Survey shows political influence on decisions

By Madilyn Jarman

The Union for Concerned Scientists surveyed scientists from 16 federal agencies. ©skeeze

The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed scientists in 16 federal agencies to gauge the role of science in the current administration. The results appear in a new report, Science Under Trump: Voices of Scientists across 16 Federal Agencies. The report is the latest in a series started in 2005 by UCS evaluating the integrity of science in federal agencies. 

Investigating topics like staff capacity, employee morale, political influence and scientific integrity, researchers surveyed more than 63,000 scientists in agencies chosen based on their missions and history of scientific integrity.

Results varied between agencies. The survey found relatively less perceived political pressure within the Food and Drug Administration and the National and Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and relatively more at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Across agencies, 79 percent of respondents said they noticed staff reductions. Of those, 87 percent said the reductions made it more difficult for agencies to fulfill their missions. As of June 2018, only 25 of the positions considered science and technology appointees by the National Academy of Sciences have been filled.

Scientists in several agencies reported that political appointees negatively affected their ability to work effectively. Twenty percent considered “influence of political appointees in your agency or department” or “influence of the White House” as a major hindrance to science-based decisions. That figure grew to 32 percent in the EPA, and around 25 percent within the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists in various agencies reported problems with censorship, particularly regarding climate change. The Park Service and EPA respondents were particularly concerned, with 47 percent and 35 percent respectively saying they agreed or strongly agreed that they have been asked to remove the term “climate change” from their work. Others said they had avoided the topic without specific orders to do so in order to avoid potential conflicts.

Scientists across every agency said they were aware of their agencies’ scientific integrity policy, and 64 percent of the respondents said the agencies generally adhere to those policies. However, only 42 percent of respondents said they would report issues about scientific integrity and trust that it would be treated fairly.

Read TWS’ position statements on the role of science in policy and management and the important of scientific peer review.

Madilyn Jarman is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Madilyn's articles.

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