Report finds federal researchers unsure of media rules

Many are not clear about whether they can discuss the policy implications of their work.

Many federal researchers are uncertain of agency media policies and whether they can discuss the policy implications of their work, according to a new study that calls on agencies to clarify their guidelines and boost training.

In a study of media and publication policies at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Government Accountability Office reviewers found that only two-thirds of researchers surveyed were confident that they understood policies on media interviews and press releases well enough to comply with them. Nearly half were confused about whether they were allowed to talk about the policy implications of their research.

GAO estimated that only 6 percent -- or about 200 -- of researchers at the three agencies had been denied requests to disseminate research results during the past five years. Some were told the denial was due to the sensitivity of the issue or security concerns, while others were not given a reason. In some cases, though, the researchers were subsequently granted requests to publicize their research through an alternate route, like substituting a peer-reviewed publication for giving a talk at a conference.

The survey results come as the Commerce Department, which houses NOAA and NIST, nears conclusion of a major overhaul of its media policy that officials say will make it more understandable for researchers and will help communication with the press.

The new policy should address GAO reviewers' concern that "Commerce's policies that apply to requests for media interviews and press releases have not been revised for over 20 years, are unrealistic and may hinder dissemination efforts." GAO expressed a similar view of NOAA's policy, which the report described as "unclear" and possibly an impediment to dissemination.

Those who want to provide "personal opinions that go beyond scientific conclusions based on fundamental research related to their jobs" must do so without using government resources such as their telephone, office or time at work.

Commerce spokesman Richard Mills said NOAA rescinded its old policy in May and is working on an update that will likely be complete this summer. The new policy was supposed to be fully implemented following a 45-day training period that ended in May, but Mills said his office is still working on responses to criticisms from Congress and watchdog groups, including that researchers are not guaranteed a final review of work published in their name and that whistleblower protection issues are not clearly spelled out. Critics also would like to see more transparency on the basis for denied requests.

Mills said the Commerce policy will not be finalized until after the NOAA one is complete, but noted that his office is working with critics and said he expects the issues will be resolved. He said office procedures provide researchers with final review of press releases and other products on their work, and that he is looking for a solution to the whistleblower protection concerns that will not involve too much legal jargon.

Despite GAO's recommendation that agencies provide formal training to ensure that managers, researchers and public affairs staff are well informed of the relevant policies, Mills said Commerce would probably not need another dedicated training period once the new policy is finalized.

In management comments on the report, officials at NASA, Commerce, NOAA and NIST generally agreed with GAO's recommendations that the agencies clarify policies, boost training and ensure that there is a clear appeals process for denied requests.