Science agencies' media policy draws fire

Policy prevents scientists at two agencies from making personal statements in interviews on federal property or during work hours.

A new media policy covering two science agencies has come under fire from advocacy groups, which argue the rules claim to allow scientific openness but require prior approvals that will chill scientists' speech.

The Commerce Department on March 29 released a new policy on scientific and other communications at component agencies, which include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The policy, set to take effect in May, updates three separate ones developed in the early 1980s and responds in part to charges that NOAA has stifled discussion of climate-related research.

On Monday, the Government Accountability Project and the Union of Concerned Scientists issued an analysis rejecting the new policy as "unconstitutional and unnecessarily overbroad."

"We are very concerned that the message of control will drown out the message of freedom," the two advocacy groups wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. "If that occurs, the policy's net impact will be to chill scientific communications. While there is a flawless rhetorical mandate for scientific openness, the policy then creates a system of blanket prior restraint that will create just the opposite."

They said the new policy retreats from a statement last year by NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, in which he told agency researchers, "We ask only that you specify when you are communicating personal views and when you are characterizing your work as part of your specific contribution to NOAA's mission."

The new Commerce policy describes a principle in which "department employees may speak to the media and the public about their official work and freely and openly discuss scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings and conclusions based on their official work."

The policy requires the approval of scientists' "fundamental research communications" by their particular operating unit, but not through the department's public affairs office. It stipulates that media requests for interviews with particular scientists will be "facilitated." Commerce spokesman Richard Mills translated this to mean that if a researcher agrees to participate, then an interview would be granted.

The policy is much more restrictive of communication not directly stemming from a researcher's work. Under the rules, scientists will have to give 14 days advance notice regarding public communications "of interest" made in an unofficial capacity. Written materials prepared in that capacity will require departmental review.

Researchers will be banned from discussing their personal views in interviews conducted on government time, and Commerce's definition of personal views is broad. "Personal opinions that go beyond scientific conclusions based on fundamental research related to their jobs are personal communications," says a frequently asked questions guide distributed with the new policy. "If employees wish to publicize their personal opinions, they may do so on their own time, as long as it doesn't violate federal law."

Employees who are asked an interview question that strays from their primary area of research will not be allowed to answer during the federal workday or using any government resources.

In their response to Commerce's policy, the two advocacy groups asked Gutierrez to suspend training activities taking place in preparation for its May 14 start date, noting that the Government Accountability Office is conducting a study of the policy. "The review should assess this extraordinary proposal for prior notice and approval of scientific communication, rather than be faced with an already implemented fait accompli," they wrote.

In particular, they said the policy conflicts with whistleblower protection laws and free speech provisions, does not guarantee scientists the right of a final review for materials to be issued in their name, and does not incorporate sufficient transparency or accountability in employees' right to appeal department decisions about their communications.

Mills said the 45-day period between publication of the new policy and its effective date allows for some discussion and adjustment to take place based on feedback, though he noted that the department went through three rounds of consultation with employees, including researchers, in developing the policy.

"Issues related to whistleblower laws and final reviews are important and we believe we'll be able to address those concerns," Mills said. "We're proud of the great work our employees do, and when it comes to communicating scientific research, want to fully support the open communication of their research."