Today, thousands of scientists who work for federal agencies will get emails from the Union of Concerned Scientists asking them to take an online survey. The surveys will go out to employees who deal with science at 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), with other agencies to be surveyed in the future.
The surveys are part of a broader UCS effort to assess the state of science at federal agencies and they build upon nearly a decade of UCS scientist surveys across many agencies and disciplines, from climate science to food safety.
Why such a major undertaking? I thought now would be a good time to revisit why UCS conducts these surveys and why federal scientists should take the time to fill them out this month.
Giving voice to government scientists
Since 2005, UCS has done surveys of federal agency scientists. Such surveys have been instrumental in communicating the challenges that federal scientists face and the degree to which agencies support their scientists. They have brought to light the progress we’ve made in government use of science and where we still need improvements. They have motivated agencies and administrations to revise policies and practices to better serve scientists and to better allow their science to reach policy makers, the media, and the public.
A primary goal of scientist surveys has been to give a voice to government scientists—individuals who might not otherwise have a platform to talk about their work experiences, applaud their agency’s positive work, or report interference in how their science is used (or not used). And importantly, the surveys allow scientists to express themselves anonymously.
A history of surveys: The evidence for advocating improvements
Back in the early 2000s, reports of political interference in agency science began to surface. UCS heard from government scientists that their work was being misused, altered, or swept under the rug completely. But these were just anecdotes. We launched surveys of federal agencies to more systematically document such incidences.
The surveys allowed us to determine how prevalent such problems were. We demonstrated that such interference was happening across agencies and across scientific fields—this was a bigger problem than a handful of incidents. We then sounded the alarm; we brought the story to the administration, the media, and the public.
These efforts ultimately contributed to President Obama’s vow to “restore science to its rightful place” and the White House Directive on Scientific Integrity. Since then, UCS has played a leading role in helping agencies develop and implement scientific integrity policies. And now 23 federal agencies, departments, and services have scientific integrity policies on the books.
Policy vs. practice: Are scientific integrity policies working?
In this current round of surveys, we want to measure the impact these policies have had on agencies—Are scientists better able to communicate their work? Do we find less political interference in government science? Are dispute resolution processes working? What challenges do scientists face today? A higher response rate will allow us to shed light on these questions.
We can look at how well agency policies protect scientists, but these policies don’t always translate to good practices. For example, I authored a 2013 UCS report assessing the media policies of 17 federal agencies. The report graded agency policies based on a rubric UCS created, but those grades didn’t always agree with what we heard from journalists and what we heard from surveying the UCS Science Network about how well scientists and journalists could communicate freely. Surveying the actual experience of scientists within the agencies helps us understand how well policies are being implemented.
Got 15 minutes for scientific integrity?
This is why we need the help of federal scientists. A better response rate yields more representative results and more representative results provide a bigger window into the experience of government scientists, differences between agency practices, and where improvements are still needed.
If you are a scientist at a federal agency, please consider taking 15 minutes to complete the survey and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Otherwise, stay tuned for the survey results and how you can help advance the role of science in decision making. And in the meantime, you can check out our past surveys here.