Top Three Findings from the Latest UCS Survey of Federal Scientists

March 1, 2023 | 10:20 am
Scientist in a labDiane Serik/Unsplash
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently conducted a survey of federal scientists to ask about the state of science, and the results are in. This is our tenth version of the survey since 2004 and, to our surprise and delight, while challenges remain, the widespread consensus is that scientists in the federal government feel more positive about their workplaces now than they have at any other time we have administered the survey.

We sent the survey in September and October of last year to over 46,000 scientists at six federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Environ­mental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The survey was conducted in partnership with the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and the project received approval from the University of New Hampshire’s institutional review board.

Several interesting trends in the survey data made us say either “Eureka!” or kindled our interest to learn more. Here are three takeaways that we think offer important insights about how to further strengthen scientific integrity policies at agencies.

Marked improvements in scientific integrity training

We at UCS feel strongly that federal scientists should be well trained on the contents of their agency’s scientific integrity policies. It is important for scientists to thoroughly know their rights, to have easy access to scientific integrity policy documents, and to know who to turn to–and what the investigative process will be like–if they witness a potential scientific integrity violation.

Training on scientific integrity policies may even be a way to help strengthen diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility considerations at agencies. Scientists who are earlier in their careers or who identify with a historically marginalized group may feel less able to speak up when they witness a potential scientific integrity violation. Training can therefore help provide them with a basic set of tools to understand their rights. As my colleague Jacob Carter previously wrote, “Early-career scientists typically do not receive training on scientific integrity despite the issue’s clear importance to the scientific community. Training early-career scientists on this critical issue could help bring greater awareness about the issue of scientific integrity and help educate the future scientific workforce.”

A majority of the scientists we surveyed–73 percent (1,170 respondents)–reported that they had been adequately trained on their scientific integrity policies. This far outpaces the percentages when we conducted these surveys during the Trump and Obama administrations. For instance, at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent (140 respondents) said they felt they had been adequately trained on scientific integrity policies, an increase of 16 percent compared to our 2018 results (56 percent, 189 respondents), and an increase of 40 percent compared to results from 2015 (32 percent, 250 respondents). And the US Fish and Wildlife Service is no outlier; we saw similarly large increases at all the agencies we surveyed.

While training on scientific integrity policies is certainly not the “be all and end of all” for ensuring that agencies are protecting scientists and their work from political interference, it is a good indicator that things are moving in the right direction and can help lay the groundwork for larger changes at agencies.

Staff capacity was a top concern

As UCS previously investigated, a large-scale exodus of scientific staff took place during the Trump administration. For instance, we previously found that the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the agency’s scientific research arm, lost 12 percent of its workforce between 2016 and 2020. Our survey results indicate that, unfortunately, a lack of staff capacity continues to adversely harm science-based agencies.

Fifty-nine percent of surveyed scientists (982 respondents) reported noticing staff departures, retirements, or hiring freezes in the past two years. Of these, some 88 percent (868 respondents) reported that a lack of capacity made it difficult for them to fulfill their agencies’ science-based missions. Seventy percent (715 respondents) of those who reported burnout said it was due to lack of staff capacity. And respondents overwhelmingly chose limited staff capacity as the greatest barrier to science-based decisionmaking.

One NOAA scientist phrased it this way: “The most significant limiting factor for my agency’s ability to maintain scientific integrity is its staffing level. We are consistently being asked to do more with either less, or the current level of, staffing.”

The lack of staff has recently reached a dire level at the EPA and may impede the ability to fully implement President Biden’s climate goals. Staff levels at the EPA today stand at approximately the same levels as in the 1980s. Thousands of EPA employees associated with the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, a union representing approximately half of the EPA’s workforce, are currently lobbying Congress to address staffing issues at their agency.

More than 160 scientists report being bullied or harassed

Online harassment and bullying against academic and federal scientists represent ongoing threats that have increased in recent years. Scientists from certain fields – such as climate scientists, social scientists, and COVID-19 scientists – appear to be especially prone to online harassment. For instance, a March 2022 survey conducted by the journal Science found that 38 percent of COVID-19 researchers report­ed experiencing at least one type of attack, ranging from person­al insults to death threats.

We asked two new survey questions to assess whether federal scientists are being bullied or harassed by people outside the government as a result of their scientific work. Our results indicate that this is not a common problem facing federal scientists; 79 percent of scientists (1,283 respondents) reported that they had not experienced such harassment in the last two years. However, we are deeply concerned that 10 percent of surveyed scientists (162 respondents) stated that they had been bullied in the last two years. At 16 percent (52 respondents), CDC scientists reported the highest percentages of bullying among the six agencies we surveyed.

Even one scientist that experiences this form of harassment is too much. Scientists are simply doing their jobs, carrying out studies and analyzing data to better understand aspects of our world; these activities should never lead to threats to their lives or their family’s lives or other forms of harassment.

Additionally, we found a much more mixed response when we asked whether scientists were aware of the process for reporting external harassment in their agency and if they felt that their agency would sufficiently protect them from harm. Some 45 percent (725 respondents) agreed this was the case while 28 percent (451 respondents) disagreed. The results indicate that agencies can do more to make federal scientists aware of how to raise concerns about external harassment and to feel better protected when such situations arise.

Solid gains found but more work needed

The scientists who took our survey reported stronger and more effective scientific integrity protections at their agencies, better workplace conditions for scientists, and progress on measures to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at agencies. However, scientists also described a number of challenges that remain, including a lack of staff to carry out the agency’s science-based work, doubts on whether scientific integrity protections will last beyond the current administration, and an ongoing lack of diversity at agencies’ workforces, leadership, and advisory committees.

It is clear that the Biden administration has made some real progress to strengthen the state of scientific integrity at agencies. Recently, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released a scientific integrity framework that agencies are now in the process of adopting. It should help further standardize and strengthen scientific integrity across agencies.

However, there is still a lot more work to be done to protect scientists and their work from political interference, including the need for Congress to codify these gains into law so they can stand no matter what administration comes to power. We at the Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to monitor these issues closely as we have done since 2004. And we’ll continue to press agencies to ensure that unfettered science and data are informing government policies.