Freedom to Tweet? Government Scientists and the Right to Engage on Social Media

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | March 13, 2015, 11:40 am EST
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Social media has done great things for science. We’ve seen it educate, advocate, and communicate on scientific issues around the world and at an unimaginable speed. Social media has allowed open science to thrive, scientists to connect, and movements to start. It allows us to organize, debate, and discuss breaking news on science-related topics. As my colleague Aaron has said, when Neil deGrasse Tyson has more Twitter followers than Seth Rogen, we know that social media has potential for communication of science.

Behind all these activities is an army of scientists—scientists willing to participate in online discussions. But unfortunately not all scientists are able to do such free engagement on social media platforms.

Government scientists should be able to identify their employer on personal social media accounts, provided they use a disclaimer stating that views are their own.

Government scientists should be able to identify their employer on personal social media accounts, provided they use a disclaimer stating that views are their own.

Government scientists should be able to tweet… and name their employer

With today’s report release, I’d like to make the case that scientists who work for the government should be free to engage on social media. They should be able to have personal social media accounts where they name their government agency, provided they have a disclaimer noting that views are their own. And here’s why.

The “personal-views exception,”—that is, the ability of scientists to express their personal views on matters related to their science—is a fundamental tenet of scientific free speech. Scientists don’t give up their citizenship when they enter the lab. And that should include government labs. In a world where activities are increasingly online, this right should extend to social media platforms.

Government scientists who want to engage on social media platforms are sometimes at a disadvantage if they can’t mention their employer—a key component of their scientific credentials. It’s these scientific credentials that give scientists the ability to fully participate online, while sharing their expertise. As long as scientists have a disclaimer in their profile, it is clear that they are not speaking for their agency.

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Photo: Laura A. Burns (@moonrangerlaura)

In fact, identifying the government agency AND including a disclaimer may be better than including neither because it eliminates any confusion that might arise from ambiguity of whether an account is personal or professional. So what policy do federal agencies actually have in place on this issue?  The answer is: it varies.

New report: Leaders and laggards in federal agency social media policy

When it comes to granting their scientists personal-views exceptions, federal agency social media policies are all over the map. Some agencies explicitly grant scientists this right. Arguably the best example of this is the Department of the Interior. Their policy asserts that employees who want to use social media in their personal capacity “do not require approval to do so” and the policy notes “If you identify yourself as a DOI employee…, ensure your profile and related content… is consistent with how you wish to present yourself as a DOI professional…” Lastly, the policy recommends adding a disclaimer “that clearly states that the opinions or views expressed are yours alone and do not represent the views of the Department of the Interior or your bureau.”

Some federal social media policies, like that at the Department of Commerce, have restrictive language while others, like at the Department of the Interior, explicitly grant scientists personal-views exceptions. Photo: USDA

Some federal social media policies, like that at the Department of Commerce, have restrictive language while others, like at the Department of the Interior, explicitly grant scientists personal-views exceptions. Photo: USDA

On the other hand, many agencies don’t explicitly give their employees this right and some agencies even explicitly deny their scientists the ability to name their employer on personal social media accounts. One of the most restrictive policies is from the Department of Commerce. Its policy asserts, “Do not use your Federal job title when you are using social media in a personal, unofficial capacity to avoid any confusion about whether you are communicating in an official capacity.”

This restrictive language is somewhat surprising for an otherwise forward-thinking department. After all, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), for example, both have a strong social media presence that features the agencies’ scientific work. The unfortunate consequence of this restrictive policy is that scientists at NOAA, NIST, Census Bureau, the Patent Office and elsewhere are discouraged from sharing their expertise and fully participating in social media, which is a shame since we know great science happens there.

Why restrict scientist engagement on social media?

Federal agencies tend to be concerned about lack of control of the message. “What if a scientist makes an unofficial statement on policy that gets misconstrued as official agency views?!” It’s understandable for agencies to be thinking about messaging, but this concern shouldn’t impose on their employees scientific free speech rights. And by and large, agencies who do grant their scientists personal-views exceptions haven’t seen such problems. Rogue loose-lipped scientists have yet to take down a federal agency and I doubt they ever will.

Rather than restricting rights, a better policy is to empower employees to make responsible decisions on social media by providing solid guidance on how they should conduct themselves online, whether communicating in their personal or professional capacity.  NASA’s social media guidelines (though they are not available on the agency’s public website) do a great job with empowering language. “Be honest and transparent,” “Be yourself,” and “Identify yourself,” the guidelines suggest.

You can see how all 17 agencies fared in their social media policies and their media communications policies in UCS report released today, Grading Government Transparency: Scientists’ Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies.

And of course you can follow me online tweeting from @GretchenTG all #SunshineWeek.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Science Communication, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , ,

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