Survey Says: New Report Shows Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies Needs Improvement

October 1, 2015 | 10:20 am
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Do you feel like your scientific work is too politicized?  If you are a scientist working for the federal government, the answer might be yes. Thousands of scientists report that political considerations are given too much weight at their federal agency.

My new report, Progress and Problems: Government Scientists Report on Scientific Integrity at Four Agencies, reveals results of a survey of 7,000 scientists at four federal agencies—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The survey asked scientists about scientific integrity, communications, and agency effectiveness.



“A Culture of Fear”

A significant number of scientists (46 to 73 percent of respondents across agencies) reported that political interests at their agencies were given too much weight in their agencies.  Many scientists told us that scientific decisions were being swayed by politics or that political influence inhibited their ability to carry out agency missions.  One respondent from NOAA said that scientific integrity could best be improved if the agency could “stop giving in to political and industry pressure when making scientific decisions.”

Some told us that inappropriate political influence created a culture of fear within the agencies. “Fear of potential criticism or backlash dilutes our capacity to lead in public health,” said one scientist from the CDC. A scientist at the FWS—where 73 percent or 601 respondents reported too much weight given to political interests—noted, “It is my perception that upper-level managers are influenced by fear of Congress dismantling the Endangered Species Act and/or otherwise interfering with the mission of the Service.”

The survey also asked scientists about the top barriers to timely agency decision making, and we got a diversity of results. Topping the list at all the agencies were limited staff capacity, inefficient decision-making processes within the agency, and complexity of the issue.


A Legacy of Scientific Integrity?

I wanted to conduct the surveys now to see what scientists had to say about scientific integrity under the Obama administration. Were the scientific integrity directive and agency scientific integrity policies effective? Are scientists reporting better conditions than they did on our past surveys of scientists? Did any new issues arise in recent years?

The new survey results offer a treasure trove of information to answer these questions with scientists answering 40 multiple choice questions and having the option to tell us what they think would most improve scientific integrity at their agency. The short answer?  Scientific integrity has certainly improved in recent years but much work is still needed to fully implement the relatively new scientific integrity policies and change agency cultures.

For example, a significant number of scientists are still unaware that their agency has a scientific integrity policy, despite the policies being in place for three years (1,489 respondents across agencies). Of those that were aware, some respondents didn’t think their agency adhered to the policy (227 respondents across agencies). These results suggest we have more work to do.

What can we do?

Some of these issues can be addressed through agency action. Trainings, for example, could go a long way in educating government scientists about the scientific integrity policies and what their rights are under these policies. The policies at these four agencies (all federal scientific integrity policies can be found here) include whistleblower rights, freedoms around talking with the press and publishing in scientific journals, and the right to review public-facing agency documents that significantly relied on their work.

For other changes, we will need more than agency actions. Resource limitations (which I’ll talk about in a future post) will certainly need to be addressed to improve scientific integrity, but we also need higher actions to encourage agencies to prioritize these issues. Thus far, we’ve seen that some agencies have invested more in scientific integrity (like the EPA, Department of Interior, and NOAA), while other agencies have not prioritized the issue (like the Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Transportation). The White House has shown strong leadership on scientific integrity thus far, but I hope they can finish the job. A signal from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy encouraging agencies to continue to prioritize scientific integrity would be exceptionally helpful.

The voices of federal scientists are but one piece of the puzzle in assessing the state of scientific integrity in the federal government. I’ll be continuing to think about these issues and how we can improve things. My hope is that this administration can truly leave a legacy of scientific integrity.