Fish and Wildlife Service Scientists Get Some Clarity on Communicating With the Press

July 6, 2012 | 10:20 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

In keeping with its commitment to improving its scientific integrity standards, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has updated its public communication and media policy—for the first time in two decades (to put that in perspective, that’s before the vast majority of us used the Internet). The policy is a marked improvement from the agency’s previous policy and succeeds by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of Service employees and public affairs officials in the communication of scientific information. But despite these improvements, the agency is not out of the woods quite yet.

The marbled murrelet and many other imperiled species have been victims of political interference in science. A better communications policy at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can help discourage the misuse of scientific information. (Photo: Rich Macintosh/USFWS)

First, the good news: the policy gives Service scientists the right to review the accuracy of scientific information in an agency document prior to its release, helping to minimize the misrepresentation of Service research. All employees are prohibited from “altering the substance of scientific, scholarly, and technical information.” The policy also provides for a way for employees to resolve any internal disputes over whether to issue a news release or other public communication.

Just as importantly, the policy reaffirms the right of a scientist to share his or her personal opinions with the public and to the media about anything that is not considered confidential, so long as he or she clarifies that he or she is not speaking as an official agency representative. This is critical, as scientists do not check their First Amendment rights at the door when they go to work for the government.

Unfortunately, some parts of the policy are unnecessarily restrictive, and could have the effect of discouraging communication. In particular, Service scientists must seek permission from public affairs personnel before speaking in their official capacity with members of the press. This gives public affairs officers the right to handpick which scientists speak on behalf of the agency.

Why does this matter? Scientists whose research supports administration policy might be put front and center, while scientists whose research does not support administration policy might be silenced.  The public deserves to know what Service scientists are finding, no matter how inconvenient it may be to those in power.

The policy does state that if scientists are denied authorization to speak on behalf of the Service, they are welcome to express their personal views. I suspect, however, that many scientists will see the denial of permission as a suggestion that they shouldn’t speak at all, and will choose to stay silent rather than rock the boat.

NOAA got it right when it came out with its revised media policy last December. NOAA allows its scientists to speak to the media without obtaining permission. Scientists must inform the agency of any interviews that are conducted, and clarify when they are speaking on behalf of NOAA and when they are speaking as an individual.

“We can’t accomplish our wildlife conservation mission without the support and engagement of the public and our partners,” said Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement.  “That support in turn rests on people’s ability to trust the accuracy and integrity of our public communications.”

His statement is a worthy commitment and one that the Service seems to be taking seriously. In addition to its media policy, the Service has put in place clear guidelines for the publication of employee research. This publication policy, which encourages employees to publish research and present information at scientific meetings, is a gold standard which other federal agencies should consider adopting.

The Service media policy comes close to being similarly laudable. It’s just too bad the agency wasn’t willing to go all the way on this one.