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:
- To what extent do agencies foster environments that support scientific work in fulﬁllment of agency missions?
- What policies exist regarding research, publication, and communication by scientists working at science-based agencies within the federal government?
- How well do agencies facilitate the processes of conducting scientific work and disseminating results?
- What is the nature of agency review of scientific publications?
- Do government scientists retain their autonomy to publish and communicate their scientiﬁc ﬁndings and conclusions?
- What is the nature of inﬂuence affecting federal scientists and their work? How do agencies address this inﬂuence?
- Do accessible and useful feedback and dispute-resolution mechanisms exist for federal scientists?
The report offers a number of recommendations to improve the balance between achieving the goals of the government agencies and protecting scientific goals of freedom of inquiry, integrity, dissemination of results, and the scientific method. The bulk of them do not focus on things the top leadership can do as much as changes that could take place at the managerial level.
Getting back to the point of the “War on Science,” the follow-up survey indicated that very little had changed, contrary to the public perception advocated by Mooney and his fellow travelers, and crafted in part by the gestures of the scientific integrity and stem cell memos released in early 2009. To wit,
“A majority of respondents reported that there had been no change in the areas of access to data, research review processes, publication/review clearance processes, scientists’ communication with the media and the public, and scientists’ ability to attend meetings and conferences.
“Although 50% of respondents believed there to be no change in the
agency providing a supportive workplace, 20% of the respondents did report a change for the better. To the question about scientists’ ability and willingness to provide feedback, 33% reported improvement. And, according to 30% of respondents, the overall work environment has changed for the better.”
Now the question of a relatively unchanged environment does not presume that the previous environment was particularly bad. But it does get to the idea that the difficult to change lower-level bureaucracy may have as much, if not more, to do with issues of infringing on the work of government scientists than any stark ideological agenda. The main recommendation of this report hints at the former as the overarching problem:
“The White House OSTP and Ofﬁce of Management and Budget (OMB) should ensure that agencies adopt the policies described in this report’s recommendations, and that the policies are generally consistent across agencies and appropriate within each agency’s mission and scope. These policies should be clearly and actively communicated to agency leadership, scientiﬁc managers, and the federal scientific workforce.”
While the “War on Science” agitation certainly helped make changes in certain agencies, a more thorough examination of current practice, along with a consistent application of principles like those recommended in this report, would have been a better targeted approach and likely led to better overall policy. Maybe it feels better now that the bad man is out of office, but is it really better? Maybe not as much as you think.