the first time that censorship of federal information is as harmful to the country as other types of waste, fraud and abuse in government. The WPEA recognizes that a scientist who exposes the censorship of federal information, either crucial to public health and safety or required by law or regulation, is a whistleblower. That scientist is just as much a whistleblower as the federal worker who exposes embezzlement or accepting bribes. Scientists who call out censorship and then are demoted or fired by agency managers will have the right to fight that retaliation. And the WPEA will give all federal workers, including scientists, better tools and stronger rights as whistleblowers.

Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Susan Collins (R-ME)

Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Susan Collins (R-ME) were crucial to the successful passage of the WPEA.

At a time when science seems to be routinely under attack in Congress, this legislative success is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that bipartisan cooperation is still possible.

Passage of this bill will help American families, who depend on federal agencies to protect them from unsafe drugs, defective consumer products, hazardous workplaces, and polluted air and water. But it also strongly supports the role of independent science as the foundation for federal policymaking. It sends a strong signal that federal scientists deserve respect.

Many organizations advocated for whistleblower reforms. But it was UCS, and UCS senior scientist Dr. Francesca Grifo, in particular, who saw the need and pushed for including specific protections for agency scientists who raised alarms when their work was distorted, manipulated or suppressed. We try to bring the perspective of scientists to many different bigger fights—the fight for whistleblower protections, for more transparency in government, and for strong public protections, just to name a few.

Our UCS surveys helped demonstrate that without strong whistleblower protections, federal scientists too often worked in a climate of fear. When UCS surveyed scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year, 211 scientists reported that they felt that they could not “openly express any concerns about the mission-driven work of [their] agency without fear of retaliation.”

A previous UCS survey of food safety staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA revealed that 59 percent of respondents with advanced degrees — 217 food safety employees in all — believed that they could not speak to the public or the media about their scientific research findings, regardless of the level of controversy.

UCS also was willing to working in a bipartisan and trans-partisan way, with coalition partners such as the conservative National Taxpayers Union, and the libertarian Liberty Coalition. These groups helped enormously in solidifying bipartisan support for the legislation.

And UCS made a commitment to advocating for these protections over the long haul, even after we nearly got to the finish line so many times, and then hit an obstacle. A personal heartbreaker occurred in December 2010, when a lame duck Congress failed to pass a strong whistleblower protection bill on last day of the 111th Congress. The bill had passed the Senate, was then passed in identical form by the House, which dropped one section but made no other changes. But when the House sent the bill back to the Senate for final approval, one Senator blocked the bill with a secret hold, dooming it from getting the final approval it needed. Talk about a lump of coal just before Christmas!

The WPEA is not perfect. It reflects a carefully crafted compromise that won’t solve all the problems federal whistleblowers face, but it’s a start, and a good one. It marks an important milestone for UCS and other organizations in the Make It Safe Coalition that have fought so long and hard for passage.

 

Photos: Courtesy of the offices of Senator Akaka and Collins. 

 

Posted in: Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , ,

About the author: Celia Wexler is a senior Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS. A former award-winning journalist, Wexler is the author of Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis, published in 2012 by McFarland. At UCS, Wexler’s issue portfolio includes food and drug safety, protections for scientist whistleblowers, and government transparency and accountability. See Celia's full bio.

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  • http://www.umaine.edu John P. Grillo

    This “Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act” (“WPEA”) has been long overdue. Our thanks to Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI), and from my state of residence Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), and Celia Wexler “at UCS” (Union of Concerned Scientists), all of whom were integral in knowledge, on the necessity for proposing a bill that has finally been passed, (and hopefully enacted) in Congress. Its success (i.e. WPEA), is contingent upon conscientious citizens and scientists in the private and public sectors of our country taking this issue responsibly; and when necessary, acting accordingly in exposing government corruption and injustices by indeed, being intrepid “whistleblowers”; and, when a known situation warrants it, taking such justifiable action immediately. This issue of “whistle blowing” reminds me of an organization in the private sector whose mission or role is also, to hold government responsible for its unethical, irresponsible, or inappropriate behavior and/or actions. It’s called the “Government Accountability Project.” I’m one of its newest members.

  • Mary

    I am glad to see a group working to reduce the censorship of information emerging from federally funded research. However, as long as federal research labs are structured in a top-down fashion that subjects individual scientists to the whims of middle managers and research leaders, freedom to interpret scientific data will be limited, and public benefit will be reduced. After more than a decade as a federal scientist, I am convinced that publicly funded research is too influenced by special interests to serve any public interest. I am seeking a new career.

  • Richard Solomon, phd

    WEPA certainly deserves KUDOS.

    But today’s Washington Post has a lengthy article which notes how the pharmaceutical industry is influencing, if not outright withholding critical information published in research on drug safety, etc. By funding this research and having its own employees working on it, the industry has gotten FDA approval of drugs which have later turned out to cause heart attacks and other deadly consequences. The article notes that…’corporate bias can be particularly strong. The odds of coming to a conclusion favorable to the industry are 3.6 times greater in research sponsored by the industry than in research sponsored by government and nonprofit groups.’

    I hope UCS’s efforts on scientific integrity will do more about this!

  • Tom N.

    It’s about time they did anything about anything!
    In the vernacular of our Native American brothers, I would designate our congress and senate as: Haphazard Assemblages of Men and Women with “many wires down”. I can only Hope that the New Arrivals” will see to the “Re-stringing” of these Wires!

  • Randall Gloege

    It is clear to me that whistle blowers have been in need of greater protection for the past few decades. Without the actions of responsible citizens to stop future abuses from occurring, ordinary people are left without sufficient protection from unscrupulous individuals whose actions are a harm to the public good.

  • http://zrants.wordpress.com Mari Eliza

    Thanks for your efforts to get more protection for scientists.

  • Theodora Crawford

    Congratulations UCS for this extraordinary success! I’m especially happy that the FDA scientists will be somewhat more free to express their concerns!

  • Tom N.

    It’s about time they did something for somebody other than their “Lobbyist Ghouls”!
    In the vernacular of our Native American brothers, I would designate our congress and senate as: Haphazard Assemblages of Men and Women with “many wires down”. I can only Hope that the New Arrivals” will see to the “Re-stringing” of these Wires!

  • http://danemutters.wordpress.com Dane

    Is there a way to contact Congress to thank them? I think it would be a good idea to provide positive feedback for their passing this legislation. Doing so would encourage them to do likewise in the future. Perhaps UCS could provide a form and email the link to those who are subscribed? Seeing a large number of “thank-you” emails from us would be better than just a few from those who stumbled upon the right form/email address(es).

  • lonna

    i am wondering what this legislation will do for bradley manning.

  • Karl Sedgewick

    This is great news…sounds like a long slog. Thanks for keeping on it!

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