Since President Obama came to the White House in 2009, federal regulatory and science agencies have taken measurable steps—on paper, at least—toward improving their relationships with the press, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
On Friday, UCS, a nonprofit advocacy organization, released a report card grading the media policies of 15 agencies and two departments, from the Bureau of Land Management to the US Geological Survey. The group had issued a similar assessment the year before Obama took office, giving fairly low marks across the board, but the latest evaluation found that, “Many agencies’ media policies have shown significant improvement since 2008.”
Even so, not everybody made the honor roll, and the report stressed that practice doesn’t always live up to policy in some offices. Here’s a look at this year’s report card, including grades for social media policies, which weren’t examined five years ago:
Each agency or department’s media policy is graded on a 100-point scale based on 17 criteria, from the availability of the policy, to permission requirements for interviews, to compliance with “anti-gag” statutes (a subset of 10 of the criteria is used to grade the social media policies).
“Notably,” said the report, “a majority of agency policies were enhanced” by the addition of a few key provisions, including a “personal-views exception” for public statements, whistle-blower protections, and dispute-resolution protocols. On the other hand, “most agencies today (as in 2008) continue to lack other important provisions,” such as scientists’ right to access and review, prior to publication, any communications, including press releases, that rely substantially on their work.
Among the most improved agencies this year were the National Science Foundation (NSF), which went from having no policy to an ‘A’; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which went from ‘D’ to ‘A-‘; and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which went from ‘D’ to ‘B’. There was little to no progress elsewhere, however, including at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which went from having no policy to a ‘C’; the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which went from ‘D’ to ‘C’; and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which maintained its ‘C’ average.
Asked in an interview which offices were setting the bar for transparency and access, Gretchen Goldman, the lead author of the UCS report, pointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “I think we’d put them at the top,” she said. “They have a really strong policy, and they also have strong leadership. [Former administrator] Jane Lubchenco, before she stepped down last month, put a lot of effort into making these transparency and scientific integrity a priority”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Department of Energy (DOE), for which the UCS was unable to locate an official media policy, either online or through a freedom-of-information request. The only things UCS could dig up were “a brief, publicly available statement on scientific integrity and a policy on the management of scientific and technical information obtained through FOIA.”
Worse still, however, is the Department of Transportation, which was so bereft of any communications plan that it didn’t even make the scorecard. “We sent them a FOIA request since they have a lot of scientists and technical experts that inform policymaking, but they acted as if they didn’t even know what we were talking about,” Goldman said. “They were so from having a media policy that even the concept was confusing.”
There’s been progress on the social-media front, too. But Michael Halpern, the scientific integrity program manager at UCS, posted a fascinating description on his blog of the gap between the way agencies use those platforms and the way their scientists use them:
While there are some notable exceptions (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration actually cancelled its Twitter account), many agencies themselves are embracing new ways of communicating. NASA has 3.7 million Twitter followers, and millions watched the Mars Rover landing via Ustream. The U.S. Geological Survey uses Twitter to send earthquake alerts. NASA had a Google+ Hangout with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The CDC used zombies to highlight the importance of disaster preparedness in a viral novella. NIH allows employees to use social media to recruit medical study participants. Departing State Department tech visionary Alec Ross recently said that State reaches 15 million people daily in 11 languages through its 200 Twitter accounts. This is great stuff.
For individual scientists who work for government agencies, however, it’s an entirely different story.
It’s easy to find academic scientists with significant Twitter followings. Scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson are ambassadors for science and bring significant attention to their home institutions, too.