My colleagues and I at the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy have spent the last two years investigating the working environments of federal-agency scientists who address health and environmental issues – and today we’re finally the releasing the results of our research. Our report, Strengthening Science in Government: Advancing Science in the Public’s Interest, describes both the problems we identified and specific solutions that we recommend.

When we started this process in 2008, we were most concerned about cases in which scientific work on climate change, reproductive health, and other important topics was being suppressed, distorted, or ignored. During in-depth interviews with current and former federal-agency scientists, we learned that many scientists have indeed experienced or witnessed this kind of interference with scientific work. (Read the “Influences on Government Science” section, starting on page 74, for specific examples.)

What became clear as the research continued was that this kind of deliberate interference with science isn’t the only thing we should be worried about. Scientists from across several different agencies expressed frustrations about excessively long and difficult processes for getting research projects or publications approved. Most of these practices were probably adopted with the best of intentions, like making the best use of taxpayer money in choosing which research projects to support or ensuring that publications that bear an agency’s name meet high standards. The result, though, is that too many scientists feel they’re spending too much time doing things like responding to reviewer comments and too little time actually conducting scientific work. Some reported that they have colleagues who’ve gotten so fed up with the publication clearance process that they’ve stopped writing journal articles about their research.

Another striking finding was scientists’ feelings about Congress. Several scientists expressed frustration with Congressional requirements for an agency to study a health issue that might be of interest to a particular member’s district but wasn’t necessarily the best use of limited scientific resources. Some also gave examples of issues that members of Congress had decided agencies shouldn’t study – like sexually transmitted diseases and gun violence – even though they have broad impacts on public health.

The Congressional action that seemed to have had the most lasting impact (at least according to our group of interviewees) was the 104th Congress’s threat to eliminate the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Several NIOSH scientists who participated in the research brought up this occurrence and reported that it still informs agency decisions about which research topics to pursue, and which to avoid for fear of angering members of Congress again. New initiatives have “been noticeably in non-controversial areas,” one scientist explained. “It just seems to be a strategy, it’s almost like a survival mechanism.”

Multiple NIOSH scientists also explained that the agency has become reluctant to use its “right of entry” to study workplace conditions, and this reluctance makes it more difficult for agency employees to conduct health hazard evaluations.

It wasn’t all gloomy tales from scientists, though. Several interviewees spoke about shortcuts or workarounds they’d learned for dealing with bureaucratic barriers, and some praised managers who helped insulate scientists from pressures to slant their work toward a desired outcome. But the most encouraging thing was the scientists who participated in this research. Their dedication to their agencies’ missions was obvious, and their thoughtful responses made it clear that they were participating with the goal of strengthening federal science.

Our nation is lucky to have a lot of talented, hardworking scientists who work for government agencies because they want to help make our air, water, food, drugs, communities, and workplaces healthy and safe. We ought to make sure that their work environments help them conduct top-quality science – and get the results out to the public. Our report concludes with several specific recommendations (you can read the recommendations alone, or find them starting on page 86 of the full report). Here are a few points that summarize them succinctly:

  • Improving management training and overall management approaches for scientific projects and staff, including promoting opportunities for honest feedback without fear of retaliation;
  • Minimizing the bureaucratic maze needed to initiate new research and to allow for publication or other dissemination of research results, with or without disclaimers;
  • Providing the opportunity for scientists to communicate with the public, while also providing any support or training that scientists need to improve their skills in public communication;
  • Promoting engagement with federal scientists at other agencies and with the larger scientific community, including sharing of data and professional opportunities; and
  • Minimizing the impact of inappropriate influence from non-scientific directions, while recognizing the appropriate role of elected officials and the public in shaping the mission and policies of the agencies.

Get the details here.