The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Results of Our 2018 Federal Scientists Survey

, research scientist, Center for Science and Democracy | August 14, 2018, 10:34 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Scientist Survey 2018

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted a survey of federal scientists to ask about the state of science over the past year, and the results are in. Scientists and their work are being hampered by political interference, workforce reductions, censorship, and other issues, but the federal scientific workforce is resilient and continuing to stand up for the use of science in policy decisions.

This survey was conducted in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology building upon prior surveys conducted by UCS since 2005. However, this year’s survey is unique in that it is the largest that UCS has ever conducted to date (sent to over 63,000 federal employees across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus), and it is the first survey to our knowledge to gauge employee’s perceptions of the Trump administration’s use of science in decisionmaking processes.

The Trump administration’s record on science on a number of issues in multiple agencies is abysmal. Anyone who has paid attention to the news even slightly will know this. Therefore, my expectations were that the surveyed scientists and scientific experts would report out that they were working in a hostile work environment, that they are encountering numerous barriers to doing and communicating science, and that too many scientists are leaving the federal workforce. And while many of the respondents reported out on these negative issues, many respondents also reported out a lot of good work that is happening.

To be certain, some agencies seem to be faring better than others. Respondents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported better working environments and leadership that were conducive to continuing science-based work that informs decisionmaking at their agencies. However, respondents from bureaus at the Department of Interior (DOI) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seem to be having a difficult time with political interference, maintaining professional development, and censorship, to name a few issues illustrated by this survey. This agency-level variation, as well as variation in response rates  across surveyed agencies, should be considered when interpreting results across all agencies.

Below, I highlight some results of this year’s survey, but you can also find all of the results, methodology, quotes from surveyed scientists, and more at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey.

The Ugly: Political interference in science-based decisionmaking

The Trump administration has been no stranger to interfering with science-based processes at federal agencies. For example, both Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt changed the review processes of science-based grants such that they are critiqued based on how well they fit the administration’s political agenda instead of their intellectual merit. UCS also discovered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the White House interfered in the publication of a study about the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States.

Surveyed scientists and scientific experts in our 2018 survey noted that political interference is one of the greatest barriers to science-based decisionmaking at their agency. In a multiple response survey question in which respondents chose up to three barriers to decisionmaking, those ranked at the top were: Influence of political appointees in your agency or department, influence of the White House, limited staff capacity, delay in leadership making a decision, and absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise. This result was different as compared to our 2015 survey in which respondents reported that limited staff capacity and complexity of the scientific issue were the top barriers—influence of other agencies or the administration, as it was phrased in our 2015 survey, was not identified as a top barrier. One respondent from the EPA noted that political interference is undoing scientific processes: “…efforts are being made at the highest levels to unwind the good work that has been done, using scientifically questionable approaches to get answers that will support the outcomes desired by top agency leadership.”

Many respondents also reported issues of censorship, especially in regard to climate change science. In total, 631 respondents reported that they have been asked or told to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. A total of 703 respondents reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. But it is not only climate change—over 1,000 responding scientists and scientific experts reported that they have been asked or told to omit certain words in their scientific work because they are viewed as politically contentious. One respondent from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted that scientists studying pollinator health are being scrutinized: “We have scientists at my location that deal with insect pollinator issues, and there appears to be some suppression of work on that topic, in that supervisors question the contents of manuscripts, involvement in certain types of research, and participation in public presentation of the research. It has not eliminated the work of those scientists, but their involvement in those areas is highly scrutinized.”

The Bad: The scientific workforce is likely dwindling

Nearly 80% of respondents (3,266 respondents in total) noticed workforce reductions either due to staff departures, hiring freezes, and/or retirement buyouts. Of those respondents who noticed workforce reductions, nearly 90% (2,852 respondents in total) reported that these reductions make it difficult for them to fulfill their agency’s science-based missions. A respondent from the Fish and Wildlife Service summed up the issue: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As of June 2018, the 18th month of his administration, President Trump had filled 25 of the 83 government posts that the National Academy of Sciences designates as “scientist appointees.” Maybe now that President Trump has nominated meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, we will see other scientific appointments as well. For now, agencies that are understaffed and that do not have leadership with needed scientific expertise will likely continue to have a difficult time getting their scientific work completed.

The Good:  The scientific workforce is resilient

While 38% of those surveyed (1628 respondents in total) reported that the effectiveness of their division or offices has decreased over the past year, 15% reported an increase in effectiveness (643 respondents total) and 38% (1567 respondents total) reported no change in effectiveness over the past year. It is still not a good sign that over 1,000 scientists and scientific experts are reporting that the effectiveness of their office/division has decreased under the Trump administration, but it is also good to see that there are still a number of scientists and scientific experts being able to continue to do their important work.

Further, a majority of respondents (64%; 2452 respondents in total) reported that their agencies are adhering to their scientific integrity policies and that they are receiving adequate training on them. While those surveyed reported on barriers to science-based decisionmaking such as those described above and more that fall outside of the scope of these policies, it is still a step forward to see that the federal scientific workforce knows about the policies and perceives them to be followed. Many responding scientists reported that they are doing the best work they can under this administration. As one respondent from the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, “USGS scientific integrity guidelines are among the best in the federal service. They are robust and followed by the agency. What happens at the political level is another story.”

There is still work to do

Some scientists are continuing to get their work done and others are having a difficult time. Many scientists see their leadership as a barrier to their science-based work, whereas some scientists think their leadership recognizes the importance of science to their agency’s mission.

However, when hundreds to thousands of scientists are reporting that there is political interference in their work, that they fear using certain terms like “climate change,” or that they are seeing funds being distributed away from work viewed as politically contentious – this is an ugly side of this administration’s treatment of science. Those numbers should be as close to zero as possible because when science takes a back seat to political whims, the health and safety of the American people loses.

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