Scientists at federal agencies say external political and industry forces heavily influence the quality and scope of their research, according to a large new survey involving thousands of top researchers.
The report, compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) , gathered survey responses from 7,000 researchers from four government agencies — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Each respondent weighed in on matters of scientific integrity, interoffice communication, and agency effectiveness.
The results highlighted concerns that agency heads are placing greater priority on relationships with lawmakers and other government agencies than on efforts to further public health. For instance, at least 46 percent of respondents said political interests hampered their ability to carry out their goals. Respondents also said limited staffing and an inefficient process impeded timely decision making in their agencies.
A significant number of scientists reported that political interests at their agencies were given too much weight in their agencies.
“A significant number of scientists reported that political interests at their agencies were given too much weight in their agencies. Many scientists told us that scientific decisions were being swayed by politics or that political influence inhibited their ability to carry out agency missions,” Gretchen Goldman, the author of the report, wrote in a summary.
“One respondent from NOAA said that scientific integrity could best be improved if the agency could ‘stop giving in to political and industry pressure when making scientific decisions,’” Goldman, who’s also a lead analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy, added.
UCS’ latest survey counts among a series of investigative case studies conducted since the release of the Scientist Statement on Scientific Integrity, in which more than 60 scientists lamented what they described as the Bush administration’s misuse of science in their policymaking — particularly Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff editing of global warming reports.
Scientific misconduct goes beyond that singular act, permeating other segments of the government. For example, the FDA didn’t reveal instances of research misconduct and other violations in more than 50 clinical trials within a five-year span, despite assurances that it would make its compliance and enforcement activities more transparent. Internationally, the World Health Organization has called out researchers who don’t disclose the results of their clinical trials, choosing instead to tweak them to increase their chances of getting published in medical journals.
Critics say such examples often threaten public safety and lower trust in scientific institutions. That’s why the Obama administration has prioritized scientific integrity within government agencies, particularly in the first years of the president’s first term.
In 2010, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released a scientific integrity policy that included mandates that candidates for employment in scientific positions be chosen because of their integrity, knowledge, credentials, and experience. The new rules also forbade public relations officials from coercing scientists into altering results while implementing protections for researchers who report scientific misconduct. Most importantly, the new policy espoused transparency between federal research institutions and the public.
Other agencies followed, releasing similar policies. To date, nearly two dozen government offices have guidelines in place to protect the integrity of scientific research.
Few scientists, however, know these rules exist. And among those who are aware of the policies, only a small number believe their higher ups actually have to abide by them. For example, less than 20 percent of the more than 1,400 respondents employed by agencies with a scientific integrity policy said they didn’t know their employers had to use them, according to the new survey.
In her summary, Goldman suggested that trainings in the government agencies and additional resources would better help scientists work comfortably and with integrity. She said while some agencies haven’t prioritized the issue, the White House, particularly the Office of Science and Technology, has shown leadership in holding agency heads accountable to scientists and those who depend on these breakthroughs.
Trainings… could go a long way in educating government scientists about the scientific integrity policies and what their rights are under these policies.
“Trainings… could go a long way in educating government scientists about the scientific integrity policies and what their rights are under these policies,” Goldman said
. “The policies at these four agencies include whistleblower rights, freedoms around talking with the press and publishing in scientific journals, and the right to review public-facing agency documents that significantly relied on their work.”
However, not everyone shares Goldman’s sentiments about Obama administration’s efforts to ensure scientific integrity.
In his recent Independent Science News article, Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, touched on troubles plaguing government agencies trying to implement policies of their own. He noted that the DOI, a onetime leader of this movement, fired Dr. Paul Houser — its first officer of public integrity — for what Latham described as “drawing attention to a scientifically questionable department policy.” According to Latham, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also fallen short, not hiring anyone to lead its efforts for years, during which it dismissed more than half of 40 complaints received by its office on scientific integrity.
Perhaps signs that there’s much more work to be done in protecting scientific integrity within federal research agencies.