#ScioDC: A Conversation on Scientists, Government, and Social Media This Week

April 29, 2013
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

This Wednesday, I’ll be speaking at the inaugural event of ScienceOnlineDC about the recent UCS report I co-authored, Grading Government Transparency: Scientists’ Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies. ScienceOnlineDC is a newly formed Washington, DC satellite of ScienceOnline, a nonprofit organization that facilitates conversations, community, and collaborations at the intersection of science and the Web. While I will give a short talk, a good portion of the event on Wednesday will be devoted to open discussion. And that’s a good thing because lots of questions remain about how best scientists—especially federal scientists—can use social media effectively and responsibly. Best of all, you don’t have to be in Washington to participate—all you need is an Internet connection.

ScioDC logoOur report, released last month on Freedom of Information Day, asked the question of whether or not federal scientists had freedom to speak on traditional and social media outlets. To find out, we graded media and social media policies at 17 federal agencies that have significant numbers of scientists in their ranks. We offered agency-specific recommendations for any agency or department whose policy didn’t make the honor roll (nearly all of them).

But this isn’t the whole story. We know from past experience that policy and practice don’t always go hand-in-hand. At our Branscomb Science and Democracy Forum last fall reporters expressed difficulty accessing federal scientists, even at agencies where strong media policies were in place. This testimony echoed the findings of two independent assessments from the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Columbia Journalism Review. If this is the case with traditional media policies, it’s logical to think that social media policies may also be lacking in their implementation.

Strong written policies are an important first step to good practices at federal agencies. But strong agency practices are the other half of the equation. And when it comes to this category, it’s much harder to know if agencies are making the grade. Does agency leadership reinforce the provisions of the social media policies? Are federal scientists in a work environment where they feel comfortable embracing social media? Or alternatively, are they facing repercussions for exploring these new tools?

To get a glimpse of the answers to these questions, we surveyed the federal scientists on the UCS Science Network and heard back from 72 scientists across 17 federal agencies. Here are some samples of what they said about their ability to use social media:

“It seems impossible to simultaneously describe my place of employment on a social media site and abide by my employer’s requirements for speaking only as an individual.” — anonymous DOE scientist, 2012

“ ‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — anonymous USDA scientist on the agency’s social media policy, 2012

“We have been encouraged to use social media—judiciously—to get our science message out. … [W]e have found social media to be extremely useful to communicate to our diverse audience.”  — anonymous USGS scientist, 2012

"It is hard to tweet in a space suit." Some federal agencies, like NASA, are active on social media. Photo: Laura A. Burns (@moonrangerlaura)

“It is hard to tweet in a space suit.” Some federal agencies, like NASA, are very active on social media. Photo: Laura A. Burns (@moonrangerlaura)

The survey results suggest a mixed bag. As my colleague Michael Halpern pointed out in a post last month, implementation of social media policies seems to be good at some agencies but lacking at others. Ultimately, we can use what we are hearing from scientists to find the solutions. What are the challenges to using social media that federal scientists face? And what can agency leadership, NGOs like us, and fellow scientists do to help? How can we create spaces for federal scientists to embrace the power that social media has for multi-way communication of government science?

I know ScienceOnline has ideas and I look forward to the conversation. Hope to see you there—in person or through social media (of course!).

Here are the event details:

ScienceOnlineDC Presents

Science, Government, and Social Media: A conversation about government transparency on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets

When: Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 5:00-7:00 PM EDT

Where: American Chemical Society, Marvel Hall AB, 1155 Sixteenth St., NW, Washington, DC 20036

Participants include:

  • Gretchen Goldman, Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Megan McVey, United States Global Change Research Program
  • Sarah Dewitt, communications officer, NASA Office of the Chief Scientist
  • John Ohab, public affairs specialist, Naval Research Laboratory
  • Jamie Vernon, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow (moderator)

Discussion and livestream via the ScienceOnline website will run from about 5:00-6:00. Continue the conversation during a reception hosted by Chemical & Engineering News.