Agencies Rated on Scientific Candor

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have among the most restrictive policies in the federal government on releasing scientific information to the press and public, according to a "report card" being issued today by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by contrast, do a commendable job of making scientific research and expertise available, the report said.

After a year-long review of press office policies of 15 federal agencies, the group concluded that the agencies handled information requests inconsistently and that there appears to be significant confusion in some agencies about what their policies are.

The report, begun after high-profile complaints by some government scientists that they were not allowed to openly discuss their findings, is based on surveys filled out by 739 researchers and some follow-up interviews, on information gathered through Freedom of Information Act requests, and on searches of agency Web sites for their stated policies.

"What we found is an inconsistent and too often controlling situation in many agencies," said Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. "This is scientific research funded by the taxpayers, and in most circumstances the public should have the right to know what it says."

Grifo said presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have both called for a far more open discussion of government-funded research, and the group would watch to see whether the winner delivers the "wholesale culture change that's needed." UCS is a generally liberal, nonprofit organization that studies and issues reports on environmental, safety, health and other topics.

The Bush administration has often taken the position that federal scientists can discuss their findings but not the policy implications that might flow from them -- a position that brought complaints from scientists including NASA climate change expert James Hansen, former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona and James G. Titus, the EPA's project manager for sea level rise. The administration increased the number of political appointees in many agency press and public information offices.

Grifo singled out NASA as an agency that responded properly when top managers learned that political appointees where interfering with Hansen's contacts with reporters.

The Food and Drug Administration received an "incomplete." The report said that it could find no media policy through Web site searches, agency contacts or FOIA requests, and FDA scientists contacted by the UCS said that all media calls are routed through the press office. While the FDA holds proprietary information that cannot and should not be publicly discussed, the report concludes that the agency "should create a media policy that includes protections that will allow scientists to speak freely about their expertise."

The National Science Foundation also got an incomplete because some of its policies were unavailable.

The study also reported that "many Fish and Wildlife Service scientists told UCS that political appointees have interfered with science-based decisions in recent years and, as a result, that scientific openness has suffered."

These were the grades awarded by the UCS: A: CDC; B-plus: Nuclear Regulatory Commission; B: NASA, NOAA, Census Bureau, National Institute of Standards and Technology; C: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Geological Survey; D: Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA , Bureau of Land Management, Consumer Product Safety Commission; F: OSHA.

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