Journalists Still Frustrated At Access To U.S. Scientists

While it’s possible there is no level of access to government scientists that would satisfy journalists, the current levels of access – even in the U.S. – remain a matter of complaint.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), soon after releasing its latest report on agency media policies, has issued an early summary of how journalists currently feel about access to government scientists (H/T Government Executive).

Through its Center for Science and Democracy, the UCS worked with the Society for Professional Journalists in developing and conducting the survey.  It’s a follow-up to a 2011 survey conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica.  In the 2011 survey it was found that the Obama Administration had made marginal progress in making agency scientists accessible to journalists.  The 2015 survey suggests not much has changed.  Per the UCS:

  • Public information offices routinely require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees.
  • Sometimes, when reporters ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the public information office.
  • It’s not unusual for reporters to have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert.
  • Despite reporters’ positive working relationships with public information officers, a majority feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.

Worth noting is that in many respects, science reporters compared favorably to other reporters, according to the Society for Professional Journalists.  From its conclusions:

“The analysis of the science writers’ survey compared with the earlier surveys of political and education reporters indicates the science agencies may be more open and less controlling than other types of government agencies – there may be more protection for scientists to speak openly as opposed to other people. Also, it appears a good number of science writers are better able to develop relationships with their subject matter expert sources than other types of reporters, thus mitigating the public information offices’ efforts at media control.”
So, while there may not be great access to government scientists and the relationships between science journalists and public information officers can be complicated, other fields may not have it so good.

The Sisyphean Push For Nominations Continues

With confirmation votes from the Senate more rare and infrequent these days, I’ve not been as diligent in tracking the announcements of nominations.  Two recently announced science and technology nominees help detail the problem.

Thomas Burke has been re-nominated to serve as Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Office of Research and Development.  Since his initial nomination last year, Burke did join the EPA, but as a Deputy Assistant Administrator in the same office (likely due to that position not requiring Senate confirmation).  Burke’s eventual predecessor, Paul Anastas, left the position back in 2012.

Another renomination was for the position of Director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  The current Acting Director, Dr. Willie May, was renominated in February.  With Burke and May both in place at their intended agencies, their confirmations are likely a lesser priority for the administration and Congress.

Wanda Austin was appointed to serve on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) just before its March 27 meeting.  Austin is the President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, where she has worked since 1979.  Her education is in mathematics and systems engineering, and besides her PCAST service, Austin is also a member of the NASA Advisory Council and the Defense Science Board.

Will Science Policy Factor Into The UK Election?

On April 2 there will be a leader’s debate for the May 7 U.K. Parliamentary election (H/T Nature News).  While there was a joint appearance by the leaders of the two largest parties (the Conservatives and Labour) on March 26, the April 2 debate will have leaders from seven parties. Of the other debates currently scheduled, this event will have the most parties represented.  Leaders of the Liberal Democrats (coalition partner with the Conservatives in the current government), the Green Party, The U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), Plaid Cymru (a Welsh party), and the Scottish National Party (SNP) will join the Labour and Conservative leaders in the ITV studios.

This marks the second election in which party leaders will hold televised debates.  IN the 2010 campaign, there was a series of cross-party science debates where most of the policy discussions around science happened in the campaign.  However, in at least one debate involving party leaders, science questions did get some attention.

Nature recently compiled information on the likely science policies of three of the smaller parties: the UKIP, the SNP and the Greens.  The Campaign for Science and Engineering has published the responses it received from all seven parties represented in tomorrow’s debate, plus the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.  Parties are expected to release campaign manifestos later this month, which should provide additional information.  Those particularly interested in research budgets in the U.K. may be most persuaded by the positions of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

While science and technology issues get more attention from U.K. parties compared to the U.S., they are not dominant issues for any political party.  The increased profile of several smaller parties, and dissatisfaction with the current coalition government, suggest to me that another coalition government could emerge following the May 7 election (minority governments, like the Harper government in Canada, are rare in the U.K., and typically short-lived).  In that case, it is possible that science and/or technology issues could be key toward gaining the support from a party or parties to give a coalition a Parliamentary majority, but that’s a question nobody can answer until at least May 8.

Is The U.K. Following the Harper Government’s Science Communication Lead?

A change to the U.K. Civil Service Law may dramatically restrict the ability of U.K. government scientists to communicate with the media (H/T ScienceInsider).  The language would require all media contacts to be approved in advance by the appropriate Minister.  The specific language:

“All contacts with the media should be authorised by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.”

Certainly scientific communication could be handled under a dispensation, but there was none offered when the change was announced.  On Friday three U.K. science organisations (the Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers, and Stempra) wrote Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, for clarification.  In this letter the organisations note that many participants in quasi-governmental bodies have to sign on to the Civil Service Code, so the new language may affect more than government employees.  (Advisory bodies to government would not be affected, as their communications are covered in the Ministerial Code.)

