Five Things We’ve Learned from Surveys of Government Scientists

March 6, 2018 | 4:42 pm
Dex Image/Corbis
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

This month the Union of Concerned Scientists is surveying government scientists—about 63,000 of them from 16 federal agencies, to be exact. Since these scientists get emails from me requesting their time and perspectives, I want to discuss the value of the scientific integrity surveys we’ve been conducting here for many years. Since 2005, thousands of scientists have responded to UCS surveys and that information has led to concrete changes at federal agencies. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve gained from surveying government scientists.

1. Scaling the problem

Under the George W. Bush Administration reports began to surface that science was being sidelined at government agencies. Some in the scientific community were concerned but it wasn’t clear how extensive the problem was. Were these isolated cases or something more?  Starting in 2005, UCS began surveying federal scientists to gauge the scale of the problem. Over the next few years, we learned that indeed the problems weren’t isolated: Scientists across agencies and across issue areas reported scientific integrity issues. For example, 1,028 scientists (60% of respondents) from a survey of climate researchers at seven agencies and a separate survey of EPA researchers reported that they had personally experienced at least one incident of political interference in their work over the previous five years. The findings were able to show the world that there were scientific integrity issues across the government, not just on a few hot-button issues.

We are once again in a time when reports of scientific integrity problems are trickling out of federal agencies. How widespread are such issues? The current survey will shed some light.

This month, government scientists from 16 agencies are asked to fill out a scientific integrity survey that will provide vital information about how science and scientists are faring in our government today. Photo: US FWS

2. Scientist notice problems long before the public does.

Government scientists are our ears to the ground when it comes to how evidence-based decision making is working at agencies—or not. They are the people working in the trenches every day. They see how their science is used, misused, or ignored by others in the agency. As a result, they identify problems within agencies long before they are on the public’s radar.

In recent weeks, news has blown up around the fact that the CDC is essentially banned from researching gun violence. This is something CDC scientists have been telling us for years. As my colleague Charise Johnson recently noted, in a 2015 UCS survey of CDC scientists, several respondents noted the restrictions put on their research that limited their ability to ask questions and get policy-relevant answers on gun violence. And we are now all facing the consequences.

This kind of information is vital for us all to have. The sooner we know where problems and vulnerabilities are around scientific integrity at agencies, the sooner we can work to address them.

3. New and improved scientific Integrity policies

Not only do scientists identify problems early, they also have solutions! The many surveys UCS conducted under the Bush and Obama administrations provided critical input into recommendations for how scientific integrity could be improved at federal agencies. Many of those recommendations, carried forward by UCS to agency decisionmakers, were put directly into agency policies.

Now, some 28 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies in place and many have stronger media and social media policies. These policies benefited greatly from the input of federal scientists on survey responses. Many told us about the kinds of guidance, leadership, and policies needed to ensure that scientific integrity could be preserved in their agencies. And the government scientific enterprise is now better for it.

4. Leadership at agencies is crucial.

Beyond policies, we’ve also learned from federal scientists that strong agency leadership is crucial. Specifically, agency heads that value scientific integrity and “walk the walk” when it comes to supporting science at their agency, will fare better. Agencies where scientists don’t see their leaders making scientific integrity a priority are likely to have more challenges when it comes to ensuring science is effectively used in in decision making. As one CDC scientist poignantly noted in 2015, scientific integrity “starts with leadership and filters down through the ranks. The less concerned the CDC director is, the less concerned other[s] are.”

5. Culture change takes time

Another truth scientists have taught us in survey responses is the challenge of culture change.  It can take more than policies to change long-term or deeply vested conditions at agencies that inhibit scientific integrity. For example, in 2015 a Fish and Wildlife Service scientist told us, “We are aware of and trained in whistle blowing and such, but few would actually feel confident in coming forward on an issue.”

This is why it is so important that we listen to and understand the challenges that agencies face if we want to improve their ability to fulfill their science-based missions.

#ThankAGovScientist, their words are valuable

We know all of this and we are able to work on improving policies and practices at agencies because of countless scientists who have selflessly spent their time and energy to thoughtfully fill out a survey. Thank you, federal scientists, for the great work that you do every day for the people of this country and the world.

If you received the survey in your inbox, please consider filling it out! If you have questions, feel free to comment below or in the contact information provided in the email. A 2018 government scientists survey FAQ document is here: