New UCS Survey Asks Federal Scientists: How are You Faring in the Biden Administration?

September 7, 2022 | 12:17 pm
scientist at CDCCDC/Unsplash
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

Starting next week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) will distribute an online survey to tens of thousands of federal scientists across seven agencies. The purpose of this survey is to assess the state of science in federal agencies, and how the many issues we’re asking about affect the ability of science-based agencies to carry out their missions to protect public health and the environment.

We all rely on federal agencies to use unfettered, impartial science and data in their decisionmaking processes. After all, these agencies actions often have a direct impact on how well the public is protected from threats such as climate change impacts, natural disasters, unsafe food and drugs, transmissible disease, and air pollution.

Surveying federal scientists to hear directly from them about their experiences is one of the longest-running projects that UCS undertakes. This current effort is our tenth survey since 2004 and every iteration has provided a wealth of data and information. The results have provided valuable information to agencies, scientists, the media, the public, and Congress and have led to increased awareness of and transparency about how science-based agencies operate and how agencies can improve their practices to better support federal scientists and protect the public.

To ensure the highest-caliber practices, we are conducting this survey in partnership with the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center. We are implementing strict data protections and anonymization procedures because we feel strongly that survey participants should feel secure in the knowledge that their data is being protected as stringently as possible (see our website for more information).

UCS surveys make waves

Over the course of the 18 years we have administered these surveys of federal scientists, the results have led to a variety of impacts. Federal agencies have used the data from these surveys to update their policies to create a better working environment for federal scientists and improve the extent to which science is informing their decisionmaking. The information from these surveys has helped agencies pinpoint where further investigation and policy reform are needed.

In 2011, for example, the National Science Foundation developed a new media policy in response to UCS’s survey responses and policy analyses. In 2012, the chief scientist of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responded to our survey’s findings in a blog post, committing to pursuing, monitoring, and enhancing the FDA’s scientific integrity policies. In 2013, the US Geological Survey used the survey results to help improve its social media policy to better ensure scientifically accurate agency communications.

In 2020, we presented the results of our 2018 survey to a team at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigating scientific integrity violations and political interference at public health agencies. When the GAO report was released earlier this year, it’s findings proved influential and led to a congressional hearing on the topic.

UCS survey results have been prominently featured in Congressional testimony, including at a 2022 hearing arranged by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis and at two hearings in 2019 and 2021 arranged by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Our 2018 survey, which documented significant workforce reductions under the Trump administration and led us to investigate the issue further, was also featured in a 2021 congressional report about the pressing need to rebuild scientific capacity at federal agencies. 

Our 2018 survey received widespread recognition from roughly a dozen news outlets, including The New York Times (20192020), Washington Post (20182021), Science (2018), and E&E News (2021), among others. Sen.s Sheldon Whitehouse and Tom Carper praised our 2018 survey on Twitter, as did Samantha Powers, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations.

One of the questions on the 2018 survey asked federal scientists to report on the impacts of their agency’s policy actions on historically marginalized groups or underserved communities. The responses were so eye-opening we decided to write a 50-page report on the topic, in collaboration with environmental justice community partners. We briefed congressional leaders on the report’s results in two panel sessions, one to the House of Representative’s United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force and Natural Resources Committee and the other to the Senate’s Environmental Justice Caucus.

We also published the results of our 2018 survey in the journal PLoS One in 2020. A major finding of our study was that perceived losses in scientific integrity were reported less at agencies where leadership expressed strong support of scientists and science-based decisionmaking processes, particularly at the CDC, FDA, and NOAA. In other words, we found that the more an agency’s leaders seemed to care about science and scientific integrity, the more likely they were to spark a cascading positive effect across the agency at all levels.

Federal scientists have valuable information to share

Have you worked at an organization where, from the outside it may look functional, but on the inside you witness numerous concerning and potentially unethical workplace practices that could have disastrous consequences? Or have you worked in a place where, after you joined, you were honestly impressed by the integrity and hard work of your colleagues, leaving you hopeful about the organization’s future and eager to learn more?

Federal scientists face similar types of scenarios at their jobs. They are some of the first people to observe when the leadership teams at science-based agencies place politics over science, or when a culture of fear or self-censorship develops at an agency. Federal scientists are also some of the first people to see and experience when agency leadership cares deeply about science or when there is a culture of working hard to maintain and improve processes to ensure robust science-based decisionmaking.

For instance, as we have learned, even under more science-friendly administrations, federal scientists have sometimes reported instances where scientific decisions are swayed by politics or political influence has inhibited their ability to carry out their agency’s mission. In our 2015 survey, for example, somewhere between 46 and 73 percent of respondents at different agencies surveyed reported that political interests at their agencies were given too much weight.

Under an administration openly hostile to science, these concerning trends often become even more prominent and can result in egregious consequences. In our 2018 survey, more than 1,000 scientists stated that they avoided using, or were ordered to avoid using, scientific words that were considered politically contentious–such as the phrase “climate change.”

By surveying federal scientists, we get a data-driven glimpse into the inner workings of our government’s federal agencies from the very people who are working there and trying to ensure that science at their agency is as robust and impactful as possible.

Got 20 minutes for scientific integrity?

We believe there is great value in hearing the voices and perspectives of federal scientists. This survey is our way of telling their stories to the public and to press agencies, and helping encourage these agencies, to carry out evidence-based changes that can better protect federal scientists and the public.

These surveys have informed many UCS recommendations, reports, studies, and advocacy efforts about how best to strengthen scientific integrity policies at federal agencies. The higher the response rate is on our survey, the more accurately we can represent perspectives from the wide diversity of people that make up the scientific workforce at agencies, such as scientists of different ages, genders, races/ethnicities, sexual orientations, and years working at an agency, among other attributes.

If you are a scientist at a federal agency, please consider taking 20-30 minutes to complete the survey and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Otherwise, stay tuned for the survey results and how you can help advance the role of science in decisionmaking. And, in the meantime, you can check out our past surveys here, and our website for our 2022 survey located here.