Congress Does Something Right — For Federal Scientists

November 13, 2012 | 8:45 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

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.