Friday, May 8, 2009

Media Policy: How US Government Agencies Compare

The free exchange of ideas is the life-blood of science. All scientists, including those who work for government agencies, should be able to freely exchange ideas with each other and to state their opinions. At the same time, a strong democracy is dependent upon citizens who are well-informed and have free access to government-supported science.

Unfortunately, a number of federal scientists have become reluctant to speak freely about their research to the media, and some have been muzzled or even punished for speaking out. The Union of Concerned Scientists has conducted a survey of 15 federal science and regulatory agencies to assess the "degree of freedom with which science is communicated". Their results are summarized in the scorecard on this page. The full report can be accessed here.

Clearly some problems exist, worse at some agencies than others.

The UCS has two recommendations, which I list below verbatim:
"Agency media policies should respect two fundamental tenets of scientific communication:
  • Scientists, like any federal employees, have a right to express their personal views outside of certain narrow restrictions. As long as they provide an explicit disclaimer that they are speaking as private citizens and not as a representative of their agency, scientists should be allowed to speak freely about their research and to offer their scientific opinions--even in situations where their research may be controversial or have implications for agency policy.

  • Scientists have the right to review, approve, and comment publicly on the final version of any document or publication that significantly relies on their research, identifies them as an author or contributor, or purports to represent their scientific opinions."

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