Similar concerns emerged over how the change in the law affects whistleblower protections.  Minister Maude had indicated to a trade union representative that whistleblower protections would not be affected.  That union has petitioned the government to reverse the change.

Given the changes in communication practices in Canada where its government scientist are concerned (referenced in the letter to Maude), I can understand the skepticism about the impacts of this change.  Given the May election in the U.K., I would not be surprised if this became an issue in some quarters of the British electorate.  I don’t think it will swing Parliament to one party or the other, but depending on the local constituency, it may swing a seat or two.

Agency Scientists Still Have Challenges Communicating Freely

Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a new edition of its report Grading Government Transparency (H/T Nextgov).  The first edition came out in 2013, and it expands on a previous report, Freedom to Speak?, from 2008, that focused on agency media policies (15 agencies and 2 federal departments).  Grading Government Transparency includes social media policies along with traditional media policies.

The scorecards from the 2013 and 2015 reports suggest slight improvement in policies, or at least maintaining the status quo.  Agencies in the report that didn’t have social media policies in 2013 have them now, so the progress is forward.

The report recommendations in 2015 aren’t that different from 2013.  The UCS still encourages agency media policies to place free and open communication ahead of political principles.  As the organization strongly advocates for a fundamental right to scientific free speech, this is not a surprise.

For agencies where there was improvement in agency policies, the UCS noted several key changes in many cases: the existence of a social media policy, whistleblower protections, a personal-views exception (provisions that allow for government scientists to state personal opinions if they are clearly noted as their personal opinion and do not use unreasonable amounts of government time or resources), and a dispute resolution process.

What is still lacking in many cases, according to UCS, are a right of last review (of written product going under their name or relying on their research) and a right to access drafts and revisions of written materials using contributions from the scientists’ research.

The agencies and departments covered in the report are only part of the government, and do not cover all scientists and engineers employed by the government.  And I don’t think the UCS finds every agency’s grades in the reports satisfactory.  So there remains work to be done.  Media and social media policies for scientists and engineers need to be in more agencies, and need to be strengthened in those where they already exist.

 

Dr. Varmus To Step Away From National Cancer Institute

Ending what is arguably the science policy equivalent of Presidents Adams or Johnson serving in Congress following their time in the White House, Dr. Harold Varmus announced he will step down as chief of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) effective March 31st.  Varmus was head of the entire National Institutes of Health between 1993 and 1999, meaning he was a predecessor of his current boss, Dr. Francis Collins.  Both of these stints in public service came after Varmus was recognized as a 1989 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine

Varmus highlighted the National Cancer Institute accomplishments during his tenure in a letter to NCI staff.  They include two new centers, improvements in its clinical trials program, innovations in research funding and significant changes to the NCI’s grant process.

Varmus will now live full time in New York City (he was commuting to the NCI facility in Bethesda, Maryland), conducting cancer research in his own lab at the Meyer Cancer Center at the Weill-Cornell Medical Center.  He is likely to apply for funding for the cancer components of the Precision Medicine Initiative.  He will also advise the newly formed New York Genome Center.

The current NCI Deputy Director, Doug Lowy, will serve as Acting Director once Varmus departs.  With less than two years remaining in the current administration, it is possible that Lowy will remain in the position until at least the next President is sworn in.

Why Focus On One Committee Where Science Is Concerned?

In this blog I’ve only focused on the rosters and leadership of one Congressional committee – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Exactly how narrow-minded is that?

Well, pretty narrow-minded.  But my focus, at least where I type, does not appear that unique.  Review the blogs and websites that report on science policy, and the House Science Committee gets most of the attention.  Not without cause, certainly, but it’s not the only one worth considering.

For instance, there’s a new chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Senators Thune and Bill Nelson, respectively.  But the Senate Commerce Committee is not focused on science in the same way that it’s closest House counterpart is.  Perhaps that explains why the appointment of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to chair subcommittees on space (Cruz) and the oceans and atmosphere (Rubio) attracted some attention, but not nearly the attention focused on members of the House Science Committee whenever they make pronouncements that suggest things other than science motivate their thinking.

So, what other committees are worth attention and scrutiny?  Several.  The Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate are critical in determining agency funding, and this is where last minute restrictions like Senator Coburn’s amendment on political science research, get in.  Committees on technology get short shrift from a lot of science policy press, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I don’t know that it requires equal attention, but I think the committees dealing with new technologies can be just as influential as those determining how to support research and development in the United States.

There’s also the environmental committees.  Sure, there’s an Environment Subcommittee in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, but there’s also the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  (You’ll note the Democrat currently trying to find supposedly fraudulent climate researchers is on the House Natural Resources Committee.)  Health doesn’t have a dedicated committee in either chamber, but those topics are covered in other committees.

So, if you are really interested in science and technology issues in Congress, cast a wider net than I do.  A wider net than the science press does.