Date ArticleType
10/6/2015 Other
FEDERAL AGENCIES: Scientists at FWS, NOAA worried about political influence

FEDERAL AGENCIES: Scientists at FWS, NOAA worried about political influence 

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A majority of scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe their agencies give too much consideration to "political interests," according to a recent survey from a science advocacy group.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) survey -- which was sent to 37,593 scientists and technical experts at FWS, NOAA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration -- found that concerns about inappropriate political influence were highest at FWS. Seventy-four percent of the FWS respondents said the level of consideration of political interests was "too high."

At NOAA, 56 percent of respondents were concerned about political interference -- the second-highest level of the four surveyed agencies.

Political interests poll

Political influence on scientific decisions is a concern for nearly three-quarters of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, according to a new survey. Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The response rate for the anonymous 40-question online survey was almost 19 percent at the four agencies and higher than that at both FWS and NOAA.

The full results also address perceptions of effectiveness, barriers to timely decisions, review of communications about scientific research, and the adequacy of data, among other topics. A UCS report about the survey was released last Thursday.

The survey was done to monitor the effectiveness of recently implemented scientific integrity policies at agencies with significant levels of scientific work and past evidence of scientific integrity concerns.

U.S. EPA was originally included in the analysis, but UCS declined to question agency scientists when officials there informed the group that they would conduct their own scientific integrity survey.

In general, the report found that "progress has been made" since UCS first began surveying federal scientists in 2005. "However, much more work is needed to protect science and scientists from political interference and to enable scientist to share their expertise publicly," the report says.

At FWS, the survey found problems when scientists were asked about "the extent to which the agency collects scientific monitoring information needed to meet its mission effectively." Nearly 60 percent of FWS respondents chose "occasionally," "seldom" or "never." That result was distinct from NOAA, where only a combined 28 percent of respondents chose those three answers.

Almost a third of FWS scientists also reported that the effectiveness of their division or office had decreased in the past five years, the highest percentage of scientists across the four surveyed agencies.

Effectiveness poll

A plurality of FWS survey respondents think that their division or office is less effective now than it was in 2010. Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Those problems at FWS may be due in part to the agency's overworked employees. The report says, "From 2012 through 2015, the FWS budget has not increased substantially despite inflation, and the number of full-time-equivalent staff positions has decreased 13 percent."

FWS spokesman Gavin Shire didn't respond directly to concerns raised by the analysis but said in a statement that "the Service is fully committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity, and welcomes the findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists' survey. We will carefully review the information in the survey and continue our commitment to ensure broad awareness, understanding, and implementation of the Department of the Interior's Science Integrity Policy."

At NOAA, "the agency appears to have vastly improved in terms of perceived agency effectiveness and adherence to scientific integrity principles," the report says. Still, UCS noted that respondents there raised concerns about "barriers to scientists publishing their work and communicating to the media and public" and about "the overuse of contractors."

But NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen pointed out in an email about the report that it is "the only agency that gives scientists the right of last review of material the agency uses to communicate about their research."

At the same time, Smullen acknowledged that "there is room for improvement."

"NOAA could benefit from raising the awareness and training of the [scientific integrity] policy among scientists, especially those who have been hired since the policy was put in place," he said. "The agency may benefit from analyzing its internal review process for research to get published with the goal of accelerating the review time."