Federal Scientists Feel Stymied by Censorship, Politicization, and Departures

Survey finds an “unfortunate and dangerous” atmosphere for science in key federal agencies.

Employees at more than a dozen federal agencies reported that science has been essentially sidelined from the decision making process as a result of censorship from political leadership, preemptive self-censorship from scientists themselves, decreasing morale and workforce reductions, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A survey released Tuesday, conducted by the group’s Center for Science and Democracy and Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, found that scientists at many federal agencies say their job effectiveness, satisfaction and morale have all decreased during the Trump administration. The net result is a federal scientific community that is either prevented from, or fearful of, providing the public with important and timely information.

“Many scientists reported feeling that the administration had added mandatory review processes to prevent the public release of anything that ran counter to its agenda,” the report found. “This state of affairs is unfortunate and dangerous: the public deserves, indeed requires, access to vital scientific information. Leadership should work hand in hand with government scientists to ensure that sound science informs policies vital to the American people’s health and safety.”

According to the survey, 20 percent of respondents said that influence of political appointees, or of the White House itself, was a top barrier to science-based decision-making. And 50 percent of scientists surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that political considerations are hindering agencies’ ability to make science-based decisions.

In addition, 31 percent of respondents reported that the presence of “senior decision makers . . . from regulated industries” have inappropriately influenced agencies’ decision-making, a number that rises to 70 percent when isolated to scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency. These numbers comport with media reports that political appointees at several agencies have inserted themselves into the review process for reports and grant applications, to evaluate a proposal “based on its alignment with Trump administration priorities.”

“Political appointees at the department level require review and approval of all research grants over $50,000,” said one respondent at the U.S. Geological Survey. “This impedes new and ongoing research. They react negatively to any surprises; hence, even positive research findings often are not publicized. They want to know who is funding and who is a partner on every research project.”

The survey found that morale has declined among scientists at a number of agencies, particularly the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Overall, 46 percent of respondents reported an overall decrease in personal job satisfaction. But the Food and Drug Administration bucks this trend, where morale has been steadily on the rise since 2006.

“Fortunately, our new commissioner [Scott Gottlieb] has knowledge of drug development and we did not get someone from outside the field (such as some of the potential candidates who would have come from Silicon Valley),” said one FDA scientist. “Although I would likely disagree with many of Dr. Gottlieb’s political positions, he is competent and cares about FDA’s reputation.”

The survey found that although a relatively slim minority of federal scientists have been overtly banned from using the phrase “climate change” in official documents, highly publicized scrubbings of the phrase from federal websites has had a chilling effect. Only 18 percent of respondents said they were asked to omit the phrase from their work, but an additional 20 percent said they preemptively avoided working on climate change issues or using the phrase, effectively self-censoring their work.

Additionally, scientists said reductions in the federal workforce—resulting from the Trump administration's 2017 temporary hiring freeze, early retirement and buyout offers and attrition—have made it more difficult for them to do their jobs. Employees at the National Park Service, the EPA, the Agriculture Department, and other agencies all reported noticing a shrinking number of colleagues in the last year.

That perception is borne out by data from the Office of Personnel Management comparing workforce totals for those agencies between December 2016 and March 2018. During that period, the Agriculture Department shed more than 4,000 jobs; the EPA more than 1,000; and the National Park Service’s payroll has dropped by more than 1,100 positions.

One high note for agencies in the report is the fact that 64 percent of respondents believed that agencies adhere to policies designed to protect scientific integrity in decision making. But only 42 percent said they would be willing to come forward and report a violation of the policy and trust their agencies to address the issue “fairly.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed 4,211 scientists from 16 federal agencies between Feb. 12 and March 26. Employees in science posts were identified using agency staff directories obtained online and through Freedom of Information Act requests.