Next Steps On Improving Citizen Access To Government Scientific Information

October 23, 2012 | 2:53 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

On September 25, our new Center for Science and Democracy  held its inaugural Lewis M. Branscomb Science & Democracy Forum on “Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information.” The event, which benefited from the generosity and vision of UCS member and eminent scientist Lewis M. Branscomb, was co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center in the Newseum’s spectacular seventh floor conference room, with a dazzling view of the Capitol and other Washington landmarks.

Center for Science and Democracy Director Andy Rosenberg

Center for Science and Democracy Director Andy Rosenberg welcomes attendees to the forum.

Both keynote speakers – Former Rep. John Porter (R-IL), now the chairman of Research!America, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) – inspired us with their convictions about the role of science in advancing civil discourse in a democratic society and informing well-designed public policies. Two excellent panels explored barriers to access to government scientific information and solutions to those barriers.

Rep. John Porter, chairman of Research!America

Rep. John Porter (R-IL) regretted the growing lack of respect for science among policy makers today.

But Dr. Branscomb’s vision always had been that a forum needs to be more than just a special event; it should help us achieve tangible change. So immediately following the public event, we convened a working group to tackle a subset of the challenge of ensuring citizen access to government scientific information. Sixteen experts from fields as diverse as journalism, public health, emergency medicine, and governmental transparency came together to discuss how the government ought to communicate scientific information to citizens and the media following a crisis – be it a terrorist attack, an epidemic or an environmental disaster.

At the end of the four-hour session, the group came up with draft recommendations. Our UCS team then looked at the notes of the discussion to hone and refine this buffet of good ideas. The group’s first goal was to prepare a letter to each presidential candidate that articulated our recommendations. The recommendations reflected core values that government’s default during a crisis should be to communicate information, to disseminate it as accurately and completely as possible, and to make clear that information might change as more facts emerged and as scientists were better able to analyze all the possible impacts.

Rep. Edward Markey

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) urged the audience to stand up for scientific integrity.

On Oct. 20, we sent  this letter to senior advisers to Governor Romney and President Obama. As you can see, it was signed by many organizations and experts, and reflects their rich and diverse expertise.

Once the elections are over, we plan on meeting with the leaders who will be planning out the next four years. We will share our expertise and more extensive recommendations with them, and may also call on you to make sure they pay attention to this critical issue that has consequences for the environment and everyone’s health.