Ask a Scientist: New UCS Federal Scientist Survey Shows Real Progress

March 14, 2023 | 9:55 am
Dennis Schroeder/NREL
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Progress isn’t always linear. More often than not, it’s two steps forward, one step back. When it comes to scientific integrity at federal agencies, however, progress recently took a leap forward after more than a few steps back.

According to the results of a new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) survey released late last month, federal scientists are now working in a more supportive environment than any other time since UCS began administering such surveys back in 2004. Respondents to the latest survey, conducted last fall, reported higher morale, greater job satisfaction, and more agency effectiveness than in any survey during the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. Solid majorities across the six agencies surveyed this time around also said their agency’s actions are “always” or “frequently” consistent with their scientific findings.

The survey results were especially encouraging given major backstepping during the Trump administration. Roughly half of the survey respondents at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now say they have a more effective workplace than they did two years before, for example. Only 5 percent said so in our 2018 survey.

What is perhaps most gratifying about the new survey results, however, is the fact that it was UCS that put the issue of scientific integrity front and center nearly 20 years ago. That’s when we issued a scathing report documenting that the George W. Bush administration was suppressing and distorting agency scientific findings that contradicted the administration’s policies. The report, which cited numerous examples of political appointees stifling agency research, was accompanied by a statement signed by more than 60 top scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, denouncing the Bush administration’s misuse of science. Over the next four years, 15,000 more scientists added their names in support.

Following that landmark 2004 report, UCS began polling federal scientists periodically to determine if their agencies were doing anything to protect scientists and their work from political interference. Before the surveys, the extent of the problem was not clear. Some in the scientific community thought the anecdotes the report documented were merely isolated incidents. The surveys, however, established that scientific integrity violations were indeed widespread, spurring agencies to act. Notwithstanding occasional setbacks during science-unfriendly and even supportive administrations, over the last two decades federal agencies have instituted policies incorporating UCS recommendations to safeguard federal scientists and ensure that agency decisions reflect their research.

The new survey, conducted in partnership with the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, was coordinated by Anita Desikan, a senior research analyst at the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, and Jacob Carter, the center’s research director. After putting the final survey report to bed (and writing her own column on it), Desikan found time to entertain some questions.

EN: Before we get into the specifics of the new survey, how much of an impact have UCS federal scientist surveys had over the last two decades? Have they made a difference?

AD: Our surveys have provided critical insights into the state of scientific integrity at government agencies over the last two decades. Do federal scientists feel safe and supported? Or are they constantly looking over their shoulders, afraid that administration appointees will halt their data collecting, censor their findings, or bury their reports because they find them politically inconvenient? These questions matter because federal scientists’ work has a direct impact on public health and the environment.

The surveys have definitely made a difference. We know that federal agencies have utilized our findings to strengthen their scientific integrity policies. For instance, based on our survey results, the National Science Foundation and the US Geological Survey either developed from scratch or improved a standing policy giving scientists more opportunity to talk to the news media and the general public about their work.

Congress also has taken notice. Congressional reports and hearings have spotlighted our survey results for years. In January 2007, for example, we released a survey documenting that the Bush White House told federal scientists to avoid using the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” ostensibly to tamp down public awareness of the issue. The day after we published the report, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform followed up with a public hearing on the administration’s actions. More recently, in May 2022, I testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on the state of scientific integrity at public health agencies and mentioned our 2018 survey findings in my opening remarks and my written testimony.

We have already briefed several agency officials on our latest survey. They told us that it will help ensure that their efforts to update their policies align with the White House’s recently released scientific integrity framework.

EN: That’s a perfect segue to the new survey results. There was a lot of good news. What jumped out at you?

AD: We were really gratified by how positive the results were. We expected to see some improvement, especially compared to what we found in the last survey we conducted during the Trump administration. But we did not expect to see some of the highest levels of job satisfaction and office effectiveness we have ever seen. For instance, 67 percentage of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists now report they can openly express concerns about the agency’s mission-driven work without fear of retaliation. That’s a 13 to 20 percent jump from what FDA scientists told us in five previous surveys going back to 2006.

We also asked some questions in the new survey about the Biden administration’s efforts to strengthen scientific integrity. Of the respondents who were aware of these efforts, 63 percent said that they believe that they will better protect scientists and their work from political interference. That’s a pretty incredible finding. The survey’s open-ended responses also reflected this view, but they also indicated there is a fear that current efforts to strengthen scientific integrity may not survive past this administration.

