Following several congressional hearings earlier in the year examining political interference of government-sponsored climate research (http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20070206.html#002941) and a request from Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report 18 June 2007 on the policies guiding the dissemination of federal scientific research results at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Overall, GAO found that policies regarding the dissemination of scientific research results through publications and presentations were generally clear across all three agencies. This was not the case, however, with respect to media and press release policies. Specifically, GAO chastised the media policies for scientists at NOAA and NIST. These scientists must clear media interviews and press releases with both Commerce Department-level and agency-level public affairs offices. GAO specifically criticized the 20-year old media policies at Commerce as “unrealistic” and “outdated” with respect to the modern media schedule. NASA, however, received favorable marks from GAO on its media policies. Responding to controversies and allegations of censorship, NASA recently revised and clarified its media policy; in fact, it has been described as a model for other federal agencies.

Additionally, the GAO reported the results of a survey of research scientists at NASA, NOAA, and NIST to gauge agency effectiveness in communicating research dissemination policies and the extent to which scientists have been restricted in disseminating their results. Of the 1,177 researchers responding to the GAO survey, 90 percent expressed confidence that they understood agency policies for publication whereas only 65 percent were confident that they could comply with media interview and press release policies. Less than half of the researchers at NOAA and NASA believed they were free to discuss their personal views on the implications of their research to policy. Only 25 percent of scientists across all three agencies were aware of any process to appeal denials of requests to disseminate their research. Based on survey results, GAO estimated that 6 percent (or 200) of the approximately 5000 researchers across NASA, NOAA, and NIST have been denied approval to disseminate their research results in the past five years.

The GAO report recommended that all three agencies and the Department of Commerce take immediate action to clarify and better communicate their media policies to researchers, managers, and public affairs staff. Further, GAO recommended that the agencies clarify and bolster the appeals process for research dissemination requests that have been denied.

The GAO report can be found at: http://www.gao.gov/docsearch/abstract.php?rptno=GAO-07-653

An interesting post-script: The Department of Commerce released an updated Public Communications Policy on 29 March 2007; however, this release occurred after the GAO gathered information to include in its report, and the policy did not go into effect until 14 May 2007. The Union of Concerned Scientists has commented that this new policy at Commerce only goes to further confuse department scientists.

Department of Commerce Public Communications Policy: http://www.commerce.gov/opa/press/SecretaryGutierrez/2007Releases/March/29DAO219_1.pdf.

 


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