Oct 022015

Progress and Problems: Government Scientists Report on Scientific Integrity
at Four Agencies
reveals results of survey of 7,000 scientists

NOAA numbers not as bad, but concern remains

Politics plays too big a role in decisionmaking at the Fish and Wildlife Service, a new survey from the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes. | Download the full report

"Many scientists felt that too much consideration was given to political interests at their agencies," said the report, based on surveys of employees at four different agencies: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, FWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"This was particularly true at the FWS, where 73 percent of respondents reported the level of consideration of political interests was 'too high', " the report said. "FWS respondents also noted that interference can come from the legacy of previous administrations affecting current work."

"One [FWS] respondent noted, 'Ultimately, the USFWS would be improved the most if we could make decisions based solely on the science, instead of having to balance those decisions with politics.' Another respondent inferred the motive accounting for such political influence:

“It is my perception that upper-level managers are influenced by fear of Congress dismantling the Endangered Species Act and/or otherwise interfering with the mission of the service. This affects their ability to appropriately support the scientific integrity of the very conscientious scientific staff whose work is supposed to support the managers’ decision making.”

Regarding NOAA, the report said, "Compared with 2005, when UCS surveyed scientists working at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency appears to have vastly improved in terms of perceived agency effectiveness and adherence to scientific integrity principles. Aside from these improvements, some issues remain, including barriers to scientists publishing their work and communicating to the media and public. NOAA scientists also indicated that the overuse of contractors was having a negative impact on agency morale and productivity."

Also from the report:

"Similar to other agencies, NOAA scientists reported too much weight being given to political interests (56 percent, 973 respondents). When asked what could improve scientific integrity at NOAA, several scientists focused on ways the agency should address this issue. One respondent wrote, 'Remove all political agendas and influence by those without expertise in a designated field of study.' Another respondent wrote, 'Stop giving in to political and industry pressure when making scientific decisions!' Another put it this way: 'No single entity unduly influences the agency but the combination of NGOs, industry, Congress, OMB, and Commerce results in watering and wearing down and splintering of the agency’s efforts.' "

Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst for UCS's Center for Science and Democracy, said that "the new survey results offer a treasure trove of information." From the results, she concluded that "scientific integrity has certainly improved in recent years but much work is still needed to fully implement the relatively new scientific integrity policies and change agency cultures.

"For example, a significant number of scientists are still unaware that their agency has a scientific integrity policy, despite the policies being in place for three years (1,489 respondents across agencies). Of those that were aware, some respondents didn’t think their agency adhered to the policy (227 respondents across agencies). These results suggest we have more work to do."

According to the report, "Of respondents who reported awareness of the scientific integrity policy, 50 to 66 percent believed their agencies adhere to this policy, with 66 percent of CDC scientists (643 respondents) at the high end and 50 percent of FWS scientists (345 respondents) at the low end."