The Pump Handle is pleased to provide the full text of an article, published in the Bureau of National Affairs’ “Occupational Safety & Health Reporter,” on SKAPP’s Scientists in Government project report.*

by Stephen Lee

A study of scientists’ opinions at 13 federal agencies, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that many feel political pressure guides much of their work.  The research, published March 3 by the George Washington University Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, said scientists at NIOSH felt the agency deliberately avoided research that might lead to controversial findings for fear the agency might be eliminated.  One senior NIOSH scientist was quoted in the report as saying,

“All research areas are dictated from management, and you must be limited to doing research in these specific areas. As a consequence, eight people have left within the last two years alone. They felt they weren’t being treated as full scientists.”

The 100-page report , Strengthening Science in Government: Advancing Science in the Public’s Interest, interviewed 37 participants at 13 federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture.

The report was co-authored by David Michaels, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and former director of SKAPP.  Michaels’ contributions to the report ended when he was confirmed as OSHA head in November 2009, the study said. Also contributing to the study were lead author Susan Wood and authors Ruth Long and Liz Borkowski, all George Washington University faculty members.**

Barriers, Opportunities Examined.
The qualitative research study included interviews with current and former federal scientists at health and environmental agencies, a review of agency policies regarding research, and a literature review.  The study sought to examine barriers and opportunities for scientists at federal agencies as they set research agendas, endeavored to speak freely with one another, disseminated their conclusions and supporting data, and informed science-based policies and practices at their workplaces.  NIOSH officials were reviewing the report and did not have any comment, Fred Blosser, an agency spokesman, told BNA March 12.

“I used to think that politics had nothing to do with what we do here, when I was very new,” a NIOSH team leader said. “[But] politics are more important than I thought. They influence what the agency chooses to pursue to research.”

In the study, another NIOSH scientist described spending seven years on a project,

“only to be told when a new administration entered that the project was no longer a priority and funding for it was no longer available.”

`One Vote Away From Total Elimination.’
One agency team leader told researchers that NIOSH management is

“very careful to not get into something that is overly controversial, because we were one vote away from being totally eliminated,”

referring to the 1995 bill (H.R. 1834) introduced by Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) that sought to eliminate NIOSH.  Although the bill failed to pass, other study participants said

“the memory of [Ballenger’s] Congressional attack on NIOSH remains strong and continues to inform agency decisions about research.”

Agency personnel told of pressure to switch from disease and health research to safety research, because

“it is easier to show impact on areas for which surveillance data is available, such as lost work days and fatalities,” the report said.

“We’ve not been able to get anywhere with projects … that have to do with exposures, disease, or surveillance,”

an agency industrial hygienist said in the report. Only injury-related work is funded, according to the industrial hygienist.

‘Extremely Onerous’ Approval Process.
Research priorities at NIOSH are established under its National Occupational Research Agenda, which takes into account the number of workers at risk for a particular injury or illnesses, the seriousness of the hazard, and the probability that new information will make a difference.  According to the scientists interviewed for the report, however, the research approval process involves multiple reviews, including the possibility of an Office of Management and Budget review. One NIOSH research chemist called the process “extremely onerous.”

“I put together a 50-page proposal, single-spaced, for a project that was giving me $15,000 a year,” the chemist said. “Does that make sense?”

Discretionary funding in the chemist’s department also fell from $250,000 in 2002 to $5,000 in 2008, according to the chemist, who said scientists were told that

“things are bad all over and there is nothing that can be done.”

The process also creates a “negative work environment,” the chemist said.

“If you spend a lot of time competing for funding and you never get any, what work are you then hired to do?  We are all scientists and we want to give our input, and we feel neglected or dismissed if we are not asked our opinion,”

an unnamed NIOSH medical officer said in the report.

Funding approval by NIOSH can take two and a half years, according to agency personnel, during which time the relevance of the proposed research can change.  The result of the lengthy, intensive process has been a “drain of scientists” at NIOSH, the study said.

Recommendations Made.
To remedy the shortcomings, SKAPP made several recommendations, including improving management training, minimizing administrative duties for scientists, encouraging cooperation with scientists at other agencies, and reducing the impact of “inappropriate influence from non-scientific directions,” such as elected officials and the public.

 

**Reproduced with permission from Occupational Safety & Health Reporter, 40 OSHR 226, 03/18/2010. Copyright 2010 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.  For subscription information, call 800-372-1033, or see http://www.bna.com.

**TPH Editors’ Note: Liz Borkowski and Ruth Long, MA, MPH are research staff in the School of Public Health, but are not faculty members.