Study Suggests Change in Administration Changed Little for Scientists in Government

Somebody may chide me for piling on, but we have more evidence suggesting the notion of a “War on Science” is much better for political rabble-rousing than achieving significant change.  The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services prepared a report on the perceptions of scientists in government about the politicization associated with their work (H/T ScienceInsider).

The study, Strengthening Science in Government: Advancing Science in the Public’s Interest, interviewed a small sample of government scientists prior to the 2008 presidential election about how their work was affected by government policies and political preferences.  It’s a thorough discussion of the challenges unique to U.S. government scientists, and well worth reading independent of its relevance to the “War on Science” (which is limited and possibly tangential).  I recommend the sections on clearances and disclaimers as a good comparison to the apparent free-for-all in the U.K. that contributed to the Nutt mess.

As a follow-up, the authors re-interviewed a significant majority of those scientists after the Obama Administration took office to see what, if anything, has changed with respect to how government science is treated in decision-making.  Interviewees had experience from a number of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.  Of note is that no interviewees were from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the National Science Foundation.

Here were the research questions:

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Loose Status Updates Sink Raids

Danger Room provides us with this modern-day update on the old wartime slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”  An Israeli soldier managed to be really stupid and update his Facebook status with details of a pending raid.  His Facebook friends had some sense and reported him to the appropriate authorities.  The raid was called off out of concern that the element of surprise was blown, and the soldier was court-martialed and sentenced to a short prison stay to remind him of operational security.

While this is not a good use of Web 2.0 technology to support government objectives, this is the kind of negative consequence likely to increase if militaries increase their use of these technologies without proper protocols and training in place.  These kind of consequences have to be on the minds of Pentagon officials as they wrestle with how to use Web 2.0 to support and augment their missions.  But when you get down to it, the immediate concern is controlling soldiers to not do the Web 2.0 equivalent of babbling to a friend or acquaintance.  And that’s a problem independent of the technology.