EN: The new survey asked federal scientists to describe how their agency’s policies affect historically marginalized groups and underserved communities. When the survey first broached this topic, in 2018, the responses were so eye-opening that you co-authored a 50-page report on the issue. How different were the responses this time around?

AD: Our 2018 survey was the first time we asked federal scientists if there were any potential scientific integrity issues that would have an outsized impact on historically marginalized groups and underserved communities. It was an open-ended question that elicited an outpouring of responses. Some scientists told us they felt that they could not conduct research regarding impacts on people of color or gay and transgender people, for example, because it would be considered too politically contentious. Without such data, however, policymakers will not be able to address longstanding injustices.

This time around we expanded our inquiry by asking for respondents’ opinions on “external” and “internal” equity issues. The external equity questions asked them if they thought their agency considered the impact its scientific research and policies have on historically marginalized groups. The internal equity questions asked if their agency was hiring and retaining staff members from historically marginalized groups and taking into account their perspectives.

A high percentage of respondents did not offer an opinion on the external equity questions, but the ones who did said they thought the Biden administration and its agency leadership were doing a good job paying attention to impacts on historically marginalized groups.

Perceptions about staff diversity depended on the agency. But perhaps our most illuminating finding was that about half of Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) scientists surveyed felt that their scientific workforces (53 percent) and senior leadership (48 percent) did not reflect the country’s diversity. More than 60 percent of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists felt the same way about their scientific workforces (61 percent) and senior leadership (63 percent).

We followed up by examining data from the Office of Personnel Management and found that the scientists’ perceptions were spot on. At FWS, 85 percent of the staff who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs are white. At NOAA, 86 percent are white. Given that adult white individuals make up 64 percent of the US population according to US Census data, white STEM personnel are definitely overrepresented at the two agencies.

EN: The new survey found that there are still some nagging problems that need to be addressed. Burnout, for instance, due to a lack of staff capacity. The EPA is a good example. The agency has been understaffed and underfunded for years. In fiscal year 2010, during President Obama’s first term, it had a staff of more than 17,000 and an annual budget of $10.3 billion—$13.8 billion in inflation-adjusted 2022 dollars. When President Biden took office, EPA staffing stood at a 34-year low, and although the agency added 500 new employees in the first six months of the new administration, it had fewer than 14,600 staff members and a budget of only $9.55 billion in fiscal year 2022. Is this capacity problem widespread?

AD: Far and away the biggest concern respondents had is a lack of staff capacity. Fifty-nine percent of the scientists cited staff departures, retirements or hiring freezes in the past two years and nearly 90 percent of them said that reduced staffing made it difficult for them to fulfill their agency’s science-based mission. Seventy percent of the respondents who said they were burned out attributed it to reduced staff capacity. And respondents overwhelmingly cited limited staff capacity as the biggest obstacle to effective, science-based decisionmaking.

As you point out, the EPA is prime example. As UCS has documented, a large-scale exodus of EPA scientific staff took place during the Trump administration. Take the Office of Research and Development, the agency’s scientific research arm. It lost 12 percent of its workforce between 2016 and 2020.

Our latest survey shows that staff capacity continues to be a problem at all of the agencies we surveyed, especially at the EPA. Thousands of EPA employees who are members of the agency’s largest union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, recently lobbied Congress to increase staffing levels to ensure they can carry out work related to the Inflation Reduction Act and other new climate initiatives.

EN: Even under science-friendly administrations, such as the current one, there still can be meddling—and muzzling. What should the administration do? And what about Congress? Is there anything it can do to insulate federal scientists from political interference?

AD: Exactly, a science-friendly administration does not necessarily mean there won’t be any scientific integrity violations. For instance, similar percentages of scientists in 2018 and 2022, ranging from 15 to 37 percent at the six agencies we surveyed in both years, reported that their work had been censored. This finding surprised and disturbed us, and indicates that some federal offices are still restricting their scientists’ ability to talk about or work on topics that are considered politically contentious.

The only way to ensure that scientists are protected from political interference to the best of the government’s ability is for Congress to act. We strongly support the Scientific Integrity Act, which would codify scientific integrity policies, implement stronger enforcement mechanisms to protect federal science from political interference, and guarantee federal scientists’ right to speak openly about their work. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee passed the bill on a bipartisan vote in 2019, but it never came to a vote on the House floor. We are pushing Congress to pick it up again, strengthen it, and pass it as quickly as possible.