UCS is Surveying Federal Scientists Working Under the Trump Administration

, research scientist, Center for Science and Democracy | February 12, 2018, 10:49 am EST
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Beginning on Monday, February 12, UCS is administering another survey that will assess the status of scientific integrity across 16 federal science agencies. More than 63,000 government scientists will have the opportunity to anonymously share their perspectives on scientific integrity in the government.

UCS is partnering with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology (CSSM) because of their deep expertise in the technical and operational aspects of sample surveys. CSSM has taken the technical steps needed to fully assure the anonymity of federal scientists who choose to take the survey on their personal time and equipment. Scientists will have the option of completing the survey online, on paper or by phone. The survey will close the morning of March 26, providing scientists with a large window of time to complete the survey.

The results will be used to get a quantitative measure of the status of scientific integrity across the government. Such a study is especially important now, as we live in a world of quick news cycles and anecdotal evidence. When it comes to science under the Trump administration, the public knows about individual cases that have made the news, but we have a less clear sense of the extent and pervasiveness of these problems. Are scientists being inhibited from conducting and communicating their work? How common are incidents of political interference? Are some agencies faring better than others? What can be done to better ensure scientists are able to carry out the missions of their science-based agencies? The survey will shed light on these critical questions.

Surveying scientists—a history

In 2015, under the Obama administration, UCS administered a survey that assessed the status of scientific integrity at federal agencies. In this survey, we asked the following open-ended question: How do you think the mission of your agency and the integrity of the scientific work produced by your agency could best be improved? The responses to this question run the gamut, from scientists stating that more transparency about scientific integrity policies at agencies is needed, to scientists saying that science needs to be less driven by politically motivated policies. Answers to questions like these provide crucial feedback on what’s happening at federal agencies, especially now, as concerns have been raised about the Trump administration’s treatment of science.

UCS has been conducting surveys to assess federal scientific integrity since 2005. The information provided through these surveys has been incredibly useful and in some cases has led federal agencies to update their policies to create a better work environment for federal scientists and allow science to inform government decisionmaking. For example, in 2011, the National Science Foundation developed a media policy in response to survey responses and policy analysis developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 2013, the US Geological Survey improved its social media policy to better ensure scientifically accurate agency communications.

The Trump administration’s attacks on science and scientists make it more important than ever to conduct a survey now. Scientists have blown the whistle on the Trump administration for reassigning them to do tasks for which they do not have expertise. Right out of the gate, the Trump administration gagged federal agency scientists from speaking to the press. Additionally, scientists have been barred from attending professional meetings and presenting their work. It also has been reported that scientists may be being told or choosing not to use politically contentious language such as “climate change” or “evidence-based.”

These stories, and others, suggest that science in the federal government is currently being conducted in an environment that discourages the use of scientists’ knowledge in decision-making; yet little is known about the environment in which most federal scientists conduct their day-to-day work and how this affects their ability to meet the goals of their science-based agencies’ mission. Are these isolated examples of the worst-case scenarios? We don’t have a measure of the extent of the problems.

Giving scientists a voice

In a time when federal scientists and their work are likely under attack, surveys such as these are important to fully understand what kind of conditions America’s federal employees are working under. Federal scientists provide important knowledge that guides US science-based policies to be most effective to protect public health and safety. Thus, we need to ensure that these workers are taken care of and that science reaches the decisionmakers, journalists, and members of the public who need it. If we don’t, who will?

For further information about UCS and CSSM’s 2018 survey on scientific integrity, see UCS’s web page and a FAQ on this project at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey, or visit CSSM’s survey web page.

If you are a federal scientist who was not identified for participation in the survey but would like to share your thoughts and views with UCS, learn how to connect with us with the level of confidentiality and anonymity that is most appropriate to your situation here: https://www.ucsusa.org/scienceprotection.

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