Scientists in Government Project

Scientists in Government:
An Examination of Their Rights and Responsibilities in Civil Society

Scientists in Government  is a two-year project whose goal is to promote and shape the public discussion about the rights and responsibilities of government scientists, as part of the larger effort to ensure that government uses the best science to protect and promote the health and well-being of Americans.  In order to achieve this goal, we will collect and analyze data on the role and functioning of scientists employed by government agencies; produce a series of reports and policy proposals for future policymakers and government leaders; and communicate the findings and proposals in a manner that facilitates their use by policymakers.

Background: Government Scientists and the Principles of Open Science
Science is built on the sharing of information.  In the ideal, scientists generate knowledge to explain the workings of the natural world, building on the information produced and shared by other scientists.  Some scientists see this construction in moral or ethical terms;  according to Albert Einstein, for example, “[t]he right to search for truth implies also a duty:  one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”

Science flourishes best in conditions of open and public exchange of ideas, methods, findings, and interpretations.  Openness facilitates the vetting of new findings and new theories through continued study and analysis.  The open exchange of ideas is valued not only because it facilitates the advancement of science, but also because it is concordant with the ideals of a democratic society.

Scientific openness and exchange has direct benefit for the public when it ensures that decisions on health (including medical practice), the environment and toxic exposures, energy policies, and other science-based policies and practices are made in a transparent fashion and in the best interests of the public.  As an example, public access to complete data on drug safety and effectiveness and to any internal debate within the Food and Drug Administration has been identified in recent years as a critical tool in improving the drug safety system in this country. On critical environmental issues such as global warming and endangered species, transparency and openness regarding the scientific debate and underlying data are absolutely necessary as federal agencies make decisions that will affect us all.

The principles and practice of open science can come into conflict with actions intended to limit public access to information, or to modify a scientist’s findings against her or his will.  Over the last decade, the science community has grappled with issues associated with the corporate control of scientific studies. During the late 1990s, for example, there was a series of alarming instances in which sponsors blocked publication of research that was detrimental to the sponsor but important for protecting the public’s health.  The editors of thirteen of the world’s leading biomedical journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association, declared in 2001 that they will only publish studies conducted under contracts in which the investigators are “free of commercial interest”  and reject papers about studies performed under contracts that allowed the sponsor the ability to control the results. In a joint statement, the editors asserted that contractual arrangements that allow sponsor control of publication “not only erode the fabric of intellectual inquiry that has fostered so much high-quality clinical research but also make medical journals party to potential misrepresentation, since the published manuscript may not reveal the extent to which the authors were powerless to control the conduct of a study that bears their names.”

For the most part, U.S. universities have embraced the concept of scientific freedom, and academic scientists generally have the unfettered right to publish their findings. With the increased involvement of universities in commercial enterprises and collaborations, many academic institutions have developed policies or guidelines that attempt to ensure this independence. The guidelines of the University of California, for example, assert that research is a component and outcome of an academic environment characterized by the free and open exchange of ideas: “Freedom to publish is fundamental to the University and is a major criterion of the appropriateness of a research project.”  Universities see the need to protect the independence of their research with formal policy; many universities require that faculty members who enter into contractual agreements for sponsored research retain full rights to publish and otherwise disclose information developed in the research.

The Unique Position of Government Scientists
Scientists employed by government agencies do not generally have the same freedom accorded to university-based scientists.  Depending on the agency involved, their research may have to undergo several levels of review, sometimes involving political appointees, before they can submit it for publication.  Furthermore, scientists working for government often face a range of challenges in balancing their work as researchers, regulators, and applied scientists with their roles as employees of structured, hierarchical organizations.  Government scientists often make presentations to or sit on advisory panels. In some cases they have been selected to address or serve on these panels because of their own scientific work or expertise, with the understanding that their conclusions or analyses need not be consistent with agency policy. In other instances, however, they are called upon to represent and advocate for official agency positions at meetings or conferences.

For scientists employed within government at the federal, state, or local level, the nature of these rights and responsibilities requires exploration and clarification.  The numerous federal science agencies, as well as a multitude of state, county, and municipal agencies that address science-related issues, have varying and often unclear policies on scientific publication and presentation, communication of scientific findings and conclusions with the media, and whether or not agency scientists can speak as private citizens on scientific matters without sanction by the agency.  Under policies that restrict scientific freedom of government scientists, or in the absence of clear policies, scientists in these agencies may be constrained in their abilities to carry out their responsibilities to the scientific community and to the public at large.

Several organizations, including Scientists and Engineers for America (Bill of Rights for Scientists and Engineers) and the Commission on Research Integrity (Whistleblowers Bill of Rights), have developed specific declarations of rights primarily focused on research and academic freedom.

However, there is not a generally accepted set of principles on the rights and responsibilities of government scientists that asserts the values of scientific integrity, freedom, and openness, while affirming the responsibility to support the public mission of the employing agency. Clear statements of principles can provide the basis for policy makers to establish guidelines and policies that promote the respect for scientific knowledge in agency decision making, encourage respect for scientific professionals within each agency, and re-establish the universal bond among all scientists in a given discipline whether they are in academia or government.

Project Goals
The goal of the project is to provoke and shape the public discussion about the rights and responsibilities of government scientists, as part of the larger effort to ensure that government uses the best science to protect and promote the health and wellbeing of Americans.  Change in the approaches and policies of government agencies does not come easily, and when it does occur, it is often the result of a dynamic process involving the interaction of the public, stakeholders, and policy makers.  We believe that one way to initiate this process is by fomenting public discussion about problems associated with the status quo and the advances that would come with changed policies.  Through providing clear information and common principles, we hope to help move the public and stakeholders toward a common understanding for the need for change.  Policy makers will then begin to adopt relevant policies through either legislation or administrative action. 

In order to achieve this goal of changing agency policies, the project will attempt to fulfill the following objectives:

collect and analyze data on the role and functioning of scientists employed by government agencies, and prepare a report or report on our findings;
produce a series of policy proposals for future policymakers and government leaders;
communicate the findings and proposals in a manner that facilitates their use by policymakers, the scientific community, and opinion-leaders; and
further develop a communication and distribution plan for future broader dissemination of these identified principles and concepts to the public.

Our primary short-term outcome will be a change in the national discussion of science in government agencies. For example, we foresee the issues we raise being the subject of news articles, resolutions in scientific and professional societies, and Congressional hearings.

In the longer term, potential outcomes include adoption by federal agencies of appropriate sections of the model policies developed through this project; commitments by candidates for federal elected office, including the Presidential candidates, to support the developed principles for federal scientists; informed discussion by media on the role of government scientists; and, ultimately, improved use of science by government agencies in such critical areas as environmental, health, and energy policy.

Research Questions
The first objective, the exploration of the role and functioning of government scientists, will be accomplished though collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data answering a series of questions. These questions include:

What policies exist among the range of science-based agencies within federal government?
How do the policies vary across agencies with different missions and functions (research, regulatory, enforcement)?
How are official agency positions differentiated from individual scientific work and conclusions? How can government scientists distinguish between “helpful scientific input” from their agency and “censorship of their ideas”?
What is the nature of agency review of scientific publications? Who reviews and who “signs off”? What types of suggestions or requirements are made? How long does it take between agency review and sign-off? Are there examples of when communication of results is prohibited? Under what conditions?
Are scientific publications and meetings handled differently from communication with media and the general public? In what ways?
Do government scientists retain their autonomy to publish and communicate their scientific findings and conclusions?  Has recruitment and retention of scientists been affected by concerns of lack of scientific autonomy?
Does the possibility that individual scientists within an agency may have different scientific positions from those taken by the agency create a potentially confusing state for the rest of the scientific community?

With this information, we will develop a series of policy proposals, including a model policy, that present and discuss the rights and responsibilities of government scientists.

Scientists in Government is an IRB-approved project of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Heath Services. Project staff include:

David Michaels, PhD, MPH
Susan Wood, PhD
Celeste Monforton, MPH
Liz Borkowski
Ruth Long, MA, MPH

Guidance and support are provided by the Scientists in Government Advisory Committee:

James Curran, MD, PhD
Paul Gilman, PhD
Lynn Goldman, MD, PhD
Neal Lane, PhD
Al Teich, PhD

Major support for Scientists in Government is provided by the Open Society Institute and the Common Benefit Trust. The opinions expressed on the website are ours alone. We do not provide our funders advance notice or the opportunity to review or approve the content of this site or any documents produced by the project.